Thursday, February 29, 2024

One Last Detail


Exploring the court records of colonial Virginia in search of information on my fifth great-grandfather John Carter has been quite the education. The process opened my eyes to the business transactions and family matters of the well-to-do during that era of time. Wills, deeds, guardianship bonds, and other records provided the first glimpse of everyday events, at least at the crisis points of life. But in addition to discovering documentation to support the existence of a previously unrecognized wife of John Carter—Sarah Kenyon, mentioned in her father's will clearly as John's wife—there is one last detail before we close out this month's research, another aspect of life which needs to be examined.

My fellow genea-blogger Patrick Jones of Frequent Traveler Ancestry mentioned it to me as we exchanged notes regarding our discoveries this past month—and included his observations in at least two of his blog posts on the Carter line. The fact of the matter is that John Carter, along with the related families I examined—Kenyon, Chew, Beverley—owed much of their business success to the labor of enslaved workers.

It may not have been quite as evident, when examining John Carter's will, since he did not name any enslaved persons in that document, but the indication is there. Abraham Kenyon, John Carter's father-in-law, was more specific in his will, specifying a man named "Jerey" and a woman named "Jeney" to be given to his daughter Sarah, John's wife. Examining more records from Spotsylvania County where these ancestors lived would provide more details on names and identities—and, at some point, will be discovered to be the ancestors of other people now researching their roots.

Finding a way to share this information has been the thrust of several presentations and articles I've experienced over the years. I had first grappled with the question of "what to do" the same year I heard LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson make the call for genealogists to be a "force for social change" at the 2019 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.

I've since run across many suggestions for taking action to share information found in slave-holders' estate papers, the most recent being an article appearing in the online version of Family Tree Magazine, written by NGS Board member and genea-blogger Cheri Hudson Passey. Cheri advises: "Do something positive with the negative when finding out that your ancestors were enslavers." Indeed, she has posted documents and extracted information to share in several of her blog posts to help descendants of the enslaved find their roots.

One of the websites Cheri recommends for guidance in how to follow suit on this process is The Beyond Kin Project. Noting that the descendants of slaveholders are "uniquely positioned to revolutionize genealogy for [our] African American colleagues," Beyond Kin provides introductory explanations regarding the rationale behind the project, details research strategies, and how-to descriptions of the process of sharing the information we are finding on our ancestors. The project's goal is a collective effort to help each other find what we are all looking for: more information on our ancestors.

While finding specific names from the estate of John Carter will be somewhat of a challenge for me—I can't even find any records for one of his wives—I have done research regarding the formerly enslaved individuals from other parts of my family. Hopefully, that will provide one tiny clue to help other researchers advance their own quest to discover the stories of their family's past.

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