Tuesday 19 May 2015

A Surprising and Disturbing Ancestral Discovery

I came across a transcription of a will of one of my 5th great-grandfathers the other day and its contents surprised me. In the 1806 document he left seven of his surviving adult children a “negro” boy or girl. It is the first reference I have found that one of my ancestors owned slaves and it was (still is) a shock.

I understand that south of the Mason-Dixon Line – this family lived in Kentucky – slave-ownership was not uncommon in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of us probably think it was always someone else’s family that participated in this abhorrent practice, so it is all the more disturbing to find it was present among your own direct ancestors.

There is no changing history and no use in trying to apologize for someone who lived over two hundred years ago. The facts, in this case a will, are part of a public record and there no point in trying to hide it. In this case I have no need to publish the man’s name (I will just refer to him as “Grandfather George”) as there may be other direct descendants who may feel more sting because their surname is the same as his.

This ancestor left an estate comprised of a “plantation” of 108 acres, surely a farm of good size for the area and time. The eldest son received those lands in total as was the tradition and law of primogeniture. His siblings each were “given” a slave (there is no other word to describe them), four of them girls and three, boys. What is jarring to read is that each of the people handed over in the will firstly were named, reminding us that they were real people, and, at the same time, equated to each having a value of 80 pounds, demonstrating to us that they were considered chattels.

Grandfather George also gave two women slaves “their liberty to be under the control of none but the laws of the land & supported in their decline of life by exers”, presumed to mean that these people would receive monetary and other assistance from the estate. I suppose this might demonstrate that Grandfather George had some sort of compassion for the people he “owned” and who had served him, perhaps not always commonplace among such men.

There is no mention of other slaves having been owned by Grandfather George but it is hard to imagine a 108-acres farm being handed over without most of the labour force that had been in place at the time. The 1810 US census for Bourbon County, Kentucky, shows the family of Grandfather George’s eldest son, who had inherited the farm, had two slaves – another shock once I realized this was probably my ancestor.

A slave owned by a daughter of Grandfather George also was granted freedom, such event to occur upon her death. A “Deed by Heirs” was executed by the children of this woman in 1828, 14 years after the death of their father who had “expressed a wish that said Isaac should be set free and emancipated at the death of” their mother. The mother did not die until 1849, however, so it is unknown whether Isaac was still owned until then or even alive when she passed on. At any rate, the document does reveal that at least some members of the family were still slave-owners well into the 1800s. I will look for other descendants of Grandfather George now to see how many were involved in the practice.

As a Canadian prairie boy born in the mid-20th century, this is not a subject I am familiar with, nor comfortable about. As I indicated, it is part of history, though. We cannot pretend it did not happen but we can be still be startled by a discovery that some ancestors played a part.

I am learning about slavery in Kentucky on these websites:

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated