When it comes to researching enslaved people, finding the slavery-related documents they may appear in is a critical part of this type of research. That’s pretty self-evident. What may not be so readily apparent is deciphering the information that is contained in these documents. An enslaver’s probate records – his or her last will and testament, codicils, and estate inventories – are pretty straightforward documents. If the genealogy gods are with us, these documents can also spell out family relationships among the enslaved people who are cited in probate records.
Random lists of enslaved people are where things can become challenging when it comes to deciphering the information stand-alone lists contain. What may appear to be just a list of enslaved people can yield important genealogical information to the trained eye.
I will be using a stand-alone list I found during the course of my research for the 440 souls sold during the Weeping Time in Georgia in 1859 (What became of the slaves on a Georgia plantation? Great auction sale of slaves, at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d & 3d, 1859. A sequel to Mrs. Kemble’s Journal via https://archive.org/details/whatbecameslaves00does/page/n7/mode/2up – free pdf download ). At present, I am focused on researching the ancestors of this historical group of enslaved people who were held by Pierce Mease Butler, his grandfather Maj. Pierce Butler and Maj. Butler’s wife’s family and in-laws: the Izard, Bull, Blake, Guerard, and Middleton families.
Take a look at the list below. Maj Pierce Butler drafted this list in 1779 as an accounting of his estate after the British had ransacked his estates in South Carolina and Georgia:
At first glance, the above image appears to simply be a long list of names. There is more here than meets the eye. Within this document are groups of enslaved people who were sold, groups of enslaved people who had died in, or by, 1779, as well as enslaved people who remained held by Maj. Pierce Butler in bondage. There are also enslaved people who went away with the British to Canada in 1779. That’s the beginning and the end of the straightforward, easily-observed information this list contains. This list becomes a powerhouse in terms of a genealogical research document when compared to other slave-based records pertaining to Maj. Butler’s in-laws. I’ll explain how.
It may help to look at the above simplified enslaving family tree as a funnel where the enslaved and their descendants where being passed down within the same family generation after generation – like a funnel:
Referring back to Image #2, I am focused on connecting the enslaved people on Maj. Butler’s 1779 list back to six specific groups of enslaved people:
- 2x groups of enslaved people Maj. Butler purchased in Virginia and whom he transferred to Georgia prior to 1779;
- Enslaved people originally held by Mary Lucia Bull-Middleton (Maj. Butler’s mother-in-law);
- Enslaved people originally held by Col. Thomas Middleton (Maj. Butler’s father-in-law);
- Enslaved people originally held by Sarah “Sally” Middleton-Guerard (Maj. Butler’s sister-in-law);
- Enslaved people held by Elizabeth Izard-Blake (Mary Lucia Bull-Middleton’s niece); and
- Enslaved people held by Mary “Polly” Izard -Blake (Mary Lucia Bull-Middleton’s niece).
Finding the probate records for all of the people in the colored boxes in Image 2 has been crucial to this research process. Thankfully, all of their probate records have been found and added to my project tree. With their various probate records, the family relationships for a number of their enslaved people were given.
The image below is one page from Mary Lucia’s extensive inventory apportioning her enslaved people and other property to her various family members:
I added each lot or group of enslaved people from the probate records to the project tree, adding each group to the person Mary Lucia had bequeathed them to. You will see how this looks in the following image:
Image 6 illustrates how I add information about the enslaved in the Genealogy Adventures project tree on Ancestry.com. You will see this list is attached to Mary Lucia, the originator of this list of people that appeared in her 1760 probate records. Mary Lucia divided her enslaved people into equal lots of 5 – each lot going to a specific member. Lot #2 went to her daughter, Mary “Polly” Bull, wife of Maj. Pierce Butler. These enslaved people were meant to be passed down to Polly and Pierce’s children. That didn’t happen. Maj. Butler took them for himself which led to some very ill-feelings between his in-laws and himself (Bell, Malcom, Jr. ).
One issue with the enslaved people held by this family is repeating names among the enslaved. There are numerous Quaccos, Quaminas, Chloes, Betty/Bess/Lizzies, Sawneys, and other repeating first names. Differentiating them is paramount to this research. While there is nothing fortunate about slavery, I was fortunate that the Bull-Middleton-Butler family members made these distinctions in their probate records. Qualifiers such as ‘girl’, ‘boy’, ‘man’, woman’, ‘child’, ‘yellow’ etc. are added to each enslaved person wherever possible.
