Gaining Freedom: gleaning narratives from Caja 1444, Moca, Puerto Rico, 1848-1854

Map of Moca, Puerto Rico, Google.com

Cartas de emancipación: Letters of Freedom

As three historians of Cuban slavery recently wrote,”Los notarios eran parte de este sistema de “escribir la esclavitud.” — Notaries were part of this system of “writing enslavement”, literally creating the legal structures through documents that recorded and controlled the lives and movements of over 51,000 enslaved POC by 1846. In this way, the documents further defined citizenship within a slave holding society.[1] What I thread together here is the history of several people held in bondage, the predicament of pursuing freedom, its purchase and my own project of transcribing parts of a missing volume these certificates were entered into. At the end of this article is a translated list of names of those enslaved ancestors who gained freedom from one transcribed box of notarial documents.

The run of notarial documents in Caja 1444 show that between January 1848 and the end of January 1852, the elites of Moca freed, sold and bought enslaved people.[2] Some distinctions made between those who were servants versus those who were laborers, but when a Carta de emancipación (Letter of Freedom) was issued, the bearer had proof of freedom that hopefully, led to self determination.

Several things become clear in this particular collection of notary documents, only 19 slaveholders liberated their human property, while 61 slave holding inhabitants continued to participate in selling them.  Despite any bonds of blood or call to family that might exist, the exchange of money was paramount. The odds of gaining freedom in mid-nineteenth century Puerto Rico were indeed challenging.

Plaza, Barrio Pueblo, Moca, 1914. Photo by Benito Rosa Quinones, 1914. From Historia de Moca, (1972). Image sepia toned by EFS.

The plaza at the center of Barrio Pueblo was used for drying coffee, and this 1914 image is telling of Moca’s deeply agricultural context.  This town center was the neighborhood where many who gained their freedom moved to in search of employment. At this time, just 41 years after the end of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1871, a significant number of people from elders to adults had some experience with enslavement.  I met their descendants in 2000s, and if we speak of context, there is not a single family member untouched by slavery.

Those Who Were Freed

Eight of those freed were male and eleven were female, the youngest being Ramona, 7 months old, and the oldest, Marcos, 70, born in Santo Domingo about 1781. He may have witnessed the events of the Haitian Revolution prior to reaching Puerto Rico; Ramona, if she survived, may have witnessed the string of uprisings that went across Northwest Puerto Rico with the Grito de Lares in 1868,  and perhaps actively participated in the struggle for equality that continued for decades.

Some may still carry their memories, so there may be oral histories that tell of their lives. At the very least, their traces in the historical record speak to the constraints they had to live under, and hope for a better life after emancipation despite a spectrum of challenges.

The Emancipation of Mauricio and Ramona

Among those who gained their freedom were children, among them Mauricio 1 1/2 whose mother Monserrate paid for his letter of emancipation; 7 month old Ramona was purchased by Maria Encarnacion from d. Alberto Soto. In 1848, Maria Candelaria paid her slaveowner d. Cristobal Benejan for her own freedom, and in 1850, was able to buy that of her two-year-old daughter Maria, who was born on Benejan’s property and was raised by Paula, another enslaved woman who worked there. As of 1849, “…colonial authorities permitted interested parties to purchase the freedom of infant slaves at the time of baptism, for the sum of twenty-five pesos. The infant however, remained with the master who owned his/her mother until he/she reached adulthood.” [3]  So far, there is no indication that freedom was Benejan’s intention.

One wonders what might have transpired within those two years, and how these free women worked to support their families. They became part of the free community that moved away from the rural agricultural areas to Barrio Pueblo. Here they worked providing services such as cooking, laundering, childcare, dressmaking and lacemaking among others, that continues into the present. Benejan descendants still live near the Plaza in Barrio Pueblo, Moca today.

In a transcription project on the 1870 Registro de Esclavos I’m working on, Cristobal Benejan y Suria was among the largest slave holders in Moca, with 54 persons. At this point in 1870, another three years of labor was required prior to emancipation.

Note this was 36 months of uncompensated labor, caught up in expectations of gratitude toward former owners on the part of the freed. Historian lleana Rodriguez-Silva wrote that “Political practices such as gratitude highlight the liberal features of benevolence and paternalism and undermine efforts to critique the structures of power, especially through critiques of racialized domination.” [4]  So, the histories of abolition in the Caribbean were revised and rewritten to celebrate rather than expose how power functioned in the lives of POC.

