Genealogy Adventures

Grappling with Old Fake News in Genealogy Research

Anyone with a nodding familiarity of national elections from 2016 to today in western societies is familiar with the phrase fake news. Much has been written about fake news and how destructive these “news” pieces can be. It never occurred to me that fake news could throw a serious wrench in genealogical research. Or, at the very least, how fake news of yesteryear can lead a researcher down a deep – and ultimately fruitless – rabbit hole in the quest for historical evidence in the search for ancestors.

I am grappling with a story that widely appeared in American newspapers between 1895 and 1896. It is a story that was repeated in newspapers in 1906, 1909, and 1916. It’s a story involving four people sold during the Weeping Time, the largest sale of human beings in American history that occurred in 1859 in Savannah, Georgia. The individuals involved were two slave traders and four enslaved people: an unnamed enslaved man, his wife, and his two sisters. Genealogy Adventures’ regular followers know that I have been working with a fantastic group of people researching the enslaved people held by Maj. Pierce Butler’s family in Georgia. This research is outlined in the article Case study: Creating a research strategy to find my lost connection to Maj. Pierce Butler’s enslaved people via https://genealogyadventures.net/2019/07/01/case-study-creating-a-research-strategy-to-find-my-lost-connection-to-maj-pierce-butlers-enslaved-people.

Figure 1: Source: Newspapers.com | click for larger image

The image above provides the story that I needed to research. I had to find Col. Thomas Pate and Pat(rick) Somers if I stood any chance of discovering the identities of the four enslaved people who were at the heart of this story. I was not alone in this endeavor. Other researchers have spent years attempting to find a paper trail for Pate and Somers. They have all come up empty-handed. However, I thought I would at least try. At best, the universe might send me some luck, and I would find something. Anything. At worse? I would confirm what other researchers had already experienced: an absence of a paper trail for either slave trader.

Researchers whose work and methodology I respect have never found a paper trail for either slave trader, despite an exhaustive search over the past year-and-a-bit. I can’t find them on paper either. The only time I ever see their names on paper is in newspaper accounts dealing with the Weeping Time sale. I made a last-ditch attempt over the past few days. Once again, I came out of the experience without a paper trail. I thought I would document the research approach I undertook as an example of how genealogy researchers try to use published stories or historical accounts to find individuals they are researching.

Working from the known to the Unknown

Critical thinking has a large role to play in this type of research. This story is an excellent example of how genealogists work with a historical account that doesn’t have much in terms of usable information. We have to work with snippets of information, hoping that research can fill in crucial blanks – and reveal a fuller story. I cover critical thinking and why it is so crucial in research, in the article Critical Thinking: An important Skill in Genealogy Research via https://genealogyadventures.net/2017/07/24/critical-thinking-an-important-skill-in-genealogy-research. Critical thinking is such an important genealogy skill that Donya and I dedicated an episode to it: S01 E07 Genealogy Adventures Live: Critical Thinking & Genealogy

In short, critical thinking can ultimately help you chip away at the unknown.

Defining a Search Criteria

Ages, Years of Birth, and Year of Death

To stand any chance of finding a paper trail for Pate and Somers, I had to make certain assumptions about them. Figuring out their age was the first place to start. How old were they in 1859 when this saga begins? Figuring out a rough age for both men would help me determine, roughly, when they were born. 1859, the year this story unfolds, minus an approximate age, would give me an approximate year of birth with which to work.

Reading the Weeping Time sale’s numerous accounts paints a picture of two men who contemporaries with the man responsible for the sale in the first place: Pierce Mease Butler of Georgia and Philadelphia. Pierce was born in 1810. The year 1810, plus or minus five years, seemed as likely an assumption as any for when Pate and Somers were born. Thomas Pate was also a Colonel when the account of the deadly feud between him and Somers occurred. Colonels don’t tend to be young men. A picture was emerging of two men whose age was in the forty-year range at a minimum.

I also had a rough idea when the two men died based on the newspaper accounts provided: 1859 or perhaps early in 1860.

