Researching A Community of Enslaved People On A Plantation When All You Have Is Their First Name

It is easy to think professional genealogists have all the research answers. However, we get stuck too at times. This is one of those times for me. I thought it would good idea to share working practices to get a glimpse behind some of Genealogy Adventures’ client research projects to illustrate some of our strategies for overcoming research challenges.  This article is based on active client research. To protect client privacy, this article is written in a way to keep the clients’ identities private.

Serendipity revealed that five of our active research projects involved clients whose ancestors were enslaved together by Rebecca Brewton (Middleton) Hamilton (1818-1870) St. Luke’s Parish, Charleston County, South Carolina plantation. It has subsequently been revealed that three of these five clients were related to one another through this connection. Introducing these clients to one another has been such a rewarding career highlight. It makes what we do at Genealogy Adventures even more rewarding.

Research challenges have arisen the further back in time we go in terms of researching enslaved ancestors. I for one am deep in the territory of trying to identify clients’ ancestors based on using slavery-related documents that listed enslaved people by their first names.   When faced with five Tobys, seven Eves, nine Binahs, or eleven females with variations of Elizabeth – Eliza, Bessie, Betty, Betsey, Lizzy, Betty, and Elizabeth – how do I identify the correct person for the ancestral line that I am researching? In a word, meticulously. And slowly. This work requires patience and diligence. I am thankful my clients understand and appreciate that fact. Each client has spent years researching their enslaved ancestors and faced seemingly insurmountable brick walls. That’s why they hired someone to make some breakthroughs.

Let’s take a look at a working example.

Researching the Gullah People Held by the Alston, Ball, Blake, Bull, Butler, Izard, Middleton, Motte, Simmons, and Vanderhorst Families of Coastal South Carolina

I have spent the past three or so years as part of a team of people researching communities of enslaved people held by the above-listed families with a particular emphasis on the communities who were enslaved by Maj. Pierce Butler (1744-1822):  Case study: Creating a research strategy to find my lost connection to Maj. Pierce Butler’s enslaved people https://genealogyadventures.net/2019/07/01/case-study-creating-a-research-strategy-to-find-my-lost-connection-to-maj-pierce-butlers-enslaved-people. This ongoing research has been invaluable for the current research projects I am handling. I was already deeply familiar with these enslaving families. I knew the deep and labyrinthine inter-marriages between these powerful and wealthy enslaving families. I knew the naming conventions among the enslavers as well as those they enslaved. More importantly, I knew where they were filing legal papers such as slave sales deeds, probate, dowries/marriage settlements, slave hiring out contracts, slave insurance policies, and slave mortgages. These documents are bread and butter documents when it comes to researching the enslaved. As time goes on, I have also been able to find some of their surviving plantation journals (also referred to as plantation day books).

Plantation day books in particular are priceless in terms of the information they contain. Enslavers used their day books to note:

  • Slave births and deaths. Slave births typically named the mother, and sometimes, the father.
  • Dated lists of their enslaved people that act as a type of slave census. In most cases, the enslaved were arranged by family groups. In some cases, ages were also provided which enables us to work out approximate years of birth.
  • Work assignments with the names of the enslaved tasked with carrying these duties out.
  • Illnesses and medical attention needed for the enslaved.
  • Distribution of food, clothing, blankets, etc. to their enslaved people.
  • Punishments that were meted out.  Sometimes, punishments will explain how an enslaved ancestor became known as “one-eyed Billy.”

I have a piece of advice about accessing a plantation day book for the first time: take a deep breath. Then take another. You really do need to have your mind and spirit in a good place. The information contained in these books, while just everyday information for an enslaver, can be harrowing or unsettling for the descendants of the enslaved.

Figure 1: 1779 list of enslaved people held by Maj. Pierce Butler on Butler Island, McIntosh County, Georgia. These enslaved people were taken from South Carolina by Maj. Butler. The full list can be accessed via “1783 – 1820 Lists of Enslaved People Held By Maj. Pierce Butler In Georgia.” Genealogy Adventures. August 2020. https://genealogyadventures.net/1783-1820-lists-of-enslaved-people-held-by-maj-pierce-butler-in-georgia.

