Archive for the ‘Civil War’ Category

Surnames Used by African American Slaves

Friday, August 28th, 2009

There has been much debate among scholars, historians and genealogists whether enslaved African Americans used the surnames of their last owners, previous owners, or a surname that had no connection to slavery.

Location the owner of one’s ancestor is crucial for an African American genealogist to trace his family before 1870.

In more than thirty years of researching my ancestors and hundreds of others enslaved on one of America’s largest plantations, slaves owned by mid-sized planters and small farmers, reviewing thousands of documents I have come across various situations that might give others clues on what to look for.

There are many factors to consider in determining what surnames African Americans used.

Although it is not widely known, some African Americans used surnames before they were emancipated. This happened mostly on large plantations where several individuals had the same first names and a surname was used to distinguish them from one another.
African Americans were known by these surnames in the slave community and often recorded by slave owners on plantation documents.

In small communities where census takers and county officials knew African Americans personally and their previous owners, they often recorded the former slaves with the surnames of their last owners. One former slave Bill Scott from Wessyngton reported in his pension application for military service that when he enlisted in the Union Army officials put down his surname as Washington. He stated that he had always been known by his father’s surname Scott, even before he was freed.

Former slaves often made up surnames based on their occupations. A Wessyngton slave named Bill who was the plantation’s blacksmith was known as Billy the Smith during slavery. After emancipation, he became William Smith. Another slave named Bill who attended the sheep became Bill Shepherd.

When slave owners married, they often received slaves as wedding gifts and inheritances from their wife’s family. As a result, many slaves used the surnames of their owner’s wife’s family. When Wessyngton’s owner George A. Washington married Margaret Lewis in 1849 her father gave the couple twenty-nine slaves. The majority of these slaves used the surname Lewis instead of Washington. If searching for a slave owner with the same surname of your ancestor fails, check marriage records for the slave owners. This may reveal your family used the surname of the slave owner’s wife’s family.

African Americans tended to use surnames associated with their own families instead of the last slave owner. In the late 1830s, Nathaniel Terry of Todd County, Kentucky died leaving a plantation of fifty slaves. Five of the slaves were sold to the Washingtons and brought to Wessyngton. Several of the other slaves were sold to various slave owners. After emancipation, they all used the Terry surname because their families had been with the white Terry family for generations.

Former slaves also interchanged surnames on census records. It is not uncommon to see an African American family listed with one surname in 1870 and another in 1880. This is due in part to officials imposing surnames on them based on their last owners. John Lewis was born in 1831; in 1844 he and several family members were given to George A. Washington of Wessyngton. In 1870, he is listed as John Washington. On all subsequent census records, he is listed as John Lewis. This was the case with several others from Wessyngton.

Another myth is once African Americans were sold they never saw their families again. This is true in some cases but not all. In small communities when slaves were sold, they were often bought by someone in the area. Thomas Black Cobbs was owned by a small slave owner Catherine Black. At her death when Thomas was ten, he was sold to Solomon Cobbs who lived nearby. Thomas’ mother, younger brothers and sisters remained with the Black family. After emancipation, he moved back with his mother, brothers and sisters and used the Cobbs surname. It had always been passed down in the family that Thomas has been owned by the Blacks.

In instances where slaves were sold from their families and they did not retain their previous owners’ surnames, they named their children for parents, sisters and brothers to keep a connection with their families. In 1836, William Turbeville died leaving an estate with several slaves who were brothers: Turner, Nelson, Simon, Jordan, and Jacob. They were all sold to different owners: Connell, Rose, Johnson, and Hughes respectively. The brothers were sold when they were very young and remained with their last owners nearly thirty years. In 1870, all of them were listed with the surnames of their last owner; however, each one of them named their sons for one of their brothers.  

Former slaves often used surnames names of historical figures such as Washington, Jefferson or Jackson. Others who wanted no connection to their former owners used surnames like Freeman or Freedman. In these cases, unless the name change had been passed down in the family by oral history, it would be impossible to trace the family back any further. This is another instance of oral history being a key component in tracing African American ancestry.

A Thank You Letter from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Letter from Queen Elizabeth

Letter from Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth acknowledged the receipt of a signed copy of my book. As is the custom, her lady-in-waiting wrote me.  The royal seal indicated that the Queen was at her summer residence, Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balmoral_Castle– for your info.

