Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Austin? Or Alston?

The whole story about Florida Militia Brigadier General Leigh Read and his murder by the brother of a man he had killed in a duel was something I stumbled upon while reading through the booklet on the life of King Stockton. In that biography, a briefing on the events of the second Seminole war had wandered from its stated topic to include the infamous Alston-Read duel, leading me, of course, to wonder just how that connected with either the Seminoles or King Stockton's life in 1840s Wellborn, Florida.

Nevertheless, a story is a story, and when anyone says "story," I jump to follow the trail.

There was one peculiarity about the Stockton recounting of that event I want to revisit today: how the actual name of the slain politician (Augustus Alston) and his avenging brother (Willis Alston) might have become misrepresented in the King Stockton narrative. Of course, we could just write it off as a glitch of transcription. After all, it wasn't King Stockton himself writing the story, but A. L. Lewis; perhaps the scribe heard the name incorrectly. Or, perhaps King Stockton himself had misunderstood the names, a likely scenario when we realize that the events themselves occurred during Stockton's childhood.

There may have been another explanation, however. I ran across a suggestion of a much different scenario while searching for more information on just who the Willis "Austin" of Stockton's recollection might have been. The conjecture was explored in a forum on a longstanding website devoted to researching African ancestry in the Americas. That website, AfriGeneas, has been online in one form or another since the days of Bulletin Board Services. While AfriGeneas now has a more modern social presence at Facebook, the many posts over decades still preserved on their forums can be informative for those working on the puzzles of their African-American roots.

The one post I found pertinent to the Austin-Alston question was submitted by an AfriGeneas member in 2006. While only offered as conjecture, it seems to have been an informed guess by someone who had spent much time considering the topic. In her comments, this AfriGeneas member sought to explain the connections between some of her Austin ancestors, enslaved on the plantation of one J. J. Williams in Leon County, Florida, and how she had traced these families through records subsequently located from the Freedmen's Bureau.

Some of those former slaves—now with the surname Austin—apparently had noted in their bureau records that they had come to Florida with Augustus Alston. This is where you can see the plot thicken. Alston was subsequently shot by Read—as we discovered yesterday—but this left his widow in charge of a very large plantation with many slaves and much debt. Here, the writer of the AfriGeneas post delves into the genealogy of that widowed slaveholder to demonstrate her connection to the J. J. Williams plantation in Leon County, and thus the likely reason why so many Alston slaves ended up working the fields for the Williams plantation.

In all that explanation of how the Alston slaves ended up on Williams property, the writer refers back to Augustus Alston and inserts the note, "which is where I believe the Austin slaves derived their surname."

Of course, that is mere conjecture, though I'd take that as an educated guess by someone who has done her due diligence in researching the matter. However, taking this from the perspective of King Stockton, who was born not quite ten years before the first Alston duel, and who spent his life in the next county to the east in a politically astute household, he might have grown up knowing some of the families who eventually took that surname "Austin" (rather than Alston). Perhaps knowing the association between those freedmen and their former slaveholder, he might have assumed all had been called by the same surname: Austin.

While that doesn't directly inform me about King Stockton's own life—or even that of his own years of being enslaved on the McClellan property—the recounting does remind me to be fluid in handling research clues involving names from that era. Names heard—for instance, Reed versus Read, or even Reid, who served as governor during that turbulent time—aren't always recorded with consistent spelling. Hundred year old eyewitnesses sometimes recall things differently than they might have, eighty years prior. And even the most well-intentioned and careful writers sometimes get details wrong.

Armed with that reminder, we'll move on, tomorrow, to explore some of the other names recalled by King Stockton, this time concerning the military leaders mentioned from the period of the second Seminole war.

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