In Part 1 of this series, we learned how two volunteers are making a difference for anyone researching their African American ancestors in Liberty County, Georgia. Together they have documented almost 30,000 names of enslaved people using all available records. By transcribing the Southern Claims Commission Case (SCC) files, additional connections are coming to light.
In part 2 of this series, Stacy Cole shares her methodology for researching the SCC records and provides examples for us to learn from. – 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.
How To Research Southern Claims Commission Case Files
Each Southern Claims Commission case file contains all the documents accumulated for a particular claimant, often over a period of years. (Some folders are incomplete, unfortunately). There may be:
– an initial application
– a petition to have testimony heard, filed by a lawyer
– the testimony of the claimant and witnesses
– results of a Special Agent’s investigation (if any)
– the Commission’s reasoning behind its approval or rejection of the petition
– any correspondence related to the case (such as with the lawyer)
– paperwork related to the award of money if the claim was approved.
Read the file carefully and record each step’s dates in the process in your timeline for the claimant (or witness) you are researching. In Liberty County, many claims were initially filed in 1872 but were abandoned and picked up by another lawyer, and thus the testimony did not take place until 1877. Noting these dates tells you that your research subject was still alive at those times. If your research subject testified in 1872, memory of events might be much fresher than if he or she testified in 1877.
It cannot be emphasized enough that you must read the testimony with the Commission’s standardized questions in front of you. Many of the questions comprise several sub-questions. If the person writing the answers down did not use punctuation, it is easy to misunderstand the answer if you do not know the questions.
Fortunately, the St. Louis County Library has digitized the questionnaires, which can be downloaded as PDFs, and also has produced an excellent guide to using the claims. There were three authorized versions of the “interrogatories,” as they were called: an initial version in 1871, an amended version in 1872, and the final 1874 version. The question numbers varied between the three sets, so you can match the correct set of interrogatories to your case file by noting both the testimony’s date and the question numbers in the file. Sometimes a printed sheet with the questions is included in the digitized case file; often, it is not.
While the testimony of the claimant and the witnesses is the most important part of the claim for genealogical research, of course, the remarks by the Commissioners detailing the reasoning they used to approve or deny the claim can be extremely useful. However, they can also be very hurtful to a claimant’s descendants.
Remember that these Commissioners were based in Washington, D.C. They did not know the claimant and relied only on the testimony and any Special Agent report provided…and on their own biases and preconceptions (and misconceptions) about enslaved people and their lives. They gave great weight to any white person’s testimony – though they were certainly capable of applying a critical eye to this testimony as well – and would often reduce the amount awarded if a white person said the values listed in the initial application by the claimant were too high. It is important to do your own research and not rely on these long-dead, flawed human beings’ judgments.
Questions to ask yourself while reading the testimony of formerly enslaved people (with the questionnaires in front of you):
Where was the claimant living?
The initial application will likely record where the claimant was living at the time of the application and where they were living when the property was taken. In the Liberty County claims, this is often a plantation name that can be researched. The following claim of Primus LeConte, Liberty County, Georgia, notes he resides at Sifax, a farm that was previously owned by Joseph LeConte. This application shows that Primus LeConte was still living in 1877 on the land where he had been enslaved.Is the surname of the formerly enslaved claimant the same as the surname of the slaveowner named in the claim?
It was common in Liberty County for enslaved people to take the surname of an early slaveholder of their family at Emancipation, not the most recent slaveholder. Pulaski Carter’s SCC testimony said that his slaveholder was Alex Quarterman. Obviously, it would have been difficult to link Carter to the Quarterman plantation without that testimony since he did not take the Quarterman surname.
But why did he adopt the surname Carter? An examination of the records compiled on TheyHadNames.net revealed the following:
– Pulaski had been sold to Quarterman’s father by Sarah Amanda Mara in 1840.
-Sara had inherited Pulaski and an enslaved woman named Lilly, probably Pulaski’s mother, from Sara’s father, Morgan Mara.
-Morgan had inherited Pulaski and Lilly from a Liberty County tailor named Lewis McTair in 1819.
In his will, McTair mentioned his friend Hepworth Carter, who had gotten into financial difficulties in 1791 and had had property, including enslaved people, seized by the sheriff for a forced sale, and whose 1812 Will directed that his remaining enslaved people, except for a few mentioned by name, be sold and the proceeds divided among his children. It appears very likely that Pulaski’s mother and perhaps Pulaski himself had belonged to Carter.
Who were the witnesses to the signing of the initial application?
The initial application was often signed by witnesses, particularly if the claimant was illiterate. In Liberty County, these witnesses were not family members or friends of the claimant but usually were connected in some way to the lawyer. Paying attention to this can lead to interesting stories. In Liberty County, for example, I learned that my (white) 2nd great-grandfather and his nephew were working with the activist African American clergyman who acted as the lawyer to file the initial applications.
The witnesses for Primus LeConte’s signature on his Southern Claims Commission application in 1872 were my 2nd great-grandfather, Joseph Ashmore, and his nephew, James S. Ashmore. Above the signatures can be seen the name of the claimant’s lawyer, James M. Simms of Savannah, Georgia. Joseph Ashmore was a Liberty County Justice of the Peace at the time (and later the county probate judge). Joseph and his nephew’s signatures are on every application submitted by James Simms, a prominent African American clergyman and activist in Savannah. All those applications were dated on the same day, a story I am still investigating.