3556 Paula, hija de Juana, 29, “propiedad de Cristobal Benejans y Suria” 1 Mar 1870. Moca, Aguadilla District, AGPR Gobernadores Espanoles. Caja 4, FHC Film 1511797.

Among the certificates of those owned by Benejan in the Registro, Paula’s name appears as the mother of Loreto, 11 (b.1859), and Calista, 1 (b.1869). There is a certificate for Paula, 29 (b. 1849) daughter of Juana, born the same year Maria Candelaria gained her freedom. What happened to the Paula that cared for Maria Candelaria’s daughter Maria? Was Paula freed in the two decades after she was entrusted with the care of Maria? Did she pass away before 1870? I’m left with more questions than I can answer.

Looking at my own tree, I have distant connections to the Benejam via marriage to another slaveholding family, the Lorenzo de Acevedo. Even one of my recent atDNA matches points to this connection on FTDNA, and there are likely more 4-5th cousins out there, like myself, with genetic ties to both slaveowner and those they enslaved.

The Benejam originate in Menorca, among the smaller of the Baleáricos Islands. They arrived in Puerto Rico during the 18th century, and became an important family in Moca, owning land and people that they freed after 1870.  Cristobal Benejam purchased Juan from the parish priest Pbo.Jose Balbino David, who functioned as a local small slave dealer during the 1850s, buying and selling people to various individuals.[5]

Living Transactions: currency & human devaluation

Silver macuquinas. Image: Monedas macuquinas de plata. By NachoNumis – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3052173

 

During the nineteenth century, the  Puerto Rican economy struggled with a mistrust of paper currency, rudimentary banking practices and a lack of coinage. What was used were pesos macuquinos (‘Cob coin’), a silver coinage removed from circulation in Venezuela, and instead, was in circulation on the island for nearly a half century, without a real banking system. This meant real money was scarce. [6] Within this plantation economy, enslaved people were sold and the income from their sale was used by slaveholders to pay their own taxes and bills. The scant availability of cash on the island suggests the enormous difficulty of the situation that the enslaved faced in raising funds to purchase their own freedom, and the deep anxiety over maintaining family with the threat of sale and displacement constantly looming. Regardless, many continued their attempts and strategies to push for freedom.

Among the slave owners were Gonzalez, Perez del Rio, Benejan, Soto, Lopez, Vasquez, Salas, Suarez Otero, and de la Cruz; some entries give information on previous owners, and together with other notarial entries, one can glean details on the places those held in slavery by them lived and worked. The location of origin for most of the persons listed below was Puerto Rico, although some came from Costa Firme, Venezuela, the Dutch Caribbean islands, and Santo Domingo. The official inscribing the documents into the books was the mayor or Alcalde ordinario d.Casimiro Gutierrez de Canedo, as there was no official royal notary in Moca to record these acts between 1848 and 1852.

Gaining Freedom

Almost all the persons listed paid for their freedom, with five cases granting unconditional freedom with no money involved. Aside from these cases, 32 pesos was the lowest price and 300 pesos the highest. The total amount spent by the enslaved for their freedom was 1,947 pesos macuquinos. Depending on the calculation, this may be equivalent to just over $10,600 US according to the Consumer Price index or $10,900 US in relative wages in today’s money. [7]

Given the scarcity of cash at the time, it is an astounding figure that illustrates the extractive nature of slavery that POC were forced to navigate in mid-nineenth century NW Puerto Rico.

Letters of Freedom, Moca, Puerto Rico, 1848-1852

20 Jan 1848: Pedro Gonzalez, 28, criollo (born in Puerto Rico), single, bought his freedom for 32 pesos from d. Faustino Perez del Rio. F1

24 Jan 1848: Eugenio, 26, criollo (born in Puerto Rico), single, bought his freedom for 250 pesos silver from d. Maximo Gonzalez. F2

8 Feb 1848: Mauricio, 1 1/2, freedom bought by his mother Monserrate for 25 pesos from d. Juan Jimenez. F5v

8 Jun 1848: Candelaria, bought her freedom for 68 pesos from d. Cristobal Benejans. F17v-18

24 Jul 1848: Ramona, 7 mo., mother Maria Encarnacion bought her freedom for 37 pesos from d. Alberto de Soto. F48v

24 Jul 1848: Tomasa, 35, criolla (born in Puerto Rico), mulata, servant her freedom purchased for 300 pesos  from d. Felix Lopez and his wife Petrona Vega. Tomasa was “born in the home of another of their slaves named Paula.” F23-23v

24 Jan 1850: Maria Ylaria o Isidora 2, born on his property, mother Maria Candelaria bought freedom for 70 pesos from d. Cristobal Benejam. F25v-26.

8 May 1850: Felix, 60,  ‘natural de la isla’ (born in Puerto Rico) light mulato, for good services, granted freedom from d. Manuel Salas’ (-1850) will.  F48v

8 Aug 1850: Lorenzo, who resides in Moca bought freedom for 300 silver pesos from Jose de la Cruz of Lares, who bought him from Juan, Antonio y Francisco de la Cruz. F100-100v

15 Oct 1850: Maria de los Angeles, 26, servant, bought her freedom for 300 pesos from d. Maximo Gonzalez. F128-129

22 Nov 1850: Maria de la Encarnacion, servant, bought her freedom for 100 pesos maququinos from d. Alberto de Soto. F151

9 Apr 1851: Marcos, 70, born Santo Domingo, dark skinned, bought his freedom for 60 pesos from d. Francisco Roman. F52v-53

16 Aug 1851: Matias, 60, Dutch, tall, chocolate color, graying hair, regular front with honey colored eyes, thick nose, large mouth, bushy eyebrows, to be granted freedom for his service, obedience, respect and honor upon the death of da. Rosalia Perez. F170v-171

16 Aug 1851: Prudencio, 8, reddish color, passing hair, regular appearance, honey colored eyes, wide nose, small mouth to be granted freedom upon of da. Rosalia Perez. F171-171v

16 Aug 1851: Catalina, 40, single, reddish black color, passing hair, sad eyes, thick, wide nose wide mouth and bushy eyebrows, for good conduct from the first day, with honesty   and activity proper to a slave to her masters to be freed upon the death of da. Rosalia Perez. F171v-172

29 Aug 1851: Teresa, 56, single, mulato, to compensate for her distinguished services with real love and constancy to be granted her freedom by d. Manuel Morales. His son d. Enrique Morales signed as his father did not know how to write. F176v-177

27 Oct 1851: Pedro Pablo, 30, born in Puerto Rico, single, mulato, reddish hair, regular appearance, regular nose, brown eyes, regular mouth and scant beard, purchases his freedom for 200 pesos maququinos from from d. Pedro Vargas. F227-227v

23 Dec 1851: Encarnacion, 40, born Costa Firme, Venezuela, given freedom for her good service via the will of d. Vasquez, via son d. Leonardo Vasquez. F304v

24 Jan 1852: Maria de la Cruz, 14 criolla (born in Puerto Rico), single, light mulato, household servant, straight hair, small round face , black eyes, properly placed nose, regular mouth, freedom purchased by her father Pedro Cordero for 205 pesos maququinos from d. Jose Suarez Otero, deceased, via da. Teresa Cordero, his widow. F20-20v

References

[1] Michael Zeuske with Orlando García Martínez & Rebecca J. Scott. “Estado, notarios y esclavos en Cuba. Aspectos de una genealogía legal de la ciudadania en sociedades esclavistas.”  Cuba. De esclavos, ex-esclavas, cimarrones, mambises y negreros. 102-165; Table 7.2 Population Increases by Race, in Olga Wagenheim’s Puerto Rico: An Interpretive History, p. 151 for 1846 lists a total population of 443,139; 216,083 White; 175,791 Free People of Color, and Slave at 51,265. By 1869, this number drops by -12,196 to 39,069 persons. Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim, Puerto Rico: An Interpretive History, from Pre-Columbian Times to 1900. NY: Marcus Weiner Publishers, 1998.

[2] Cartas de emancipación de esclavos compiled from Carlos Encarnacion Navarro, Transcription, Caja 1444, Serie Aguadilla, Pueblo Moca, 20 Jan 1848-31 Jan 1852, Fondo de Protocolos Notariales, Archivo General de Puerto Rico.  Translations and extracts are my own.

[3] Antonio Nieves Mendez,  Historia de un pueblo Moca, 1772-2000. Lulu.com 2008, p.146. Ref. Caja 1444, f4.

