Oh, America. The labor, sweat and blood that went into the infrastructure of this country, into its buildings and roads is a history, that for 400 years was presented as someone else’s. All of this effort, excellence, and memory can’t be crammed into the shortest month of the year– nor can it be recounted on one day.
Regardless, we need to honor those that came before us, and one way I can think of is to find those ancestors embedded in the shadows of a suppressed history. It takes time and work to find the details , but it’s so worth it.
As I write this on Juneteenth, I see it as a very different day this year because so many decided to stand over the last month, right after the lynching of George Floyd. His death was a catalyst, a wake up call for the complacency with an investment in death. On Black ProGen, we have talked about the crushing effects of structural racism on BIPOC families, which in turns shapes the documentation that we can access to research the lives of our ancestors.
I was honored to speak the names of Leoncia Lasalle, Dionicia Rodriguez Lasalle, Juan Tomas Gandulla and Tomas Gandulla yesterday on the Juneteenth Celebration held by Black ProGen Live with host Nicka Smith, True A. Lewis, Shelley Murphy, Andre Ferrell and James Morgan III, all bringing knowledge to a lively discussion on different dimensions of what gets folded into Juneteenth, the effort, the freedom and the struggle. It makes one pause how much sitting on knowledge played into this all, how much hiding of violence, how much denial, how much disregard was surmounted in pressing for equality.
Come with me as I go through various documents in search of information on ancestors of Mr. Orlando Williams– his paternal Great-Great Grandparents. Several details led to new information and complications while looking for ancestral paths across several states: South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
I began this part of my search for more information on Anderson Williams with the 1880 census. Williams was born about 1830 in South Carolina; however his wife, Nellie (Nelly) Jones Williams was in the household for a Caleb Williams, a white farmer with several workers housed at his home. Nellie Williams worked as a domestic servant in the household, just doors away from the home of her husband, Anderson Williams, who worked as a servant for Herbert Lee, his wife and sister in law Clorsey Williams, a black family.
Just a decade earlier in 1870, they lived in the same household with their recently born daughter, Henrietta Williams. By 1880, Henrietta is not at home, and whether she was still alive, living with kin or succumbed to childhood illness is unknown at present. The earliest records for him so far are the 1866 Colored Census, his 1867 voting record and the couple’s 1869 marriage record, both for Marengo County, Alabama.
Caleb Williams (b.1850): Who dat?
To find more on Caleb Williams I searched trees on ancestry.com and learned he was the son of Ashley and Elizabeth Williams; Ashley Williams was a planter born in Darlington, South Carolina. In the hopes of finding more about Anderson and Nellie Williams before 1866- when the first independent documentation of their lives as free people began, searching this family line made sense.
What one notes is the rapidity with which most of the information on the slave owner’s tree could be put together, unlike the families I’m researching. Instead, Anderson & Nelly William’s kin and community may be embedded in legal documents such as wills, inventories and writs of partition, and perhaps, newspaper advertisements, or other extant documents in courthouses or special collections.
There is no one path or one collection of documents that will answer all the questions, even the most basic. This is a process of constant cross referencing, and of developing a system to handle the archival items, be able to reference those resources. A spreadsheet becomes a key organizational tool, (especially if you use it).
Since this Caleb was too young to run his own farm in 1865, I began looking for his father’s estate papers in the Call County Courthouse in Marengo County, Alabama- these records were microfilmed on FamilySearch.org. I went through them, looking for Ashley Williams’ probate papers and inventories, however, these documents were elusive.
There were lots of delays in the process because of the Civil War- Ashley Williams served in the Confederacy and died in 1865. Whether he took one of the enslaved men as a servant in the field is unknown at this time. His wife, Elizabeth Davis Williams continued to shepherd the probate through the courts for years after the war, but the inventories that would list the people he enslaved seemed elusive with each postponement of the case .
At last, in Volume K, I found this entry dated 7 Nov 1867: on p 701, it reads: “This day RH Clarke Admin. filed inventory ordered same be reconsidered same be recorded” … But… the additional paperwork for this wasn’t present, and Emancipation was a couple of years earlier. Now what?
Strategies to go back to a different place & time
My next tactic, if those prior papers were no longer extant, was to go back a generation. Basically, find who Ashley Williams’ parents were, and then look for any probate papers for them. One possibility was that Anderson and Nellie may have been part of an estate subdivision by an inheritance from his father. Maybe they’d be mentioned somewhere in them.
This meant the search moved north from Demopolis, Jefferson, Marengo County, Alabama to the place where Ashley Williams was born, Darlington South Carolina. Both Anderson and Nellie Williams’s census records record SC (and later, incorrectly as NC) as their original place of birth, so fingers crossed.
So, I began to search for previous inventories and appraisals for enslaved people held by William Williams (1754 – 22 Mar 1829) & Selah Fort (b. 1761) of Darlington South Carolina in anticipation that some subdivision of his estate occurred after his death and that those documents are extant. This may help solve the origin of relatives who are descendants of the enslaved that were forcibly marched or transported from South Carolina to Alabama in the early nineteenth century. As the family lines for the descendants of the enslaved also extend to Jackson County, Florida, the hope is that more clusters of relatives can be connected.