A collective body of research knowledge enabled me to jump straight into client research. In every case, I knew the precise enslaving line to research based on the names of the clients’ enslaved ancestors. An enslaved male with the first name Mott(e) held by any enslaving Middleton pointed to a specific family connection:

Figure 2: Rebecca Brewton (Middleton) Hamilton’s ancestry. The Middleton-Motte connection to this research was her paternal grandparents: John Middleton and Frances Motte of St. Michael’s Parish, Charleston County, South Carolina

The Regional Customs of Enslaving Families

Researchers know genealogy is based on vital records and official documents –  or other written materials like journals, family bibles, and diaries. In this instance, I will focus on official documents like deeds and probate records.

Enslaved research requires understanding the regional customs of the families who enslaved our ancestors. For instance, the enslaving families in the Old Ninety-six District in South Carolina, where my maternal ancestry is largely centered, typically filed their legal and business papers at their local courthouses. That was their custom. These families primarily resided in the rural communities where they had their property and enslaved people. This was their regional custom.

Enslaving families with properties along the coast typically filed their legal papers in Charleston rather than the county courthouse close to their plantation(s). Families in Georgetown, Charleston, Colleton, Beaufort, and Berkeley Counties tended to file their papers in the City of Charleston. Some Darlington and Williamsburg Counties in South Carolina also did the same. There is a straightforward reason for this. Many of these families had a home in the city of Charleston. It makes sense that they would file their legal and business papers in the city they lived in more so than a courthouse near a property they infrequently visited. These families had a very different culture from the enslaving families of the Ninety-Six District. The Charleston catalogue of documents hosted by FamilySearch is my first port of call when it comes to finding documents for coastal South Carolina Families. This catalog can be accessed via https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/results?count=20&placeId=191497&query=%2Bplace%3A%22United%20States%2C%20South%20Carolina%2C%20Charleston%22.

You are missing around 80% of the available records available on FamilySearch if you only use its general records search function. The catalog search section holds a treasure trove of documents that will never appear under a general search. To put it another way, I have not used the general search function on FamilySearch in years. I only use the catalog search.

This is important when you factor in the almost complete destruction of official records involving Georgetown and Colleton Counties which suffered a staggering loss of records during the Civil War. I believed this record loss would be insurmountable until I found that many enslavers filed their official papers in Charleston, which did not suffer record loss. 

Tracing the Pathway of Enslavement to Identify How an Enslaved Person Became Part of a Community of Enslaved People

How an enslaved person came to be enslaved within a specific community must be determined to successfully research him or her. What were the different pathways that must be researched as part of this process?

Researchers must determine if the enslaved person:

  1. Was born on the property of the enslaver (e.g., “slave increase”).
  2. Was enslaved by the male or female enslaver. While a husband may have had the day-to-day management of his wife’s enslaved people, they were legally her enslaved people and not his. Some female enslavers, like Charlotte (Richardson) Minter-Strother-Peterson of Edgefield, South Carolina wouldn’t allow any of her husbands to manage her enslaved people. She managed them herself. Identifying who was the legal enslaver involves finding their parent’s probate records, their parent’s estate sales records, a woman’s dowry/marriage settlement contract/deeds, slave partition deeds (where enslaved people were distributed in lots amongst an enslaver’s heirs), of a parent’s deed of gift involving enslaved people. All of these documents would have been registered at a courthouse.
  3. Was previously the property of their male or female enslaver’s parents. This requires looking at the enslavers’ parents and accessing their slavery-related records.

The above has to be done for every generation of the enslaved going back to the first enslaved African brought to colonial America or in the early years of the Republic. Each enslaved person had a route of enslavement through an enslaving family. It is our job as researchers to figure out and identify that pathway.

I have spent some time outlining the big picture for researching an enslaved community of people. Next, let’s take a look at this at the micro level.

Researching Bungy Blake (1803-1873) and his wife Clarinda (1819 – unknown) of Charleston County, South Carolina

Figure 3: The enslaving descendants of Arthur Middleton, Acting Governor of South Carolina

Figure 3 above has been provided to provide additional context and clarity for the enslavement pathway of Bungy Blake and his wife Clarinda.

As a bit of background, Bungy and Clarinda were successfully identified through researching their son Mott Blake. The distinctiveness of Mott’s first name was an unexpected research boon. It enabled me to find him in pre- and post-slavery records fairly easily. As I mentioned at the start of this article, the combination of the names Mott and Blake immediately pinpointed the Middleton family group that had enslaved him before I found documentation that tied him to Rebecca Brewton (Middleton) Hamilton. DNA also played a role.  Mott’s descendants have a genetic tie to the Blake, Middleton, and Motte families that had enslaved their ancestors. However, an abundant paper trail was robust enough at this stage that DNA basically verified what was found in that paper trail. Specifically speaking, Caucasian DNA matches verified that I was on the correct trail.

