Saturday, March 16, 2024

Off the Shelf:
They Were Her Property


As I explore farther into my family's past, especially as I follow my matriline deeper into the South and eventually into its colonial era, it is an inescapable fact that the details I am pulling up in wills include an ever-increasing involvement with the American—and British-American—convention of slavery. At such a juncture, I thought this might be a fitting time to pull a book off my library shelf which addresses the issue I am witnessing: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers' They Were Her Property.

Because pre-1850 family history research must rely on different record sets than what we'd normally pursue for later years in the United States, I've been reading many wills. The main reason for that choice of document was to find a father's inclusion of each child by name—including married names for daughters—to verify I was following the right family.

In that line of pursuit, it became quite obvious that, while the sons might inherit land and farming equipment or become the new recipient of bonds or other financial instruments due the estate, daughters were sometimes bequeathed with a different kind of "property"—the enslaved people whose work sustained the land's production.

That became crystal clear, for instance, when I found Elizabeth Lewis Gilmer's own will far from the state where she raised her family. Dying in 1855 in Alabama at the home of her son-in-law, Elizabeth's recorded last wishes made clear one detail: there were many names to be found in that document, and not all of them were names of her family members. 

Seeing mention of phrases like "a negro boy named Bryant" or "a negro girl named Louisa, daughter of my negro woman Nancy," I realize I am witnessing an example of what author Stephanie Jones-Rogers is referring to in her book. Part of me wants simply to volunteer to add this multitude of other names I'm finding to the website project, Beyond Kin, but another part of me wants to let someone else do the heavy research lifting and spell out for me this phenomenon of women inheriting other people and passing them along to grandchildren at their "owner's" death.

Granted, I realize while this text will not be riveting reading, it will indeed be eye-opening. Other than portraying slavery as the awful institution we now realize it was, our typical history reviews seldom delve very deeply into the day-to-day unfolding of its impact. At this juncture in my family history research, I need to open this book's pages and let them inform me of details omitted by a cursory high school—or college—lecture on the subject.

On the other hand, this book's focus on the complicity of women in continuance of the institution of slavery may be a bit overreaching, as a very few readers had brought up in one bookseller's website. To single out white women as if they were the sole driving force behind the perpetuation, one reader observed, was to be "disingenuous." Another critiques the writer who "judges history by the sensitivities of our own time."

These thoughts become the two pillars through which I pass as I consider this author's thesis. But to read the book—to have the experience of living through its pages—is one task which needs to be faced.

As for the other—transcribing the names of the unfortunate strangers captured and enmeshed in a life not of their choosing (nor even of their immigrant ancestor's choosing)—I hope to contribute my part in gleaning these names so that those researching their own family's roots can find the answers they are seeking, as well.

Above: Cover art for the 2019 book by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South; image courtesy


  1. Thank you for your part in preserving names.

    1. Well, there are a lot of names still to be posted, Miss Merry. Hopefully, that will help someone...


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