Why did the claimant choose the particular witnesses who gave testimony to their loyalty or ownership of the property?
In some cases, I have found that even though the witnesses testify that they are not related to the claimant, they mean by blood, and research shows that they are a brother-in-law or other by-marriage relationship. Of course, they were also normally enslaved on the same place because they were testifying either that they knew the claimant was loyal to the United States or witnessed the property being taken (or both).
“When I first heard of the war I was on the Yankee side…I was on the side of course the side of the United States there was no other way for me.” – David Stevens, Southern Claims Commission testimony
For example, Albert Wilson testified on behalf of David Stevens, who was in his 40s at Emancipation and had been the enslaved foreman for Captain Abial Winn’s Liberty County plantation. In the 1870 U.S. federal census, Stevens and his wife Peggy had no children in the household, but they were listed near Albert Wilson…and his wife Abby, presumably Stevens’ daughter. In the 1880 U.S. federal census, Stevens and his wife Peggy had in their household grandson Charles Wilson.Albert Wilson testified that he was David Stevens’ son-in-law during Stevens’ Southern Claims Commission petition, revealing that Stevens and his wife Peggy had a daughter who, according to the 1870 census, was named Abby.
Did a witness testify in more than one claim?
In looking at the Liberty County claims as a group, I found that some people testified in multiple claims. Ancestry has indexed both the claimants and the witnesses’ names, so it is worth researching the witnesses in Ancestry to see if they testified in other claims that might shed light on your research subject.
Is the list of witnesses who actually testified the same as the list of those the claimant filed with the initial application?
The initial application will have the names of the witnesses the claimant expects to call. The later application to have testimony taken will also have witness names. Are they the same names? If they are not, this may be an indication that someone has died in the meantime if the two applications are some years apart.
Is the lawyer’s name in the initial application the same as in the application to have testimony taken?
If not, there may be a story there. Also, in Liberty County, it was the same handful of lawyers involved in all the cases. In small districts, there will usually be a reason a particular lawyer got involved with these cases. What was it?
In Liberty County, attorney Raymond Cay Jr, son of a prominent Liberty County land- and slaveowner, handled many of the claims made by formerly enslaved people. The Southern Claims Commission later barred Cay from receiving awards on behalf of claimants because a sympathetic white local clergyman, J.T.H. Waite, wrote the Commission to report that Cay was charging the desperately poor claimants exorbitant fees that ate up most of their small awards. This letter was found in one of the case files and was referred to in others, another important reason to read multiple case files in the same county.
In reading the testimonies, imagine the act of taking the testimony as being like a scene in a play. The claimant was not alone in a room giving his or her answers. Instead, the Special Commissioner was there asking the questions. There may have been a separate person recording the answer. The claimant’s attorney was present and sometimes asked clarifying questions. Who were these people? Did the claimant know them? Were they people whose social status, or status as former slaveowners or court officials, may have intimidated the claimant and/or the witnesses and affected the answers? Research of these individuals may be needed to understand the testimony fully.
In Georgia, the first Special Commissioner appointed by the Southern Claims Commission to hear testimony, Virgil Hillyer, was a northerner who had moved to Georgia and become a state legislator. After he lost his seat, he became the SCC Special Commissioner. He was sympathetic to the formerly enslaved people’s plight, and the testimonies he took reflect this. The second Special Commissioner, Henry Way, was a former Liberty County slaveowner and a prominent judge. The testimonies he took reveal a different sensibility.
Are people mentioned other than the claimant and witnesses?
It is worth reading through the claims for a particular county to see if your ancestor might have been mentioned. Witnesses were asked if anyone else could testify as to the claimant’s loyalty to the United States and/or to the taking of the property.Does the testimony in the case file sound natural?
In Liberty County, there were two Special Commissioners at different times. The testimonies produced by the first one, Virgil Hillyer, flow naturally and “sound” the way a person would speak, with rich, genealogically valuable details. The ones produced by the second Commissioner, Henry Way, were terse, very abbreviated, and all sounded suspiciously similar. It is worth reading through the other case files for the county your research subject lived in before drawing any conclusions about your subject from the way the testimony reads. Remember that the answers to the questions were summarized, not recorded verbatim, and may not reflect how your subject actually spoke. The person writing down the answers also may not have bothered with punctuation. Imagine the sentence with different (or any) punctuation.In this testimony from Isaac Jenkins’ Southern Claims Commission petition, Liberty County, taken by Special Commissioner Virgil Hillyer, note the natural-sounding tone, which may actually have reflected the way Jenkins spoke
In contrast, here is testimony from Mingo Quarterman’s Southern Claims Commission petition, Liberty County, taken by Special Commissioner Henry Way. Note both the terse answers and lack of punctuation. Responses to multiple questions are run together. The answers could easily be misinterpreted if you do not read the questions carefully and try to separate out the answer to each one.The Southern Claims Commission case files can be a remarkable gift for genealogists and family historians. Still, to avoid misinterpretation, it is important to view them within the context of a particular place and time and thoroughly research all the details of the file. Reading other case files within the same county will often be illuminating. Remember that your research subject may have been mentioned in any of the files.
Thanks, Stacy, for this in-depth look at this important set of records! – Diana
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.