[4] “The politics of gratitude refers to the dynamics through which many came to see abolition as an effort to modernize the island, an endeavor for which everyone should be morally indebted to abolitionists and their successors. The politics of gratitude thus provided the structures through which liberal reformists could preserve a racialized and patriarchal social order in the absence of slavery. In the process, liberals also constituted themselves as the only inter- mediaries between popular subjects and the imperial state.”  lleana M. Rodriguez-Silva, “Abolition, Race, and the Politics of Gratitude in Late Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico.”  Hispanic American Historical Review 93:4  621-657. doi 10.1215/00182168-2351656

[5] “3556. Paula, 29, hija de Juana.” 1 Mar 1870. Registro de Esclavos,  Moca, Dist. Aguadilla, Caja 4, FHC Film 1511797.

[6] Pedro Damian Cano Borrego, “La moneda macuquina Venezolana y su circulación en Puerto Rico.” Numismatico Digital, Marzo 2017, Edition 114, 27 agosto 2017,  http://www.numismaticodigital.com/imprimir-noticia.asp?noti=6383 . Accessed 27 Aug 2017.

[7] It seems the varying prices listed estimate both value as property and potential labor value, will be looking into this further. Values from two sites, Measuring Worth, https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/spaincompare/relativevalue.ph and Currency converter Euro to US Dollarhttps://coinmill.com/EUR_USD.html#EUR=8991

African Ancestors in Moca, Puerto Rico, 1852-1859

Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Monserrate, Barrio Pueblo, Moca, Puerto Rico Photo: EFS

Context of a transcription: African Ancestors in the first book of deaths

Back in 2006, I was researching mundillo (lacemaking) in Moca, and at the same time, learning more about a shared family history that ultimately led me to explore enslaved ancestors, African and Indigenous ancestors. Their strength and perseverance in the face of difficult situations inspires.  We can recognize as Daina Ramey Berry so eloquently writes in  The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017), their soul value, that goes beyond the missing surnames and identities that enslavement sought to steal away.

That September, I was able to transcribe some church entries for a small group of cousins and myself which coalesced into Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos. Sociedad Ancestros Mocanoswhich I established on Yahoo! Groups, was where we asked each other questions and shared research findings and transcriptions. This process goes much faster today.

Initially, the census records and civil registration on microfilm were available at the local Family History Center, and we began to piece together trees that overlapped, merged and diverged across NW Puerto Rico and beyond.  However, records from Moca such as the Libros de Bautismos, Defunciones y Matrimonios, like some parishes on the island, were not part of the LDS’ microfilm project of the 1980s-1990s. Because of that, any transcriptions obtained during trips were particularly of interest, and often held clues for moving another generation back in time. One of the things that we began to notice were the interconnections our families had, the oral histories, the fact of how an economy based on sugar also tied us to Africa, to the earlier history of colonization and Indian slavery, interrupted by myriad degrees of freedom both before and after slavery ended.

In Moca, I was fortunate to stay within the Pueblo, just blocks away from the building that dominates the center of town, Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Monserrate, built in 1853. The church had volumes of parish records in a small office building at the rear of the church, built atop a hillock at the center of Barrio Pueblo, occupying one side of the rectangular plaza.

Between 1 and 4 in the afternoon the office was open, and I brought my letter of approval from the Arzobispado de Mayaguez granting me permission to consult the volumes for genealogical research. I requested the first volume of Defunciones that begins in November 1852 and took the oversized book to a pupils seat, balanced it on the tiny desk and began to copy.

Time was short, and I rapidly transcribed entries from surnames familiar from my research and shared with members of SAMocanos. I also noticed names of the enslaved among my entries and included them on my list, hoping to find connections later on. Now with DNA there is more chance to link to these ancestors, and hopefully, break down some brick walls.

A brief list of deaths, 1852-1859:  Say Their Names

What follows are records for twelve people who were enslaved and who died between 1852-1859. Also listed are the names of an additional six persons who were their parents, along with several slaveholders. These bits of secondary evidence, based on original records remain precious over time, as they both tie us to the place and to the ancestors in them.  In some cases they are the only record available, some not digitized even into the present, so that the reliance on a transcription becomes almost a point of faith, yet can contain errors. In some cases, a transcription is often all that remains, and questions about who and what was in the original record are moot when these are no longer extant.