Mott’s parents were confirmed in a few ways. They were named in his USCT pension application. They were also named in his 1869 Freedmen’s Bank Record:

Figure 4: U.S., Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874, Registers of Signatures of Depositors, 1865-1874, Roll 21: Charleston, South Carolina; Dec 19, 1865-Dec 2, 1869, The National Archives, Ancestry, accessed July 2022, https://www.ancestry.com.

The first page of his Freedmen’s Bank Record provided important information, including where his family was living in 1869: South Santee, Charleston County, South Carolina.

Figure 5 Figure 6: U.S., Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874, Registers of Signatures of Depositors, 1865-1874, Roll 21: Charleston, South Carolina; Dec 19, 1865-Dec 2, 1869, The National Archives, Ancestry, accessed July 2022, https://www.ancestry.com.

The second page of his bank record provided equally important information. Augustine Shoolbred, a Middleton descendant and cousin of Rebecca, was Mott’s employer at the time of this record.

Figure 6: Shoolbred descendants of Arthur Middleton

Figure 6 is provided to connect the Shoolbred and Middleton families in the provided imaged to the same people named in the enslaved settlement deed below:

Figure 7: Bill of Sales of Negro slaves, 1799-1872, Charleston District, South Carolina (database with images), Charleston District, South Carolina Estate Inventories and Selected Bills of Sale; 1732-1872 v. 6A, 6B 1843-1849, Film #8139559 (image 39), Historical Commission in Columbia, Bill of Sale by John G. Shoolbred, executor of John Middleton, and Thomas Middleton & James Hamilton, dated 16 January 1843, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org, accessed July 2022.

Figure 7 above proved the link between Rebecca Brewton (Middleton) Hamilton, John Gibbes Shoolbred, and Mott Blake. He was part of a partition of John Motte Middleton’s enslaved people.

Just like Mott’s name, Bungy (sometimes spelled as Bunky in the slavery-related records) and Clarinda were distinctive names within Rebecca’s enslaving lineage. There was only one male and one female with these names who were held by her, her father John Motte Middleton of Saint James Santee (Charleston County), and her paternal grandfather John Middleton of St. Michael’s Parish (also Charleston County).

An 1867 Freedmen’s Labor Contract with S. D. Doar, another Arthur Middleton descendant, was found that cited Mott, his mother Clarinda (sometimes spelled Clarenda) and the man she married after Bungy Blake, Doctor Brown (hence her surname of Brown rather than Blake). Her union with Doctor Brown was an important find. Every online tree named her as Clarinda Brown, as though Brown was her maiden name. It was not. Brown was her married name. Her maiden name presently remains unknown.:

Figure 8: South Carolina, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872 (images), Berkley district > Roll 62, Labor contracts, A-W, 1867 (image 56), National Archives, 15 March 1867 labor contract between S. D. Doar and Mott Blake, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org

This contract placed Mott and Clarinda with S. D. Doar on his plantation in Charleston County in 1867. Again, this placed Mott and Clarinda in a specific place at a specific time. It also showed they were still within the sphere of the extended Middleton family.

Once the connection to Rebecca was made, the next phase of research needed to determine if Clarinda and Bungy had been enslaved by her Middleton family (or her mother’s Burrough’s family) or if they had been enslaved by her husband’s Hamilton family. This required a deep dive into slavery-related records for her parents as well as her husband’s parents. Charleston County, South Carolina probate records provided the answer:

Figure 9: Charleston District, South Carolina estate inventories, 1732-1844, Charleston County Court, 1810-1818 1819-1824 1819-1824 (indexed with last item) 1824-1844, Film Roll 194639 (Items 1-5), FamilySearch, Charleston County Estate Inventory for John Middleton of St. James Santee 5 December 1826 (images 105-6), accessed July 2022, https://www.familysearch.org.

The names Bungy and Clarinda appeared in one set of slavery-related documents a generation before Rebecca. They were part of her father, John Motte Middleton’s, 1826 estate.

