Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Going at This all Backwards

Taking on the project I've recently adopted has put me in a messy situation. The cardinal rule for beginning genealogy has always been: "Start With Yourself." To prepare a pedigree chart, the advice goes, you start with yourself and work your way backwards in time, first entering the details about each of your parents, then moving to their parents and doing likewise. From that vantage point, the novice researcher carefully picks her way backwards through the generations, from grandparents to great-grandparents, theoretically doubling the number of ancestors with each succeeding generation.

In searching for ancestors who were once enslaved, there are, of course, many research challenges other researchers may not face. There are lots of websites and blogs out there, providing advice on how to proceed in such cases. One website of a company specializing in researching enslaved ancestors simply advises, "Learn how the professionals do it and trace them yourself"—right, simple—or, the advice continues, "hire someone to do all or part of it for you."

The ubiquitous Family Tree Magazine adds their helpful tip: before delving into slave records, you need to "Research your family back to the Civil War in censuses, vital records and other genealogical sources."

FamilySearch's online Quick Guide to African American Records continues the advice: "Interview the older generation, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles." And on their blog, they sum up what we've already realized: "in records after 1870, your research path looks similar to the research path of any US-based family line."

And that's the problem. While all these websites offer sound advice for any person wishing to trace his or her roots, it is advice I can't take. For one thing, the man I'm seeking is not my relative. I don't even know his name. All I know is that he was a slave on the plantation of my third great-grandfather, and that, once a freed man, he supposedly wrote a book about his life story—a copy of which my grandmother once owned.

How do you trace the lineage—let alone the identity—of a man whose name is not known? I simply can't start from the present and work my way backwards in time. I have to find him in records spanning the time of the Civil War.

As you may have noticed if you clicked through to read Nicka Smith's explanation of how doing everything right doesn't always produce the expected result, there are a lot of techniques which can be useful for those who are searching for their once-enslaved ancestor. Those, however, only work for searches which start with a known person in current times. Folks like me who have no clue what that name is—current or historic—can't very well put such tips to good use.

So...now what? I've already searched for names of African-American residents in the 1870 census in the neighborhood of my third great-grandfather's neighborhood in Wellborn, Florida. I can seek out more information on each of those several families to see if any interesting details pop up—the needle-in-haystack technique. Or I can try a different approach.

Thinking this quandary out, I realized my good research fortune in that Ancestry.com has included in its collection the digitized probate records of the early years of the place where my third great-grandparents once lived in Suwannee County, Florida. Thankfully, the county had just been formed before my third great-grandmother died in 1860, and though the records seem to be in a jumbled order, the nearly two hundred pages of her probate proceedings are included in the digitized collection.

While I am not familiar with the laws of the state of Florida in regards to property rights of married women in the mid-1800s, it is in my favor that Sidney Tison McClellan had property that should have entitled her to draw up a will. Unfortunately, though, she hadn't done so. Yet, dying intestate, she still had property which needed to be properly passed on to her heirs, which left me over one hundred seventy pages of minutiae to pore over in my spare time.

You can learn a lot about people by reading through all the scraps of paper left behind after they die. Apparently, the laws of the state dictated that widower George McClellan and his remaining children equally divide Sidney's property, with the minor heirs to receive their portion when they attained the age of majority.

While it may be egregious to read, in a listing of property of the deceased, the names of fellow human beings and see a price put on their heads, if I had had to wait until George passed away in 1866 to learn of his property situation, I would not be able to learn the names of a group which likely included the man whose story, in book form, I was seeking. But there, neatly divided between the seven children and her spouse, were the given names of eighteen people.

One of them—I hope—will be the name I'm seeking.


  1. Yay for Sidney! More difficult than reading a list of names is reading the value assigned to each.

    1. Yes! At least there, they were provided the decency of a name, but value? Yeah, it's hard to see that...

  2. Wow - so interesting. Sad times, but interesting.

    1. That certainly was a time with its own perspective--something to be considered when we study the history of times other than our own. Not to excuse them, but to realize the cultural pressures and mores in which people had to operate helps us see them more fully, and as a product of their times.

  3. That is fascinating. Another possible source of names that I am using, and maybe you have already tackled, is the Slave Narratives collected by the Federal Writers Project in the the 1930's. That is hit or miss, I know, but maybe some interviewer talked to some former slave from your targeted neighborhood.

    1. "Tackled" is a good way to put it, Lisa. I can't find any place where the narratives are searchable by surname. Just browsing through the narratives is an education in itself, though. Thank you for suggesting that resource!

  4. Replies
    1. Melanie! So glad to see you here again. I missed you at SLIG :(

      ...and we need to wrap up the story on the photographer we both have been following!

    2. Yes! I've been eager to hear the results of that too! I hope to make it to SLIG again someday... :)

  5. Replies
    1. Yes! It's looking promising...at least, that's what I keep telling myself :)


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