Genealogists and historians Noreen J. Goodson and Donna Tyler Hollie have recently published “Through the Tax Assessor’s Eyes: Enslaved People, Free Blacks and Slaveholders in Early Nineteenth Century Baltimore.” This book is a welcome addition to the historiography of early Baltimore history and takes its rightful place aside works by Ralph Clayton, Barbara Jeanne Fields and others.
While the primary focus of the book are transcriptions of the 1813 and 1818 Baltimore City tax records, this book is so much more.
The records themselves are rich, and contain not just names and addresses, but sometimes occupations, race and other comments, such as whether someone is crippled or deemed “insane.”
The Foreword provides significant historical background on the 1813 and 1818 tax records. The authors provide readers with the context to understand the records for those of us (myself included) who are not knowledgeable in the early history of Baltimore.
Drawing on their own expertise as educators and genealogists, the authors provide critical analysis of the broader areas these records speak to. For example, they provide an overview of the complex ground-rent system that existed in Baltimore, a result of the land patent system in Maryland.
Not content to be a mere book of transcriptions, the authors conducted an enormous amount of additional research on individuals they found in the tax records. Both women are expert genealogists and used that experience to correlate the information found in the tax records with other sources such as census and court records, city directories and newspapers. From this additional research, the authors created biographical profiles of more than 15 individuals found in the records.
Especially noteworthy are what these records tell us about the lives of African-Americans of the period. We learn about the extent of urban slavery, which challenges our image of enslaved people as only agricultural workers. The records include the names and ages of enslaved individuals, which is a rarity in tax records overall and a boon for historical researchers.
The tax records tell us much about the city’s free blacks with their always tenuous lives as well as the important role of institutions such as churches. We also get a clearer picture of the what I call the urban “mixture” of slaves and slaveholders, abolitionists, teachers, manual laborers and skilled laborers, immigrants and another under-researched group—women.
The city maps provided on page 14 further help readers place the records in proper visual context. In addition to an extensive index and bibliography of source material, the decision to include a glossary was a wise one. Common eighteenth-century occupations and terminology, such as “fig blue” and “cordwainer” are sure to be unknown to current-day readers.
Published by Clearfield Publishing, this book is available at Amazon. It is an important contribution to the history of early Baltimore and I hope you’ll get your copy today.
Another book I’d like to highlight for you is Margo Lee Williams book, “Miles Lassiter: An Early African-American Quaker from Randolph County, North Carolina.” I received my copy last week and found it to be a wonderful example of how to publish family history research. Immensely readable, Ms. Williams takes us back to the very beginnings of her research.
What’s notable is that the author doesn’t just walk us through the road trips she took while uncovering her family roots, she also shows us each step of the way which problem she was trying to solve.
I rather enjoyed her habit of placing her internal questions and comments in parenthesis in the text. This illustrates the importance of not just finding a record, but understanding what it is telling you and she invites us into that analysis.
Ms. Williams makes extensive use of social history to provide context to the lives of her ancestors and the book is somewhat of a Master Class on how to effortlessly weave social history into the story. For example, she gives us a chapter on Life in Pre-Civil-War Randolph County.
She discusses what laws existed that affected both enslaved and free blacks. We simply cannot understand our ancestor’s lives unless we understand the time and place in which they lived. Adding social history and context also makes our work exciting to read, especially for non-genealogists.
Ms. Williams took the time to provide source citations. This not only tells the reader what evidence supported her conclusions and where to find the information she uncovered, but it also allows the reader to see the depth and the breadth of the sources she utilized.
She not only consulted census and vital records and relevant books, she also used deed and court records, private papers, newspapers, oral history, Freedmens Bureau records and articles published in historical journals. Because her ancestor was a Quaker, she shows us the kinds of publications and information available to researchers on that subject as well.
Ms. Williams book reminds us that genealogy can’t be completed on the Internet. She gets out and about to visit various repositories near and far. Pictures and illustrations in the book enhance the text, and the last chapter presents biographical profiles on the first generation of the family. I highly recommend the Miles Lassiter book for anyone looking for a readable template on family history research. Get your copy from Amazon today.
Since I’m talking about writings today, I’d also like to share a new page on my blog that you can access at the link above titled “African-American Genealogy Articles.” The idea is to encourage and inspire all of you to tell your own stories by providing ready access to articles that I and others have written about our families and local history in African-American communities.
Are you stuck on how you can start to write up your 5,10 or 20 years of research? Take a look at the look at the articles and get some inspiration and some ideas on how to do just that.
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.