Saturday, March 24, 2012

Discovering Dimensions of the Record

I haven't written on this blog in a good while, but I have been thinking plenty about the value of this record, The Register of Freedmen. It is not that big a record in relative terms, but it is a complicated one to say the least, and its implications are beyond words, so I have mostly just been sitting and thinking and tweeting at least one name from the record each week.

Since working on The Register, I have actually relocated to the general area where most of those listed in this record were enslaved. Why? Well, believe it or not, I did very much want to set my eyes on the towns represented in The Register. Without doing so, both the people and the places would have remained flat. So, I have been taking to the roads. Last month, I visited Hardeman County. Today, I visited Fayette County. I live in Marshall County, and I am regularly in Shelby County. There probably are well over six hundred freedmen in The Register who before the war lived their lives in these areas.

From Marshall County, Holly Springs, I take Highway 7 north, crossing the state line. Historian Hubert McAlexander has written: “Marshall is a land of hills and valleys and bottom lands cut by small rivers, creeks, and branches.” And so it is. I pass through the shade of arbors and, as I approach Indian Creek, the area becomes swampy, refreshing wetlands on each side of the road. I wonder if there were slaves who tried to travel through these waters going from Holly Springs perhaps, the site of a short-lived contraband camp, to Grand Junction, Tennessee, where they might find a train bound for Memphis.

I arrive at Benton County, which used to be Marshall; it is such a long way even by car, even now. So many slaves walked. I remember Angela Walton Raji's ancestors and my own; this is their path.

Crossing the state line takes me into Fayette County--more rolling hills. Traversing them would have required the help of God; there is no doubting this.

I spent part of my day at the Fayette County Public Library. What a nice genealogy room they have. I researched the Fayette County slave owners who are listed in The Register, just a few of them. I have my students helping. Only one traveled with me to Somerville, the county seat. When he tired, I returned him to campus and then...yes, I went back!

I had to. I was so taken both by just being in the area and by its beauty. One student has been assigned Charles Michie. I remember transcribing a Charles Micka, Mica, Mickey, or Miclea. Five freedmen in The Register were once owned by him. I am intrigued by the variations on spelling. I can just hear these ancestors' voices, thick with accent, as they stated this name before the Union official who wrote it down. Two little boys, three-year-old Henry and eight-year-old Calvin, reported Micka as the name of their former owner. It would in fact appear that Michie is pronounced like Mickey.

I visited Michie's plantation today, Woodlawn. It is still standing, and it is, yes, especially on a spring Saturday, beautiful. But I tried to imagine Michie's slaves working there, on the undulating field that fronts the estate. I got out of my car to take a picture, and, as I did, a friendly brown and white horse greeted me. I was surprised and pleased. I spoke to him as he eyed me and placed his nose over the white fence that surrounds the grounds. I'm discovering new dimensions of places and people in this public record.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hundreds of Names of Slaves and Their Owners

I'm pleased to announce publication of my new website: Please visit and click on Register of Freedmen to track my ongoing transcription project--"Somebody Signed My Name." So far, I've transcribed over four hundred names of former slaves and their owners. I do hope my readers are able to make some connections.

More forthcoming.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Names of Contraband

I am in the process of transcribing the names of hundreds of African Americans who traveled to the camps. I have completed A through C and hope to make significant headway in the next year toward completion. Please find my work so far at

I hope you find an ancestor there!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My rudimentary map-making skills aside, I am hopeful that the above map will help others locate their ancestors. This is a rough copy of a map found in Volume 7 of Grant's Papers.* There, he names many of the towns included on the map, as well as several not shown here. The latter include Lumpkin's Mills, Yoknapatalfa, Saulsbury, Pott's Farm, Waterford, Coffeeville, and New Albany. (At the time, these were in Marshall County, MS; some of them may be in Benton or Tippah today.)

Slaves living in any of the towns on the map or those mentioned here had a good chance of reaching Union lines since Union forces were known to have battled in this area in the fall of 1862. Moreover, the Register of Freedmen mentioned in an earlier post included many blacks from this area. My own ancestors may have encountered Union lines in or near Salem, MS mentioned on p. 89 of Volume 7 of Grant's Papers. My family members, the Williamses, listed in the document in the post below, were slaves of the Hulls of Salem, MS.