Subdividing the Estate, Subdividing Families & Kin
Among the beneficiaries of the Williams estate would be his wife and children. William Williams & Selah Fort’s son Ashley C Williams (1816-1865) was their third and last child born in Darlington, SC. After 1848, Ashley Williams moved south to Marengo County, AL after the birth of his first child, Amanda Jane. In 1853 he was named Justice of the Peace for Marengo County, Alabama. He died in 1865 while serving in the Confederate troops, leaving his wife Elizabeth and 6 young children.
Another of William & Selah’s children, Catherine Harriett Williams (1787-1821) died in Montgomery AL on 21 July 1821. Their son, David Williams (1784-1850) died in Darlington on 30 Oct 1850.
By building out a basic tree for the enslavers, I could then follow the marriages to see how enslaved families were subdivided, and follow their path southwards. But it doesn’t happen on its own, just because of family ties. There are larger forces at work that enable the situation.
Underpinning this activity is national expansion and Native dispossession, as during the first decades of 1800s, the US government instituted a policy of forcible removal of Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw and their enslaved people out of the Alabama, Georgia and Florida territories, known as the Trail of Tears. Parcels were drawn up, the land subdivided and sold off. Like many families from the Middle Atlantic states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, members of the Williams family were early investors in the expansion of cotton plantations in the deep South, and arrived in Alabama in the early 1820s.
Darlington, South Carolina
I called the Call County Courthouse in Marengo, and they were surprised to learn of the films on FamilySearch. They mentioned a volume of inventories existed. From other Black ProGen members, I learned these films were not necessarily comprehensive. The clerk at the courthouse suggested I contact the Darlington County Historical & Genealogical Commission, as they had some of the older court papers there. This was a game changer.
There was indeed a packet of estate papers for William Williams, who died intestate. Ms. Anne Chapman, the Assistant Director searched and located the documents. What was interesting was the early subdivision of human and material property by Davis in-laws in the Equity Packets dated 1849. There are some 60 pages in two packets. About 4 pages includes the names of men, women and children apportioned to family members.
What I learned from one document was that the Andrew Davis of these pages with the recently widowed Martha Davis, were the parents of at least three Davis sisters– Elizabeth Davis Williams, wife of Ashley Williams being one of them. This family was not one researched broadly nor in any Ancestry trees, with Elizabeth’s 1829 birth date added without any parents listed. Also, a quick search reveals nothing about the family in local histories, making tracing them a bit more difficult. Just one probate document made these family relationships clear, showing just how important court documents can be for reconstructing family ties.
Enslavement as a Familial Affair: Understanding patterns of subdivision and generational trauma
One page I transcribed listed several people, and included was a Writ of Partition dated 13 July 1860 that names Elizabeth Davis Williams’ two sisters, Martha Davis Dalrymple and Susana Davis. There was also a separate page for “An Inventory and Appraisement of the Goods & Chattel” belonging to the Estate of Andrew Davis, dated 4 Nov 1845.
These documents show that slavery was very much a family affair, a familial process along which one family gains income from the lives of people deemed other. The valuation of the enslaved is coolly noted, and provides a trail to follow for where they wound up next.
Although you can read this document, it will not tell you of the emotional weight and profound stress of an impending split brought on by a Writ of Partition that subdivides family into Lots. There’s a contrast between the economic abstraction and what Daina Ramey Berry called ‘soul value’ that enslaved people held onto despite the dehumanizing conditions. For the sales, Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life in the Antebellum Slave Market offers a glimpse into the process of selling the enslaved at auctions.
These two Davis inventories were recorded over several years– the first taken in November 1845, the second in January 1860- fifteen years apart. It provides some key information- ages that will help in searching for them. While Anderson and Nelly do not appear here, there are the names of people who lived with Elizabeth Davis’ mother and sister. It will take time, and I’ll continue posting transcriptions as I wend my way through the documentation.
These weren’t the only persons involved. On p.42 of the Will Book vol 8-10 on Ancestry’s South Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1670-1980 [database on-line] , for Andrew Davis’s estate in 1848, an order for the sale of Ned, household property, animals and crop was set for that December. Ned appears first on the list for the Writ of Partition of 1845, and next the offer of sale. What happened to Ned after December 1848?
I’m still in the process of piecing together the remainder of documents that overlap, some from the Darlington County Historical and Genealogical Commission, others from the Will Books on FamilySearch and Ancestry. While I didn’t find Anderson or Nellie Williams, what was gained is a better sense of the community of people split asunder by what we can read today as another family’s sense of white privilege, economic gain and a fundamental blindness to equality.
I’m dealing with mysteries, and wondering about what happened to make households suddenly recombine with three generations under one roof. Some of Mr. Williams’ ancestors that I’m researching are on his paternal line, three generations of Williams, beginning with Anderson Williams (1830) and Nellie Jones (1845), his son, Wyatt Williams (1857-1924) his wife, Easter Roden Williams (1858-1925), and their son, Fletcher Williams (1880-1940) and his wife, Mamie Averett Williams (1884).