This is where Critical Thinking is vital (see Critical Thinking: An important skill in genealogy research via https://genealogyadventures.net/2017/07/24/critical-thinking-an-important-skill-in-genealogy-research). It is important to note birth years. If birth years are not readily provided (Clarinda’s and Bungy’s birth years were provided by the 1870 U.S. Census), we have to make the most educated guess we can to where an enslaved person fell generationally within an enslaved community. This can be achieved in different ways:

  • If a woman was listed with a young child, she was more than likely an older teenager. Depending on enslaving family practices, females would be expected to produce children from 15 or 16 years old. I have seen some South Carolina enslaving families breed females as young as 13. Regardless, I place a rough estimate of 16 or 17 years of age for an enslaved female with one or two children listed in an estate inventory if ages are not provided.
  • The age description of enslaved people was variable due to a number of factors. However, scholarly research has built a profile of slave valuation based on the age factor. How an enslaved person was classed (boy, man, etc.) was influenced by the customs of an enslaving family or agreed-on terminology among a group of enslaving families in a county. This requires some period terminology to understand:
    • Number One Men (aka Prime Men or Prime Buck) (19-25 years old)
    • Fair/Ordinary Men (older than prime or infirm adult males)
    • Best Boys (or Boys in general) (15-18 years old)
    • Best Boys (or Boys in general) (10-14 years old)
    • Number One Women (aka Prime Women or Prime Wench) (prime childbearing age)
    • Fair/Ordinary Women (of child-bearing age, however, no longer considered to be “Prime” or they were infirm)
    • Best Girls (or Girls in general) (10-15 years old)
    • Old or Superannuated were the eldest enslaved people in a community
      (from Trinkle, Michael. n.d. “South Carolina Slavery – Buying And Selling Human Beings.” SCIWAY. Accessed August 22, 2022. https://www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/flesh.html.
  • The price of an enslaved person can also provide an insight into their age: An 1857 account reveals these values:
Figure 10 Trinkle, Michael. n.d. “South Carolina Slavery – Buying And Selling Human Beings.” SCIWAY. Accessed August 22, 2022. https://www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/flesh.html.

All of the above, in terms of establishing an educated guess about an enslaved person’s age, came into play in identifying Bungy and Clarinda the further back in time the research took me. I will touch upon that now.

Bungy (born around 1803) and Clarinda (born around 1819) were both listed as part of John Motte Middleton’s 1826 estate. Bungy was approximately 23 years old and Clarinda was around 7 years old. Yes, there was a bit of an age gap there!  In the same document, Bungy (written as Bunky) was grouped with Tyra and Hannah providing a valuation of $1,200. However, these three were also a part of a larger group of enslaved people who collectively (including Bungy’s small group) had a valuation of $5,300.

Here is where critical thinking is essential. Bungy was much older than Clarinda. It is believable – I would almost say expected – that he would have been with a woman prior to Clarinda. I would also expect him to have more children than Mott. Did he cohabitate with Tyra and Hannah the child of that union? It is plausible, however, this requires further research. And who were the other enslaved people in this group who formed that $5,300 valuation? Were they kin to either Bungy or Tyra? The Middleton’s had a habit of keeping enslaved people in family groups. The exception was older children from 10 years old could, and were, separated from their parents and bequeathed to different family heirs. I have seen the same names from this group in other documents related to John Motte Middleton’s children. However, a connection to Bungy has not been readily apparent.

A 9-year old Clarinda (written as Clarenda) was grouped with Robin and Dick with a $1,600 Valuation.  It has yet to be determined if Robin was her father and Dick her brother. As with Bungy, Clarenda’s small group was part of a much larger group of enslaved people. It is unclear if there were inter-family connections within this larger group of enslaved people. Like Bungy’s group, the names within Clarinda’s larger group of enslaved people have been found in documents related to John Motte Middleton’s heirs. Much more work is required to understand what these groupings are depicting in terms of family relationships among the enslaved people.

Also important in this inventory is John Motte Middleton’s enslaved people have been listed by the plantations he owned. Bungy and Clarinda were both held at his Washo Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina. This kind of research entails paying close attention to every detail that can be ferreted out from a document.

At present, the hunt is on for John Motte Middleton’s Washo plantation day book. I have checked in with every major and minor archive in South Carolina for this day book. No archive has it. I have also reached out to contacts in various North Carolina and Virginia archives which also house South Carolina documents. So far, this too has not produced a result. The chances are if the day book exists it is in private family hands. This resource will provide some of the critically important information I missing at this stage of research. In the meantime, I am working out strategies on how to tackle missing pieces of information without it. I also have to accept that this day book may no longer exist.

