Case study: Creating a research strategy to find my lost connection to Maj. Pierce Butler’s enslaved people

There are times when the work of other genealogy researchers inspires you to undertake some deep research of your own. I am in one of the research phases now. My distant Irish DNA cousin, Martine Brennan – we are still trying to determine the identity of our common Irish ancestors – reached out to me to discuss academic research she was undertaking about Irish enslavers in the American colonies and the early Republic. Her main focus is on the Butler family of Charleston, South Carolina, and the islands of Georgia. Specifically, her work focuses on Maj Pierce Butler, and his grandson, Pierce Mease Butler (the Weeping Time enslaver).

For those of you unfamiliar with the history, the Weeping Time was a three-day sale of some 440 human beings who were sold over a three-day period in 1859 at a racetrack just outside of Savannah, Georgia. It stands as the largest single sale of human beings in America’s history.

I know how daunting researching the enslaved can be. It is even more daunting when you are researching the stories and histories of nearly two thousand human beings held by a single enslaving family. In this instance, I am referring to Maj. Pierce Butler, his in-laws, and their descendants. Researching the enslaved is one of my specialist areas within genealogy. I was also interested in the research Martine was doing because it was South Carolina, ground zero for much of my mother’s maternal ancestry.

Then I realized what part of South Carolina and Georgia this research was grounded in: Gullah Geechee country. Me, and numerous cousins with deep roots in the Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina, all have varying amounts of Gullah DNA. It was something that made us scratch our heads over the years. We didn’t see how we had this Gullah DNA. Martine’s research is pointing us to the direction of how that DNA entered into our ancestral Old Ninety-Six DNA. Somehow, one or more enslaved people from the Gullah population were taken from the Charleston region to Old Ninety-Six.

How do I know that? DNA matches.  I will get to that at the end of this case study.

Creating a Research Strategy

With a research project this large, with so many moving parts, you need a robust and focused research strategy.  There is simply no getting around it. A lack of research strategy would quickly lead to going around in circles much like:

We decided to work from the known to the unknown. The known centred on Pierce Mease Butler (PMB) who a large cotton plantation on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia, and a large rice plantation on Butler’s Island, McIntosh County, Georgia. A substantial amount of research has already been done by others researching the 440 enslaved people sold by PMB in 1859.  The EPs sold over those three days were taken to other farms and plantations throughout the enslaving southern states. Our research also focuses on the nearly 500 enslaved souls who were not sold. Identifying as many of these enslaved people as possible would assist us in making connections between the EPs who were alive in 1859 to earlier generations of their enslaved families. I call it working from the known through to the unknown in order to uncover the origin stories for the enslaved souls held by PMB’s family.

Our research strategy looks something like this:

  1. Identifying the 440 EPs sold during the three-day Weeping Time sale
    1. A list of these people can be found via the Glynn County genealogy link http://www.glynngen.com/enslavement/butler.htm. Some of the EPs were already identified, including surnames, which made the task of tracing their descendants a fairly straightforward process. I needed to find descendants for DNA comparison work; and
    1. A list of those people who were not sold, which can also be found on the same Glynn County genealogy website via http://www.glynngen.com/enslavement/butler2.htm; and
    1. Research the EPs who weren’t already identified in the two lists I have given above. We have found an additional 7 family groups from both lists, most of whom were found in Glynn, McIntosh, and Liberty Counties in Georgia.
  2. Reading. We needed to do a substantial amount of reading about PMB, the Weeping Time sale, and the history of the Butler plantations in Georgia. The books below were all crucial to this task, and enabled us to identify more of the enslaved families held by the Butler family:
    • Bell, Malcolm, Jr. 2004. Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family, University of Georgia Press
    • Leigh, Frances Butler, 1883. Ten years on a Georgia plantation since the war, Richard Bentley & Son, London.
    • Kemble, Fanny. 1863. Journal of a residence on a Georgian plantation in 1838-1839, Harper & Brothers, New York. Retrieved from archive.gov. < https://archive.org/details/journalofresiden00kembuoft/page/n4>.
    • Doesticks, Q. K. Philander, Pierce Butler, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection, 1863.. What became of the slaves on a Georgia plantation?: great auction sale of slaves, at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d & 3d,: a sequel to Mrs. Kemble’s journal. [S.l.: s.n, 1863] pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/11003986/>.
    • Dusinberre, William, 2000.  Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, University of Georgia Press.
  3. Researching the history of enslaving within the earlier generations of the Butler family, with a specific focus on PMB’s maternal grandfather, Maj. Pierce Butler, which includes:
    • Creating a family tree covering PMB’s lineage;
    • Locating family Wills, estate inventories, lawsuits, slave mortgages, slave insurance policies, deeds of purchase and sale for the enslaved; Farm Books / Day Books, journals, letters, etc;
    • With regards to Maj. Pierce Butler, key research items, which are held by the Pennsylvania Historical Society, include:
    • His slave register pages covering 1775-1815;
    • His list of enslaved people who went away with the British during the Revolutionary War;
    • His 1815 list of enslaved people who went away with the British. This population of people went to Nova Scotia, Trinidad & Tobago, Sierra Leone, and possibly Bermuda. Identifying their descendants is important for DNA matching work. Identifying them from the enslaved within the family reduces the known number of people we need to research in the United States;
    • His birth and death lists for his enslaved people (1800-1834);
    • Purchases and sales of enslaved people;
    • The weekly reports sent form his overseers in South Carolina and Georgia to Maj. Butler in Philadelphia; and
    • Notes of punishments meted out to his enslaved people.
    • Understanding the naming conventions the enslaved adopted in order to identify family groups, and the inter-connections between these family groups. For a people who were forbidden from reading and writing (Pierce Mease Butler’s wife, Fanny Kemble, ignored this prohibition during her short tenure in Georgia prior to her divorce from PBM), understanding naming patterns are critical. Put simply, the enslaved used first names to preserve their lineage and, in some cases, their tribal ancestry (e.g. Cud(g)jo(e), Auber/Abba/Aba, Cuffee, Quamina, Quacco, and Quash;  within the Butler family were Ghanian names coming from the Fante, Ashanti, and Ewe people).
    • Mapping the EPs held by Maj. Pierce Butler to the EPs his wife, Mary Middleton, and their children, inherited from Mary Middleton Butler’s South Carolina grandmother, Mary Branford Bull;
    • Mapping the EPs held by Maj. Pierce Butler back to the EPs who were inherited by Mary Bull Middleton’s other children, but were in the possession of Maj. Pierce Butler; and
    • Mapping the EPs held by Maj. Pierce Butler to the Africans who were imported into Charleston by Maj. Pierce Butler, and his relations via marriage, the Bull and Middleton families. All three families were large scale importers of Africans into South Carolina via Africa and Bermuda. The Africans they brought into South Carolina form part of the foundation of the Gullah Geechee people. This stage of the research is more than simply completing this history. I will have ancestors among them. Finding those ship records, while falling within the last strand of research, is far from being the lesser part of the research. This is ground zero for the fate that would befall their descendants during the Weeping Time.  