Enslaved African American Families on Wessyngton Plantation in 1860

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

families-on-wessyngton-1860

families-on-wessyngton-18601

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1860 Wessyngton Plantation was the largest tobacco plantation in the United States.  The Washington family also held the largest number of enslaved African Americans (274) in the state of Tennessee.   187 of them were held on what was called the “Home Place” near the Wessyngton mansion.  Eighty-seven others were held on a part of the plantation known was the “Dortch Place.”

 

Runaways and Rebels on Wessyngton Plantation

Thursday, June 18th, 2009
Wessyngton Runaways and Rebels

Wessyngton Runaways and Rebels

Enslaved African Americans used various forms of resistance against the institution of slavery.  Some used passive forms of resistance such as pretending to be ill, secretly destroying tools, and work slow downs.  Others used more drastic measures such as physical violence toward their enslavers and running away.  Several men from Wessyngton Plantation escaped and made it to free territory.  One slave Davy, ran away four times and was preparing to cross the Ohio River and go north to Canada when he was recaptured.

Dedication of Enslaved Memorial at The Hermitage

Monday, May 18th, 2009
Baker at the Hermitage

Baker at the Hermitage

On May 17th a dedication ceremony was held at The Hermitage, the plantation owned by President Andrew Jackson, in honor of 60 African Americans who had been enslaved on the Ingleside and Cleveland Hall Plantations. Both plantations were owned by nephews of Rachel Jackson and had ties to the enslaved population at The Hermitage.

As reported by the Associated Press, a memorial sculpture of seven oak trees in the shape of the Little Dipper was laid out among a circle of thirty boulders. The piece by Lee Benson is named “Our Peace, Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Slaves fleeing to the North would follow the North Star, one of the stars in the Little Dipper.

Following the ceremony I gave a presentation and did a book signing.  It was a very special and meaningful event.

Television Interview with John Seigenthaler Sr.

Monday, May 18th, 2009

My half-hour television interview with John Seigenthaler Sr, A Word on Words, is available as a free downloadable Podcast.

http://www.wnpt.org/productions/wow/

 

Mr. Seigenthaler asked me many in-depth thought-provoking questions.  At the end, he said, “I learned more from your book than I learned from reading my friend Alex Haley’s book called  Roots.” I hope you enjoy the interview. Leave a comment with your reaction.

How Can We Honor Our Ancestors on Memorial Day?

Monday, May 18th, 2009
USCT from Wessyngton

USCT from Wessyngton

On Memorial Day, we need to take a moment to tell our children about their ancestors who fought for freedom and America.  During the Civil War, our ancestors fled slavery and the plantations and joined the Union Army to fight for freedom. We must never forget the sacrifices of our ancestors that we might enjoy freedom today.

Baker Interview on the Plus Side of Nashville

Friday, May 1st, 2009

http://www.newschannel5.com/Global/story.asp?S=5373517&nav=menu374_9

On March 31st I was honored to have Tuwanda Coleman interview me for the Plus Side of Nashville about the release of my book The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom.  I really enjoyed being on the show.  Mrs. Coleman asked how my research started more than thirty years ago, how I got a book deal with Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster and my future plans.

Famous Artist Paints Portraits of African Americans from Wessyngton Plantation

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
Emanuel Washington Portrait by Howard Weeden

Emanuel Washington Portrait by Howard Weeden

During the late 1890s and early 1900s the Washington family commissioned [Maria] Howard Weeden to paint the portraits of several African Americans who were once enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation. One of them was of my great-great-grandfather Emanuel Washington. During the Civil War Emanuel ran away with Union soldiers. He and his family returned to Wessyngton after the war. Emanuel was famous for telling ghost stories to all the children on the plantation. He was born at Wessyngton April 23, 1824 and died there in 1907. His portrait remains in the Washington family.

Sirius XM Radio Interview with John F. Baker Jr.

Friday, March 13th, 2009

I invite you to listen to an indepth interview: On with Leon Presents John F. Baker Jr.  with host Dr. Leon Wilmer.

http://www.wilmerleon.com/shows/022109-JB.mp3