An examination of the 1786 estate inventory for John Middleton of St. Michael’s Parish, the father of John Motte Middleton, did not reveal a Bungy or a Clarinda.  However, the estate of his uncle, Thomas Middleton of Crowfield (1750 – about 1784) did:

Figure 11: Charleston District South Carolina Estate Inventories and Selected Bills of Sale, 1732-1872, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 18 February 1784 estate inventory for Thomas Middleton, Esq., Fold 3, accessed August 2022, https://www.fold3.com.
Figure 12 Charleston District South Carolina Estate Inventories and Selected Bills of Sale, 1732-1872, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 18 February 1784 estate inventory for Thomas Middleton, Esq., Fold 3, accessed August 2022, https://www.fold3.com.

To determine if the Bungy and Clarinda in Thomas Middleton’s inventory went to his brother, John Middleton of St. Michael’s Parish, will require locating Thomas’s estate sale information, or slave partition deed(s) or a sale deed between his estate and his brother John. This owld be another clue to indicate that Bungy Blake and his wife Clarinda were connected to the Clarinda and Bungy n Thomas Middleton’s estate inventory. A smoking gun, as it were. This will be the focus of the next strand of client research.

Again, critical thinking is important here when analyzing Figures 11 and 12. The Clarinda listed in Thomas Middleton’s 1786 Charleston county, South Carolina estate inventory cannot be the same Clarinda who was born in 1819 and enslaved by John Motte Middleton. However, the 1786 Thomas Middleton inventory Clarinda could be her mother. Miller, the boatman, could also be her father. Naming conventions were strong and prevalent within this community of enslaved people. Locating and accessing Thomas Middleton’s day book is the best chance of answering this question. The hunt is on for that day book too.

A Bungy born around 1803 could not be the same Bungy with a wife recorded in 1786. That math just doesn’t add up. However, the 1786 inventory Bungy and his wife Lucy may be the parents of Bungy Blake. There is a connection between Bungy Blake and his wife Clarinda and the people with the same names listed in the above 1786 estate inventory. Again, Thomas Middleton of Crowfield’s day book is desperately needed to confirm this – or provide the missing links to show a connection between the 1786 inventory people, and the latter Bungy Blake, and his wife Clarinda.

At this point, an enslavement pathway within the Middleton family has been established for Bungy Blake and Clarinda, the parents of Mott Blake. Before I can make some vital connections, and prove kinship, I have more slavery-related documents and day books to locate.

I am blessed and thankful that my clients understand and appreciate the difficulty of this task. Sometimes the big reveal genealogists work hard to attain comes slowly.  However, in this instance, things could be even more challenging. Staying with the same enslaving family group, I’m trying to make the link between a Toby Middleton who was enslaved by John Motte Middleton to no less than seven Tobys held by John Middleton of St. Michaels Parish!

I appreciate this has been a fair amount of reading for you. However, I wanted to break things down step-by-step, and reveal more about my research practices. I hope that this article will help you create focused research strategies when it comes to researching your enslaved ancestors when faced with researching an ancestor on just their first name.

8 thoughts on “Researching A Community of Enslaved People On A Plantation When All You Have Is Their First Name

  1. This is a wonderful and informative article. I’m going to break it down and study it more. In my spare time, I’ve been working on a major research project tracing the people enslaved by my 3x great-grandparents in Fauquier County, Virginia. I can certainly attest to the frustration over similar and same-named individuals without a surname in the records. As you said, “this work requires patience and diligence.” I know this project will take years and will probably end up as a published work of some kind. It’s been great to find and get in touch with descendants of the enslaved community I’m researching. My big issue with this project has been organization. It’s one thing to work on one family, create a tree, write a report, etc. One enslaved community can have many different families, but many of those people may be related to one another. How do you keep all the people and data organized?

    1. Thank you for your feedback.

      Keeping things in order is certainly a challenge! Here are a few things that I do:

      1. Print out a family group sheet. I staple each person’s Ancestry page to the group sheet. I attach the associated people’s page because I heavily use sources and citations – and this is a very handy way to refer to them in a physical format. And, of course, I have binders for each family surname.

      2. I have an extensive research log for every research project. This is great for not duplicating research – and providing quick answers if asked where a piece of information came from.

      3. I have research notebooks for each research project strand. I make copious notes that I can refer to. This notebook acts as a backup.

      4. I back up as much as I can digitally on an external hardrive. Every project has a folder. Individual family members have their own subfolder.

      I hope that helps!

  2. Thank you, Brian. It does help. I really like the idea of using family group sheets in the way you described. Right now, I have most of my digital folders in the project broken down by surname. I think if I did individuals, like you suggested, that would help too. I can always improve my research logging! Thanks again!

  3. Wonderfully detailed. You make my brickwall look like a brick. I’ll bet your clients are ecstatic when hearing about your progess.

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