Mapping inter-generation enslavement within an enslaving family

The images below will hopefully give you an idea of the process involved from the mapping bullet points I’ve made bold in the research strategy list:

Pierce Mease Butler genealogy
In order to understand the population of people enslaved by Pierce Mease Butler, we have to understand their origin story, which is what this image depicts. The people he enslaved either came from an older generation of his heavily inter-connected family lineage, or were the descendants of those who were enslaved by his ancestors and ancestral kin. Maj. Pierce Butler is key to understanding this history. His moving of Izard-Bull-Middleton-Brewerton EPs greatly angered his in-laws as he was moving enslaved people around South Carolina, and between South Carolina and Georgia who were not his to move. It was the cause of great friction between Maj. Butler and his in-laws. You can see how so many of the enslaved people coming from all parts of this large extended family came to be with Pierce Mease Butler by the time of the 1859 Weeping Time sale. For a larger image, please click https://genealogyadventures.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Butler-EPs.jpg
To better understand what is going on in the previous image, it may help to view that family tree of enslavers as a funnel. Each generation is funnelling enslaved people to specific people, whome, ultimately, had their enslaved people in the possession of Pierce Mease Butler via the actions of his maternal grandfather, Maj. Pierce Butler. Click on the image for a larger version.

Initial DNA findings

Using AncestryDNA, GedMatch, FamilyTree DNA, and MyHeritage. I have already found that my DNA matches 7 people who are in Trinidad. I share between 5.6 to 7.1 cMs across 1 chromosome segment with each of them. And 3 names pop up among their ancestry: Butler, Wylly and Cooper – all Butler Island & St Simmons Island, GA (in relation to Pierce Butler, Roswell King, and the Wylly family – whose enslaved people had complex inter-relationships).

My DNA also matches 21 people in and around Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most of the trees for these DNA matches only go back three or four generations. While I don’t recognize the surnames they have in their trees, this find is still interesting. Like the group I match in trinidad, I share between 5.5 to 7.8 cMs across 1 chromosome segment.

In terms of when I most likely shared a common ancestor with my DNA matches in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Trinidad, the amount of DNA we share is along the lines I would expect in terms of generational distance between us and a common ancestor. In other words, I’m looking at a Mid 18th century time period. This period falls with the the height of when the Bull, Middleton, and Butler families were importing enslaved people into South Carolina from Bermuda and Africa.

Join the research

If you are researching the people who were sold during the Weeping Time sale, or researching enslaved people held by the Izard-Bull-Middleton-Butler family of Charleston, SC, and Georgia, the research team has created a closed Facebook Group: The Weeping Time Descendants via https://www.facebook.com/groups/460217554789067/ .

This is a closed group. You will need to be actively researching 1) The people who were sold during the sale; and/or 2) people enslaved by the Izard-Bull-Middleton-Butler family of Charleston, SC, and Georgia. In other words, it is not for the curious. All members are expected to contribute to this research, and support the other members in their research work.

I will be writing about specific aspects of this research project over the coming months.

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