Location, Location, Location

I was reasonably confident I had their ages, which gave me some rough years of birth with which to work. I also roughly knew when they died. Now it was time to figure out where they lived to find them on Federal and possibly State census returns.

If both men were born around 1810, they should appear in the 1840 and 1850 U.S. Federal Census. As slave traders, and probably enslavers themselves, there should be an 1850 Slave Schedule for them. In short, there should be a paper trail.

The next puzzle to solve was where they lived. Articles reported that Pate, at least, was a slave trader in Vicksburg. Like others who have researched this, I assumed the Vicksburg in question was the city in Mississippi. Geographically speaking, that would more or less make sense. Searching the U.S. 1870 census shows numerous formerly enslaved people in Mississippi who cite Georgia as their birthplace or where either one or both parents were born.

An exhaustive search of the 1840 and 1850 census records for Vicksburg, MS – and the wider Warren County, MS yielded nothing. No Pate family was found. I did find a Peete family and a Pade family. Researching those two families produced no one named Thomas…much less a Col. Tom.

If the Pates and Somers really had a blood feud, I would expect to find a Somers family in either Vicksburg, MS or Warren County, MS. I find it unimaginable that a blood feud as lethal as the one that was reported would happen across state lines or involved families that lived a great distance apart from one another. Wiping out an entire male line of a family requires proximity.

I turned my attention to old city directories for Vicksburg, MS looking for every slave trader listed. There were no Pates or Somers. Using Newspapers.com, I researched contemporary slave trader advertisements since slave traders advertised the sale of enslaved people through newspaper advertisements. While I did find Vicksburg slave traders using newspapers….no advertisements bore the name Pate.

At this point, I had to ask myself if, just perhaps, there was another Vicksburg. There was another specific location mentioned in the article: St. Louis, Missouri. Two of the enslaved people involved were purportedly sold to a private citizen who was a resident of St. Louis. A quick search revealed that there was indeed a Vicksburg in Pemiscot County, Missouri. There were no Pates in Vicksburg, MO, or Pemiscot County, MO, before the 1880 census. There were also no Somers in Vicksburg, MO, or Pemiscot County, MO, before the 1880 census.

A further search involved research slave traders in and around St. Louis, MO using Newspapers.com. None appeared under the surnames Pate or Somers.

State and federal census records, city directories, and newspaper articles yielded nothing in identifying who Pate and Somers were. So where else could I look for more information about either man?

Military Records

Every mention of Pate named him as Col. Tom/Thomas Pate. A man with the rank of Colonel in 1859 should be easy to find in military records. The question was, when would he have received that rank? One doesn’t become a colonel overnight. It is a rank achieved over years of service. A man born in or around 1810 wouldn’t have received this rank for service in either the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. Yet, to be thorough, I hit Fold3.com and searched through its military records. I wasn’t surprised when I found nothing for the Col. Tom Pate mentioned in this story. I was left with one further military avenue to explore: state militia service.

Thankfully, indices for militia service records for Mississippi and Missouri are available. The Mississippi Department of Archives & History has records via its online Register of Military Commissions, 1837-1861 Series 0224 repository (https://da.mdah.ms.gov/series/ngms/224?fbclid=IwAR30vUVTF0WFMevW6nK0NHDqKSSVbci3hBsEXhuGWYusZFSFR5_94Hvyv58).

Missouri has an index of military service records in its Soldiers’ Records: War of 1812 – World War I digital repository (https://s1.sos.mo.gov/records/archives/archivesdb/soldiers/?fbclid=IwAR19sBPSNybUHsg2gW2IC85TnhZ9NPUeHmzRs6GTrLb-wnfykZhTyXPqHhk). Nothing appeared for a Thomas Pate in either repository.

Enter Virginia

The universe threw me a curveball in terms of a possible new location to research.

I had read countless old newspaper stories relating the Weeping Time and the fate that befell some of the enslaved people who were sold. I stumbled across a new article in manuscript form yesterday. It was drafted by the South Carolina African American reporter, John H. Cray. The 1940s-era manuscript is undated.