I also always note how enslaved people are grouped together in probate records. While this sometimes has to do with bequeathing enslaved people of equal financial value to different family members – sometimes, sometimes, groupings denote family relationships. I always add when enslaved people are cited in individual small groups in an enslaver’s probate records.
Critical Thinking (Critical Thinking: An important skill in genealogy research via https://genealogyadventures.net/2017/07/24/critical-thinking-an-important-skill-in-genealogy-research/) has a role to play in this research work too. Years are birth or ages aren’t always included in enslavers’ records. My increasing familiarity with how this family categorized their enslaved people enables me to make a rough guestimate when it comes to the years of birth for some of the people in Mary Lucia’s probate. Boy/girls tend to be below the age of 8. Big Boys/Girls tend to be between 8 and 12. Wenches (not my word) were young women from 13 to 20. “Women” covers prime reproductive years between the age of 20 and mid-to-late 30s. I am still deciphering the younger age range when it comes to “Old” women. ‘Men’ within this enslaving family is more nebulous. This family does not seem to have denoted a difference between younger men and more mature men. “Old” men would appear to be those males over 40 years of age.
Understanding how ages were classified gives me a window into a range of years any of the enslaved people could have been born between when it relates to Mary Lucia’s 1760 probate. 1760 is the year in which her enslaved people appeared on her inventory. So a boy/girl was more than likely born between 1750-ish to 1760, the year Mary Lucia’s inventory was drawn up. Understanding when someone was likely to have been born also helps differentiate between individuals with the same name. It also illustrates the different generations of enslaved people within her probate list.
All of this information also helps other researchers who arrive at my public Ancestry.com tree. Image 6 tells any researcher where this information is coming from (e.g. Mary Lucia’s probate records) so s/he can go to the same probate records and compare it to my findings. In other words, anyone can see how I’ve gone from A to B to C in terms of the information for these people in my tree. It’s like science where different scientists should be able to replicate the research of another scientist and reach the same conclusions…or point out mistakes.
I have a 1779 list of enslaved people drawn up by Maj. Butler. I also have Mary Lucia’s probate inventory. At the moment, I am making the links between the individuals on the 1779 list and Mary Lucia and Elizabeth Izard-Blake’s estate inventories. This information has been added to the research tree as per the image below:
I’m still in the midst of updating this list of enslaved people. However, the red dots mark those enslaved people are those whom Maj. Butler marked as having gone away with the British for Canada in his 1779 list. The people with blue dots next to their names are enslave people Maj. Butler took to his Georgia properties in McIntosh County, Georgia. Collectively, some of these people are the ancestors of those sold during the Weeping Time. Others will be ancestral relations for those sold during the Weeping Time. They will also be the ancestors or family members for some of the people Pierce Mease Butler did not sell in 1859. Mapping the 1779 people to those held by Pierce Mease Butler on Butler’s Island, Georgia will be the next step of the mapping process.
Armed with Mary Lucia’s probate, I can now mark-up Maj. Butler’s 1779 list to reflect known and proven enslaved family groups:
To date, I have a dozen or so lists to work through to create a full family tree for the enslaved people held by the Blake-Bull-Butler-Izard-Guerard-Middleton family group. The goal is to connect the enslaved people held by this enslaving family group back to the thousands of enslaved Africans brought to South Carolina via two major slave importers: Brailsford and Middleton and Henry Laurens, Sr.
Image 8: The ship Molly & Sally is one of 48 ships that sailed from Bristol and Liverpool England that went to Africa and then brough enslaved Africans to Charleston, SC. Among the thousands of Africans brought to South Carolina will be the African progenitors for the people enslaved by Maj. Pierce Butler’s wife’s family – and the ancestors of the people sold during the Weeping Time. Our goal is to identify their African ancestors by name through the Middleton & Brailsford sales/accounts ledgers which I’m currently searching for in British archives, having exhausted all possible South Carolina archives and repositories.
While individual lists may not appear to hold valuable information in and of themselves…you would be surprised at what you can accomplish when they are linked to other documents within the same enslaving families.