Have you wondered how you could make a difference in the genealogy world? Your research may be fairly straightforward or have many challenges. For those researching African American ancestors, the brick wall appears relatively soon – generally prior to 1870. Dealing with the lack of surnames in the antebellum era, forced separation of families, and record loss requires a focused approach and pouring through many record collections.
Fortunately, more useful records are becoming available and efforts by volunteers to index these records can make all the difference. In this guest blog post, we learn how two researchers, Stacy Cole and Cathy Dillon, have documented almost 30,000 names of enslaved people from Liberty County, Georgia. Drawing on the records of the Southern Claims Commission, they are making connections in the African American community that resided in Liberty County. Enjoy this in-depth look at the collection and the story behind the project. – Diana
After the recent “Research Like A Pro” podcast episode (#124) on the Southern Claims Commission, I contacted Diana and Nicole to thank them for the influence their Research Like a Pro method has had on my work and to tell them about my project to transcribe and research all the Southern Claims Commission case files for Liberty County, Georgia, many of which were filed by formerly enslaved people. They invited me to describe the project and what I have found using these records.
On a cold December morning in 1864, a group of enslaved families gathered for a wedding breakfast out in the yard at Joseph Quarterman’s plantation in Liberty County, Georgia. Suddenly, ragtag soldiers riding tired horses appeared. They were from Sherman’s Army, foraging in wealthy Liberty County to feed the army. “Well, boys, what have you got?” Marshal Cuthbert remembered them saying before they sat down at the table and ate all the food. Cuthbert, an enslaved man, was so overjoyed to see them – knowing it meant his freedom – that he did not care about the food or the other property they seized that day.
How do we know this story? In 1871, when the U.S. government started its Southern Claims Commission program to compensate loyal Southerners for property seized by the U.S. Army during the Civil War, Marshal Cuthbert’s friend, Jacob Golding, now a free farmer in Liberty County, made a claim, as did scores of other formerly enslaved people in Liberty County.
Liberty County plantations used the “task” system, in which the enslaved were assigned specific amounts of work to be completed, and once finished, could use their “free” time to raise stock or cultivate unused land. Some were able to accumulate small amounts of property this way, much of which was confiscated by U.S. troops from Sherman’s Army in late 1864 and early 1865.
Cuthbert testified as a witness in Golding’s claim. Before the Civil War, Liberty County had been an affluent farming district outside of Savannah, with an elite class of white planters reliant on enslaved people’s labor for their wealth. After the war, many of the now impoverished white families moved away; many black families stayed to farm the land they had once worked as slaves.
Records of their lives after Emancipation remain in the form of census, deed, probate, and church records. The true difficulty is finding that link to the slavery era that identifies the former slaveholder, the family relationships made impossible to trace by using first names only for enslaved people in antebellum estate records, and familial descent.
I have a website, TheyHadNames.net, where for the past several years, volunteer Cathy Dillon and I have been posting abstracts and transcripts of antebellum wills, estate inventories, deeds, and church records that name African Americans, both enslaved and free. We now have documented almost 30,000 names of African Americans in documents dating from 1752 to 1867, including 650+ estate inventories, 120+ wills, and all the deed records from 1838-1865 colonial-era-to-post-Civil-War church records.
Having all these records on one searchable website for a particular county makes it possible to trace enslaved individuals for decades into the past. Still, the difficulty of making that link to a post-Emancipation life, or from a post-Emancipation life to the wealth of slavery-era records, remains.
The Southern Claims Commission records can provide details that either identify or suggest this linkage to the past, but they require further research. Application for compensation required the claimant to submit to a lengthy interrogation about how they obtained the property claimed as confiscated, with details about the event when the property was taken, and multiple witnesses needed to corroborate the claim.
Formerly enslaved claimants and witnesses provided the names of their slaveowners, their ages at the time of the claim, details about their lives as enslaved people required to show how they obtained property, and other clues that additional research can build into a story of their lives. They also named other people who had witnessed the property being taken or who could testify about the claimant’s loyalty to the United States, which was a requirement for compensation.
Why was it mostly formerly enslaved individuals who made claims in Liberty County? Claimants had to prove their loyalty to the United States. This was obviously difficult for claimants who had served in the Confederate Army or had supported the Confederacy in any way. In contrast, formerly enslaved claimants were presumed to have opposed the Confederacy and hoped for the success of the Union cause.
Of course, one of the most important pieces of evidence from a Southern Claims Commission case file for a formerly enslaved claimant is the last slaveholder’s name, as this is the crucial link needed for finding antebellum records. Claimants were always asked for the name of their last slaveholder. (In Liberty County’s case, Georgia Southern University Associate Professor (retired) Dr. Peggy Hargis had already used these records to compile a list of the slaveowners of 270+ formerly enslaved claimants and witnesses, and permitted its use on the TheyHadNames.net website: https://theyhadnames.net/post-war-surnames/.
Last year I decided we would start to transcribe all the Liberty County Southern Claims Commission case files that are still legible, and I would research the claimant’s lives from 1865 on and try to make that linkage with the slavery-era records. We have posted 43 of the case files so far, most of them with research and an index to all the cases.
Fortunately, before starting this project, I had found the Research Like a Pro process. I worked through the 14-day free mini-challenge on Facebook, read the Research Like a Pro book, and have listened to all of Diana’s and Nicole’s podcasts. Their processes for creating timelines and county research guides, documenting all sources, and rigorously examining all the evidence have been a huge influence.
Pairing the genealogical clues within the case files with the Research Like a Pro method and using the TheyHadNames.net antebellum records and indexed and unindexed records FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com has yielded significant breakthroughs for Liberty County slavery research.
“I was for my freedom all the time, I did not care how it came. I prayed for it to come and waited for it a long time. It came and I am not tired of it and I don’t think I ever shall be.” –Jack Wilson, Southern Claims Commission testimony
Stacy Ashmore Cole is the creator of the TheyHadNames.net website. She is also president of the Coastal Georgia Genealogical Society and secretary of the Board of Governors of the Midway Museum in Liberty County.
Thanks, Stacy for sharing your work!
In Part 2 of this series, Stacy walks us through the process of researching the Southern Claims Commission Case Files and shares examples from her project.
Best of luck in your genealogical research!