Figure 2: John H. McCray papers, 1946, box 07, folder 23, Topical: Slave Sale, The Last, No Date | Article, No Date, A rough draft of an article entitled The Last Slave Sale by John McCray, page 7 | Source: University of South Carolina via https://digital.tcl.sc.edu/digital/collection/mccrayjh/id/15777. | click for larger image


I repeated the same research activities in Virginia that I had employed for Mississippi and Missouri. I found an exceedingly well-documented Pate family in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography publication series. Much of the magazine’s information appears in a family publication entitled The American Genealogy of the Pate Family via https://memory.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2007/20070619049am/20070619049am.pdf.

No Col. Thomas Pate, born around 1810, was found in either The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography publication series or the family history publication.

I also found a Somers/Somners family in Page, Virginia which frequently used the name Pat(rick) Som(n)er. However, none of the Patricks found among that family bore any resemblance to the Pat Somers I was researching.
Hunting through a myriad of Virginia repositories that host military records didn’t produce a Col. Thomas Pate that matched the man I was researching.

Virginia was as much a dead end as Mississippi and Missouri.

Re-reading the Same Old Accounts with a Fresh Set of Eyes

I sat down and re-read the same old myriad of newspaper articles. I read these articles as though I was coming to this saga with a fresh set of eyes. Some items really jumped out to me. Older articles stated that Pate bought 220 families. Well, that would have been all of the enslaved people Pierce Mease Butler put up for sale in 1859. It’s already known that no single person bought all of the enslaved people. This information was a significant discrepancy with what researchers know happened in the 1859 sale of human beings. Pate could have purchased 220 people…but that is not what the articles stated. A purchase of 220 enslaved people at that sale was also highly unlikely. That detail would have been cited in contemporary accounts of the sale. So I started to ask myself if the journalists got this fundamental information wrong, what else did they get wrong?

And why not name the four enslaved people who were at the heart of this saga? The fate of some of the other enslaved people who were sold is illustrated in books like Q.K. Philander Doesticks’ 1863 book What became of the slaves on a Georgia plantation? which you can read below:

Certainly, a story like the one involving these four enslaved people would have appeared in some account of the sale? The epic Game of Thrones-worthy blood feud between the Pate and Somers families would have warranted as much?

And why not name the two sisters who were alive in 1887 in St Louis? That strikes me as odd. Even further, if a journalist was going to paint the horrors of this history and knew where those sold were living, and knew they were alive, wouldn’t he have interviewed them?

Now to the Pate-Somers family feud. This feud was epic, Hatfield vs. McCoy type family feuding. It ought to have made the papers. There is no mention of it that I could find in contemporary newspapers. Nor in any local history books in Mississippi, Missouri, or Virginia – or anywhere. I did a loose search on Archives.org and Google Books and couldn’t find any mention of it. Odd given an entire male Pate line was purportedly wiped out. Not naming Somers’ nephew, or giving a date when he killed Pate, also strikes me as odd.

I am waving the white flag.

I have arrived at the conclusion that this event never happened. I can’t say that enslaved people involved may have never existed. Perhaps they did. Maybe two feuding slave traders bought enslaved people at the 1859 sale and fell out with one another. Perhaps there was a murder involved. I doubt their names were Pate or Somers. Or, maybe, the entire saga was an invention. A means of getting white readers interested in an old story involving slavery. If you think your audience won’t care about a story of enslaved black people, you could interest them by adding a fictional account of feuding white families – one of whom had an entire male line wiped from existence. While that makes for riveting reading, it resulted in going down a deep, deep rabbit hole in terms of genealogy. A rabbit hole that ultimately has proven fruitless.

I hate to say that. I really do. I know a great deal of effort has been placed in uncovering who these people were in relation to collaborative research. Sometimes, that is just how the dice rolls.

While this research has proven barren in terms of tangible results – I hope outlining this research process helps other researchers in fact-checking old stories…and the information and record sources you can access to research these tales.

Books by Brian Sheffey

Purchase link:
https://www.amazon.com/Practical-Genealogy-Research-Diverse-History/dp/164611566X
Purchase link: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1646116089/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1

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