Among the names are Maria de las Nieves and Juana, who both survived the Middle Passage only to die age 48 and 53 during years of epidemics that took many lives. However, the parish record does not say why they passed.  There may be accounts elsewhere listing those taken by epidemics. Also in the records is Juana Cristiana, a two year old child who was enslaved, as was her mother, and parish records reveal her parents married in the Catholic church. This did not change the fact they were in bondage, subject to sale or if they were able, to self purchase and thereby gain freedom before 1873. A very real fear was being sold or taken to another plantation in Cuba, where the scale of enslavement and sugar processing was ten times that of Puerto Rico, and slavery did not end until 1886.

Beyond those named, i’ve compiled a list of the parents mentioned largely  mothers, whose names may appear in other additional documentary sources, such as notarial documents or for instance, be mentioned in the 1849 Censo de Altas y Bajas for Moca (in Hereditas and on the PReb.com site), or perhaps in other SPG publications, the 1830 Censo de Isabela or 1874 Censo de Lares among others. Another short list below is for the slaveholders, under whose names the information on those listed, was entered into parish and municipal documents.

After freedom, surnames can follow those of the initial slaveholder, or take on different surnames as relationships change or are revealed upon death or marriage.  Please feel free to contact me should you find a connection.

The List of Ancestors

Parents listed in Acta:
Luisa
Justa
Rufina
Eustaquio Arze y de Ma. Ynocencia
Agustina
Slaveholders: 
D. Cristobal Benejan
D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo
Jose Ramon Acevedo
D. Marcellino Lasalle
Maria Lopez
D. Juan Pellot
D. Esteban Soto Nieves
 —
These are my extractions from Libro 1 & 2 Defunciones, translated, formatted with estimated year of birth added.
 —
f.1v Antonio E. , 35, 16 Nov 1852; single
Slaveholder: D. Cristobal Benejan
f.1v Antonio E. 35, 16 Nov 1852; soltero; esclavo de D. Cristobal Benellan.
f.3 Benito, 70, 26 Nov 1852; born in Africa ca 1782
Slaveholder: Maria Lopez
f.3 Benito, 70, 26 Nov 1852; esclavo de d. Maria Lopez; natural de Africa. 
f.17v Maria de las Nieves, 53, 18 Jan 1853; born in Africa, ca 1800
Slaveholder: D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo
f.17v Maria de las Nieves, 53, 18 Jan 1853; Natural de Africa, esclava de D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo.
f. 53. Juan de los Santos, 18, 29 May 1854; son of Luisa, ca 1836
Slaveholder:D. Marcellino Lasalle
f. 53. Juan de los Santos, 18, 29 May 1854; h natural de Luisa esclava de D. Marcellino Lasalle.
f.54 Justa, 16 Aug 1854; natural child of Justa
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.54 Justa, 16 Aug 1854; h natural de Justa, esclava de D. Juan Pello.
 —
f.124-124v “To be given a pair of oxen and a divided area for cultivation for his slaves Gabriel and Juana leaving
Gabriel, Juana, Juana, Maria; Juana and Maria to be freed upon his death.”
Slaveholder: D. Esteban Soto Nieves, 70, 7 Jan 1857; hl Pedro & D. Cecilia Nieves, casada con Juana Velasquez.
“una junta de bueyes una vaca y uno potro cuadrado por [cultivación por] sus esclavos Gabriel & Juana, dejando a Juana y Maria tambien sus esclavos libres a su fallecimiento” Testamento judicial ante Ma. D. Seledonia Torres 5 Jul 1855;
f.241 Angela, 20, 12 Sept. 1858, single, daughter of Rufina; ca 1838
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.241 Angela, 20, 12 Sept. 1858; esclava, soltera, hija natural de Rufina esclava de D. Juan Pellot.
f. 244 Juana Cristina 9 Oct 1858, 2 years old; legitimate daughter of Eustaquio Arze & Ma. Ynocencia
Slaveholder: Jose Ramon Acevedo
f. 244 Juana Cristina 9 Oct 1858 parbula, 2 anos; hl de Eustaquio Arze y de Ma. Ynocencia esclavos de Jose Ramon Acevedo
f.259v Juana, 48, 21 Mar 1859; born in Africa, lived in this parish, parents unknown
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.259v Juana adulta esclava, 48, 21 Mar 1859; natural de Africa y vecina de esta parroquia y cuyos padres se ignoran, esclava de D. Juan Pellot.
f.263v Juana Prudencia, 9 days old, 8 May 1859; natural daughter of Agustina…of this town.
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.263v Juana Prudencia, 9 dias, 8 May 1859; h natural de Agustina, esclava de D. Juan Pellot de este vecindario.
f.263v Juana Tomasa, 11 days old, brown infant, 1 May 1859; child of Pedro Cordero and Marcela David.
f.263v Juana Tomasa, parvula parda, once dias, 1 Mayo 1859; hl Pedro Cordero & Marcela David.
 QEPD