Each generation has its own problems of documentation, yet the households continue despite events that precipitate their splitting and reconstitution. I may never find out, but that’s ok. I’m mapping it out because it can shed light on the family clusters that come up in DNA matches and break down some of the brick walls while moving towards pre-1870 records. This gathering of additional records adds context and visibility for family histories over time.
Fletcher Williams & Mamie Averett Williams
Documents i’ve got so far:
AL marriage certificate & databases
2- 1918 Draft Records for 2 different Fletcher Williams
AL Death record for Fletcher Williams
One might think that since Fletcher Williams was born 50 years sooner than his grandfather in 1880, he would be easier to trace through the census. But.. the problem is finding him before the 1910 US Federal Census for Jefferson County, Alabama. One thing this census reveals is that both Fletcher and Mamie Williams were on their second marriage, but i’m getting ahead of myself.
Born in Marengo, Jefferson County, Alabama, Fletcher Williams (1880-1940) crossed state boundaries several times over the course of his lifetime, moving from Alabama to Georgia and back again. After 1900, he lived in the small rural area of Jernigan, Russell County, Alabama, and on 13 March 1910, he married Mamie Averett (b. 1884) in McLendon, Russell County, Alabama. The census notes the recent marriage as: 1/12 months.
He’s 25, she’s 23 and there is no one else in the household– yet this is the second marriage for both and neither had children. No earlier marriage record turns up for either person. He’s listed as Black and she Mulatto on the census, which may just mean Mamie was lighter than Fletcher, and both got plenty of sun as farm laborers working Alabama’s Black Belt during a time of Jim Crow.
Working forward to 1917-1918, I found no record for this Fletcher Williams, possibly because he had a family by then. Looking up the relatives listed on the two 1918 draft cards showed that while they were born very close in time, they weren’t the same person.
Next Steps… a challenge and more questions
The next challenge was simple, to see if I could find Fletcher Williams, about age 15 on the 1900 census. This would take the family back another generation, and build out a timeline that pushes back to another state. His parents are living further west, in Forkland, Greene County, Alabama.
Fletcher Williams appears on the 1900 census, but not in Alabama — instead he’s in Georgia, in the household of Robert & Dinah Sipp as one of four Williams stepchildren. But look at the map above– these families lived near the border between Alabama and Georgia, facilitating their move across state lines.
The name of the oldest stepdaughter is transcribed ‘Exie’ Williams, age 30 living in the next house. Enumerators leave us so many ‘surprising’ examples of handwriting. I have yet to find more on her, and wonder what other first names – Susie, perhaps?- this could be.
This leaves us with the following question: Why did Robert Sipp take in four stepchildren by 1900? What is his relationship to them? In my next post i’ll try to find answers to those questions and to… Who was Dinah Sipp?
Hey- It’s been awhile! The last three months have been full, juggling health, writing & researching several projects. Most recently, we had a great discussion on BPG’s Ep. 106: History Unscripted: Perception is Everything with Regina Jackson, thanks to hosts Nicka Smith and True Lewis, Dr Shelley Murphy & myself. The focus is on perception via three different news articles: image as representative of community, versus image as threat across different contexts- a photo project in a Southern town, the brouhaha over the recent novel, American Dirt and the definition of civil rights activists as the problem by government agencies that should be protecting them.
Check out Ep 106 here:
Regina Johnson, presently Chair of the Oakland Police Commission, talked about ongoing changes in Oakland, California (my former hometown) and her efforts in providing services for Black youth in the face of reduced services and the pressures of gentrification. Working with youth is a context that can open possibilities and facilitate resilience in the face of difficulty, so important for getting through life. History Unscripted aims to spark thought about further dialogues and point to next steps toward change that one can take, so check out past and upcoming episodes!
Another BPG activity is #CREWChat on Twitter- a fun way to share genealogícal tips on a range of films. This month was Glory (1989), on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of the USCT, in conjunction with the African American Civil War Museum. Coming next: Imitation of Life (1959) on March 18th, 9PM EST, join in!
I’m working on a series of short blog posts, to help Mr. Orlando Williams find family in time for his Family Reunion coming up in June. Tree Climbing With Mr Williams may help you get through some brick walls and find a connection! I’ll be talking about some of the recent finds that lead to several states: AL, GA, FL, SC & NC. There is so much history in this tree! I’ll be posting soon.
Finally… I’ve submitted my article, “Reconstructing District 3’s Missing 1872 Registro Central de Esclavos for Northwest Puerto Rico” to Hereditas: Revista de Genealogia Puertorriquena, and had the pleasure of working with Ernie Rivera and Eliud Nieves on their great grandmothers who were enslaved on the plantation of Juan Labadie and its previous owner, Pedro Pellot, in Moca, Puerto Rico. Their cedulas are among those I transcribed and sought to provide context for. Pellot (hispanicized from Peugeot) was among a cluster of emigres from the Pyrenees region- from both the French and Spanish sides of this mountain range— who eventually wound up in Puerto Rico. The article will be out in the next issue ofHereditas, complete with a transcription of the cedulas for 492 enslaved ancestors taken in 1870.
Like I said, busy! Feel free to reach out and comment if you find a connection on these pages!