Giles Holt of Hardin County, Tennessee enslaved my ancestor Malinda Holt. Giles enslaved her and others, including another woman named Judy (or Judah) Holt.
I will probably never know whether or not Malinda and Judy were biological sisters (Update, 2017: DNA research suggests they were not).
Nevertheless, I track Judy’s children as my relatives. It is obvious that Malinda and Judy had close kinship ties and considered each other family.
This was very common for enslaved people. It was a part of what they created to endure the horrific circumstance of enslavement. I want to honor that choice.
This relationship lasted throughout the generations of their families. The graphic below shows each woman and their known children:
Another Problem with 1870
Many researchers trace our families back to a female head of household in 1870.
Without a male, our climb through the family tree stops. There is no other branch to trace.
If the children in 1870 are marked as mulatto, we wonder whether they were fathered by a white man. We also know that enslaved people formed families with neighboring slaves.
However, the father of the children can be difficult to uncover if the family is not found living together in 1870.
And because slaveowners rarely documented the fathers of the children of their female slaves, this task can seem insurmountable.
Pension Records Reveal a Name
Keeping all this in mind, I continued to track Judy Holt’s children. They were a varied and illustrious bunch.
I soon discovered that Judy’s son Henry Holt died during the Civil War. Judy’s subsequent application for a pension in 1887 provided precious details about the family. Pension records are a rich source for those researching former slaves.
In Judy’s file, one deposition from fellow soldier Richard Kendall included this gem:
Richard “was well-acquainted with Henry Holt and knew his family. I do not know whether his father is dead or alive. His name [was] Sam Dixon.”
At last I found evidence of Judy’s relationship with a (presumably) black man. But where was he?
Searching Hardin County probate records led me to the will of Elizabeth Dickson (note the spelling). Among the legacies she left to her daughter Jane was this:
“and she is to have my black man Samuel while…she lives single”
Racing back to Ancestry, I found him in the 1870 census.
Samuel Dickson was living in the same town of Savannah. He appeared to be married to a woman named Lucinda. Or perhaps Lucinda was a daughter.
Judy also included in her pension file that her daughters Sarah and Frances were both now surnamed Davy.(!)
Using that surname, I found Judy’s daughter Frances’ (nicknamed Fannie) death certificate in 1917. Guess who was listed as her father? Sam Dickson.
Judy’s pension also stated where Judy and Sam married. Finding documented evidence for two of the children of an enslaved couple is pretty amazing.
For Malinda’s children, a Y-DNA test of a male descendant confirms that he was likely a black man. Though no hint of his identity appears in the census, the informant on her son James’ 1931 death certificate called him Harry Holt.
And recently, I found a death certificate for a man (apparently conceived with a different woman) whose father was identified as “Harry Holt, of Savannah.” This is more conformation that he existed, though his whereabouts by 1870 are unknown.
In closing there is hope in finding father of children conceived in slavery. Using cluster research is a necessity. Expand your research to the children’s entire lifetimes and be thorough.
Do your collateral research by researching all the siblings from whom you do not descend. Study the neighbors of the slaveowner. Use records such as the Freedmens Bureau, newspapers and of course, DNA.
Readers, have you had success finding the fathers who were missing in 1870? if so, how?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Can I ask what program you used to create that awesome Family Tree Chart?
Great find! Looking at neighbors and who’s living with who on down the line has helped me too. Congrats on three years of blogging.
Some of my wife’s ancestors were slaves down in Georgia. I haven’t been able their ownere though.
By the way, I see it’s your three year anniversary you’ve been blogging according to Geneabloggers. Happy Blogiversary.
Genealogy Blog at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets
Thank you, Jim. The time has really flown by.
Fascinating! Fantastic work!!
I can relate completely to this post I just started to do more extended resesarch on the neighbors of my ancestors and have made similar breakthroughs. Great research!
I am so impressed with your research capabilities! What a fantastic bit of research with a corresponding fantastic find! I am so excited for you.