Studying Grant's Papers is a good way to envision the slave's "road to freedom," for in these published texts, specific roads--Ripley, Pontotoc, and Pigeon Roost--and several bodies of water--Tallahatchie R., Tippah Creek, Hurricane Creek, and Coldwater R--are mentioned.
*John Y. Simon, Ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 7, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Finding My Ancestors

In earnest, I have been researching my ancestors for about 15 years. After all of this time, I have become somewhat anxious about publishing my findings not only for what the information would do for my family, but because my research process would undoubtedly help other researchers.

Honestly, I had lately put the search for our family's slaveholder(s) out of mind, reasoning that this information would be difficult to obtain and that it would likely take many more years of searching. Wouldn't you know that I would stumble upon this specific information while looking for something else.

I was at the National Archives recently looking for any information I could find on the contraband camp where my ancestors lived during the war. I also wanted to get some information on two special orders that accompanied my second great grandfather's detail in the spring of 1865. I found very little at the D.C. branch on either of these subjects though I thoroughly examined all records outlining special orders.

At the National Archives, I was assisted by archivist and African American Specialist Reginald Washington. He pointed me to (RG 105)M1914 (Dept. of Mississippi) and M1911 (Dept. of Tennessee). While I gathered various related information in the records of the second, the first proved earth-moving for me.

I hadn't expected...

Somewhat mechanically, I scrolled through Roll #4 of M1914, which included a "Register of Freedmen." The register itself listed the name, age, and former occupation of the freedman or woman, as well as the name and residence of the former owner! That's a lot of information. Possibly, I had overlooked the compiler of this register, which was unnumbered and undated.

My ancestors were/are included in this register, and there is no way of describing the intensity of my feelings upon seeing their names listed. I was surprised, unsettled, and am still more or less in a state of shock. My first reaction was denial. This couldn't possibly be them, I thought. I've come to feel that records legitimate people by acknowledging their existence and importance. Someone thought it important, for various reasons including bureaucratic ones, to take down the names of the freedmen and women, as well as other pertinent data.
The process of my recovery and acceptance that, yes, my ancestors' names had been recorded began with reading them over and over again. This was an affirmation of sorts.
More specifically, I was surprised and delighted to see my second great grandmother at the head of her family's list. I was delighted because I'd only before seen her name one time, as it was, on the death record of her youngest child, and then only her first name had been given--"Nancy." In my family, people had forgotten my second great grandfather's name long ago also even though he has a prominently marked grave in the church/family cemetery. So, having this new information about Nancy, whom no one remembers, completes this family circle. However, the father of the children listed in the register--Sam, Robert, Mary, and Walker--is not included. That would be Daniel Walker Williams (, who enlisted with the USCT in 1863. I can only reason that he was not included in this registry because it was compiled after his enlistment, at which time he would have been included instead in the muster roll. In any case, Grandmother Nancy's presence at the camp provides new information. Before finding her on the registry, I had thought that she and Grandfather Daniel had been separated, on different plantations, and this does remain a possibility. But it seems more likely that they traveled to the camp at Memphis together, and it is nothing short of a blessing that they have all but one of their children with them. The presence of the youngest in 1863, who would have been around 3 years old then, remains a mystery.
Finally, a word about the slave owner. Numerous records have proved that our family resided in Marshall County, Mississippi before the war. On a Freedmen's Bank record, Grandfather Daniel reported having been raised there. Death certificates of the children listed in the register prove the same. Before finding them, however, on the registry, I had searched high and low for a Marshall County slaveowner with Williams and/or Walker as surname. As common as these names are, I have found many, but had not yet proved that we had been "with" any of them. Needless to say, finding the name of their last owner, William Hull, has opened many new avenues to explore.
As I continue to process this new information, there will be new posts concerning the nature of this kind of search into the past. But for now, let me say that this fourth generation descendant of Daniel and Nancy Williams is quite moved that they chose to seek the Union lines when they passed through Marshall/Benton/and Tippah counties in late 1862. I can almost picture them gathering their things, what little they had, maybe running for their lives. And I thank them that they began this march toward freedom so that I would hardly be able to fathom what it would feel like to list an "owner."