The Moses Williams Family Tree Project has been going full steam ahead since I last wrote about it Genealogy challenge: Researching the 43 enslaved children of Moses Williams (Old Ninety-Six, SC) https://genealogyadventures.net/2017/03/24/genealogy-challenge-researching-the-43-enslaved-children-of-moses-williams-old-ninety-six-sc ). Some 500 enslaved souls in North Carolina and South Carolina have been added to this unique family tree on Ancestry.com.
Reconstructing a full, slavery-era family tree
The project team has already struck gold. We have traced a handful of the enslaved people’s lines to the 1870 Census. These lines are connected to Edgefield, Newberry, Barnwell, and Laurens Counties in South Carolina. In one instance, we have traced an enslaved Williams line from 1750 to 1910. We are still in the midst of identifying members of this one line’s extended family in South Carolina. Words fail to describe the feeling of following one direct line of enslaved Williams from its oldest known enslaved ancestor down through subsequent generations past the Civil War and into the turn of the 20th Century. It’s been hard work. It’s worked that has taxed our patience at times. We persisted – and found that this approach to documenting and researching enslaved families, as developed by the Beyond Kin Project, does work. The approach that Beyond Kin developed, the one which we’ve adapted for our purposes, isn’t easy. Nor is it straightforward (Why diversity matters for online genealogy service providers via https://genealogyadventures.net/2017/04/25/why-diversity-matters-for-online-genealogy-service-providers). However, the effort is absolutely worth it.
This approach is revealing something beyond the nature of kinship between enslaved people. Our project group has gained insight into how the Williams family approached the enslavement of African-descended people from about 1720, in York County, Virginia, to the dawn of the Civil War in South Carolina.
The first 3 generations of the family, which spanned Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, had a markedly different sense of slavery than the following generations (at least the latter generations in South Carolina). Earlier generations of the Williams seem to have had two groups of enslaved people. The first group was held within the family. We know that one individual, my 4x great grandfather Moses Williams, Sr, was a blood relation through the DNA test results of his descendants. We suspect there was also a blood connection between other enslaved people who were continuously held within the family, or freed. Effort was taken not to break immediate family members apart. By this, I mean parents were not separated from young children. In a handful of instances, elderly enslaved people were given the choice of which Williams family member they wished to live the remainder of their days with.
The second group of enslaved people was treated in a more historically familiar manner when it comes to American chattel slavery. They were sold to enslavers outside of the family.
Great care too was taken in the first three generations of the family over the provisions for those they enslaved in preparation for the handling of their estate once they died. For instance, before he fought in the Revolutionary War battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, Maj. James Henderson Williams instituted a series of provisional Deeds which stipulated how his enslaved population was to be dispersed amongst his heirs. Nor did these early Williams men want their wives to keep whatever property, including enslaved people, from their husband’s estate, if they remarried. Williams men wanted their wealth and property to remain within the family. If one of their widows remarried, she forfeited everything.
The recording keeping among the earlier generations of the family were meticulous and thorough.
Things begin to change with the fourth generation of the family in South Carolina. Suddenly, Williams begin dying intestate. In other words, they died without a Will. More often than not, an estate sale followed. I can only imagine that news of an estate sale must have terrified those who were enslaved. They would have known all too well what that could mean for them and their loved ones. Anyone could buy them and take them away from everyone and everything they had ever known. Worse still, slave traders, who would resell them to the highest bidder without care or consideration, always attended such sales. Slaver traders were one of the means by which enslaved families were split apart and sent to all points throughout the south.
We have noticed one dynamic with these estate sales. Older members of the members seem to have gone out of their way to purchase specific enslaved people and/or specific enslaved family groups. These were individuals and family groups with known, or strongly suspected, kinship ties to the Williams family. Others, who we know were purchased from outside of the family, shared a different fate. They were simply sold to whoever had the inclination to purchase them.
We are also beginning to see the wider connections between the black and white Williams families and their inter-connectedness to the wider Edgefield community. When two children from slave owning families married, the groom would have his slaves, and the bride hers, in the form of a dowry. Thus two different slave populations were brought together through such a union. Unless, of course, two cousins married. In this latter scenario, they could very well be bringing two groups of related enslaved people together, with the addition of whatever new slaves they would buy over time. Sticking with the first scenario, imagine the enslaved who had been part of the groom’s family identified themselves as Williams, Henderson, Richardson, Griffins, and Martins. And then the enslaved families who were part of the bride’s family who would identify themselves as Jones, Peterson, Sibley, Mobley, Sheppard, and Sims. One enslaved group would marry into the other group. Over time, their descendants would form one exceedingly large family with a myriad of different surnames. Add the fact that their white enslaving family members were connected to a myriad of white Edgefield families – you have an extensive county-level interconnectedness between the white side of the family, the black side of the family – and then again between the black and white population within the county. Basically, everyone is related to everyone else. This is how it happens. At least this is how it happened in Edgefield.
The project’s research team has always known this. This project, however, is showing the proof of it. It’s the subject of some pretty interesting conversations.
Finding Moses’s Lost Children
The team believes it has found two of Moses William, Sr’s enslaved daughters. The first discovery, Elizabeth, we found her living next door to him in Red Oak Township in Barnwell County, South Carolina in the 1870 Census.
We see her here with one son named for his grandfather.
It was the second daughter who turned out to be a remarkable discovery. My 4x great grandmother, Violet, has been a decade-long mystery. We knew she was born around 1809 in Edgefield, South Carolina. She was the wife of Peter Peterson. The main mystery about Violet was her maiden name. Simply put, there are no documents to provided her maiden name. We had some thoughts about which of the large Edgefield families she would have been a daughter of. However, this was merely conjecture.
I had spent a good part of one day researching Williams’ family Wills and probate records in Edgefield and Newberry when the names Peter and Violet (Vilet) appeared out of nowhere. The document that cited her name was the 1829 Will of Washington Williams of Newberyy, South Carolina.
I should mention that Violet was a very rare name in Edgefield at the time. It wasn’t a common name among the enslaved population (using the Gloria Lucas book, The Slave Deeds of Edgefield County as a guide). We verified the rarity of this name among the white population in the county in the census records and genealogy/family history books for Edgefield spanning from 1790 to 1880. Seeing a Violet in a slave-related record was enough to pique my interest. In and of itself, it was not enough to provide her with a maiden name. Paired with a Peter, this was an entirely different deal. Returning to the 1870 Census ,in order to see who her neighbours were, and re-examining the names of the children she and Peter had, the pieces began to fall into place. There was every indication that Violet was a Williams. And, not just any Williams, she was very likely a daughter of Moses Williams, Sr. We’re still doing DNA work to finally clinch this.
Considering we made this discovery in the midst of working on the Moses Williams Family Tree project, this discovery seems almost providential. We were meant to make this discovery. However, there is more to it than that. We were meant to make this discovery during the course of this very specific research project.
Through her, we could also begin to answer some basic questions about her husband, Peter Peterson. There have been all manner of conflicting family stories where he is concerned. First, there’s the uncertainty about his surname. Was he Peter Peterson or Peter Bagley/Bangley? Where did those two surnames associated with him come from? Was one parent a Peterson and the other a Bagley/Bangley? Family lore stated that Peter was either a white man, or a mulatto man who was born free in West Virginia. I, and the other members of the team, have spent years going down the proverbial genealogy rabbit hole chasing all of these family stories about Peter; all to no avail. Over the years, Peter refused to give up his secrets.
The above record confirms what I have long suspected: Peter Peterson was enslaved. He was a part of the slave-owning Peterson clan who were residents of Newberry, South Carolina. It would appear that Peter and Violet met one another in Newberry, both of them part of Washington Williams’ household.
The final find to-date has been the discovery of another of Moses’s five sons: Ellick (or Aleck) Williams.
As it stands, we have found two of Moses’s five sons: Moses Williams, Jr and Ellick/Aleck Williams. We have also found one daughter, Elizabeth, with Violet increasingly looking like a second daughter.
So… only three more sons and thirty-eight more daughters to find!
UPDATE Monday, 19 June 2017
The time has come for us to hit the road and begin to research undigitized documents in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina that are related to this project. Part of this project’s output will be making these newly digitized documents publicly available…and buy around 200 or so DNA test kits. Towards that end, we’ve set up a Go Fund Me campaign to the raise the $10,000 we need: Stronger Together: The Moses Williams Family Project https://www.gofundme.com/stronger-together-dna-project
All donations will be gratefully received. And your support, no matter what form it takes (likes and shares on social media), will mean so much to the team.