Podcasts for Genealogists & Family Historians: 1: Uncivil

Uncivil: Episode 10: The Portrait

Sgt. Alexander Chandler, 44th Inf. Reg. Co. F, MI and Silas Chandler, enslaved body servant.

I recently discovered the podcast Uncivil (Gimlet Media) in searching for significant events for discussion on the upcoming episode of Black ProGen Live. Right now, Uncivil consists of 10 episodes so far,  spanning different episodes in nineteenth century US Civil War history The latest show ( Ep. 10 podcast, released 27 December 2017) dealt with the myth of the Black Confederate soldier.

Uncivil is hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika, author, journalist, and professor of journalism and communications at Rutgers University, and Jack Hitt, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, author and radio producer. The programs intend to bring “stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past and takes on the history you grew up with.” Indeed, we need these reexaminations, and it’s great to have this material available to think with.

Uncivil, Ep 9: The Portrait (image only)

The trajectory of this particular story followed an arc that began with unpacking of historical knowledge via a young caller to the show, and culminates with the descendants of Silas Chandler (1 Jan 1837-Sept 1919). They discovered their ancestor being discussed in a photograph brought to Antiques Roadshow in 2009.  During the program, the moment to explain enslavement was lost, the myth took over, leading to a division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans placing a metal cross on his grave in Mississippi, and stealing Silas Chandler’s image by reproducing it on various surfaces from t-shirts to films, prints and photos all proclaiming this evidence of participation.

The Weight of Images & Problematic Histories

The photograph is a tintype, and close up, its surface reveals a cracked emulsion with an ornate copper colored metal edge. Notable details are the position of the two men, side by side, visually composed to emphasize their inequality. The younger Andrew Chandler’s hips were elevated to lend height well above Silas, whose seat is tilted back at the hips to make him seem shorter than his slave owner’s. To read Silas’ smile is to read a face weary of waiting for a moment, if not the war and slavery itself, to be over.

Sites that proclaim that they have ‘evidence’ of Black Confederate soldiers, and one features a painting of a Civil War battlefield, no location just a battle scene. Just off center, is a kneeling black man holding the head of a white man wearing the gray uniform of the South. The military serviceman is injured and bleeding into a large handkerchief. It’s white surface creates an area that visually marks and makes central for the viewer, the tableau with a enslaved adult man at the center. He has no arms no gun, no rifle, he simply serves and tends to the white master, an ideological composition that seeks to deny historical reality by providing a romanticized tableau. This same idea was extended to the photograph,  a plain effort to define Silas Chandler as a soldier. He was not.

As Myra Chandler Sampson (Silas Chandler’s great-granddaughter) and Kevin M Levin note, “Interest in Silas’ military career has been fueled by a desire to affirm that Southern blacks were just as eager as whites to fight back against the invaders— an attempt to validate the belief that the war did not ignite over slavery but over predatory Northern acts.” They go on to ask: So what role did Silas really play in the war, and why did he choose to fight for the South—if he actually did? One thing is clear: Ever since the SCV posthumously ‘honored’ Silas, an enslaved body servant who accompanied his white master into service, accounts of black Confederate troops have surged in popularity, with some now claiming that upwards of 100,000 blacks fought willingly in Southern ranks.

While there were  a small number of enslaved black men who served in the Confederacy, but they comprised less than 1% of those who served. A 2015 article in The Root, goes into further details about this controversy. In a nutshell: “How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.”  Note that African Americans were unable to enlist in the Confederacy until an order was issued in March 1865, the last month of the war. In contrast, almost 187,000 African Americans  joined the Union Army over the course of the war, with numbers rising for the last two years.

Details That Matter: The move towards freedom

Why does the story matter? Because this was a myth fed to fourth grade children in social studies texts and museum exhibits organized by descendants of the confederacy. There’s potential for these scenarios to be incorporated and disseminated into some family histories and genealogies, effectively casting the shadow of confederate myth over a lineage while declaring a white nationalist identity.

Silas was born into slavery on 1 January 1837 in Virginia and two years later, his slaveholder, Roy Chandler moved him and 39 other enslaved people along with the Chandler family to Palo Alto in Clay County, Mississippi. As an adult, once freed, Silas kept his owner’s surname.

Roy Chandler claimed a land grant after an 1831 treaty that displaced thousands of American Indian peoples in the area, and gave white settlers some 11 million acres of state land. Silas became the body servant to Roy Chandler’s son, Andrew born in 1844. Silas sits alongside Sergeant Andrew Chandler, the white man in uniform in the photograph. Yet the fear of armed black men ran rife through the Confederacy, and they supplied no guns, nor permitted combat roles for African Americans until the final weeks of the war; add the fact that thousands of African Americans were supportive of the North, to the point of escaping to Federal lines, and the desperation to legitimize the myth of participation becomes evident.

Silas weighed his situation, and “likely gained even more freedom of movement when Andrew was wounded and captured at Shiloh in April 1862 and imprisoned… Deemed human property he was legally bound to Andrew.” Although Silas returned and helped his master return home after injuries at the Battle of Chickamauga. Extant correspondence shows Silas’ return would be to his wife and newborn child. Silas served again in 1864, going with Andrew’s younger brother Benjamin, who served in the 9th Mississippi Calvary.

Why Silas Chandler’s Story Matters

Silas Chandler was a carpenter and helped found the first black church, Mount Hermon Baptist Church in West Point, Mississippi. He married Lucy Garvin about 1860, “daughter of a house slave named Polly and an unnamed plantation owner.” They had 12 children, 5 who survived to adulthood, and one son was the great-grandfather of Myra Chandler Sampson.  Silas lived to appear in the 1910 US Federal Census, where a glimpse of the life he built with his wife Lucy can be seen, some nine years before he died. In contrast, Palo Alto, MI, where he first lived in bondage, became a ghost town.  It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia article on Palo Alto mentions that “In 1876, Palo Alto was the site of an incident in which a group of heavily armed white men brought a piece of field artillery and broke up a meeting of the Republican Club in order to suppress black voters.” This is just one of myriad examples of retaliation committed against people of African descent  that numerous whites committed after Reconstruction and the passage of ‘black codes’ in 1865 and 1866.  Despite their efforts, Silas Chandler raised his family and contributed to his community.

Silas Chandler & family, West Point Ward 2, Clay, MI, US Federal Census 1910. Lines 93-99.
Silas Chandler & family US Census 1910, detail.

What I appreciate about the Uncivil podcast is the content, and the website’s clear layout and availability of transcripts, allowing one to easily search for subjects. As an adjunct to genealogical study, it helps bring to the table some of the issues that POC genealogists and their families face when working on family lines that head straight into terrain already complicated by locating material. Understanding documentary context helps with document analysis, and depending on one’s location, its easy to see how details can be used and misused to serve very different needs. Hearing voices waver, be insistent, vulnerable or firm, reminds one that this history still matters enormously. The events in Charlottesville last summer speaks to the urgency of projects that seek to unpack the historical pain and experience of those populations born or taken into slavery who made this country possible from its inception, and this foundational fact can no longer be ignored. We are still navigating this past.

In this case, the attempt to hijack family history for an ideological purpose was foiled, precisely because these descendants pressed on to tell their stories, writing, broadcasting and, Myra Chandler Sampson continues to speak truth to power. May we all find the strength to bring our ancestors into the light.

References

“The Portrait.” 27 Dec 2017. Uncivil Gimlet Media. Podcast. http://uncivil.show/

“Silas Chandler.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silas_Chandler Accessed 8 Jan 2018.

Myra Chandler Sampson and Kevin M Levin, “The Loyalty of Silas Chandler.” Civil War Times, Feb 2012, 30-35. https://www.academia.edu/5196718/The_Loyalty_of_Silas_Chandler  Accessed 5 Jan 2018.

“Yes There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why.” The Root, 20 Jan 2015.  https://www.theroot.com/yes-there-were-black-confederates-here-s-why-1790858546 Accessed 8 Jan 2018.

“Military History of African Americans in the American Civil War.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_history_of_African_Americans_in_the_American_Civil_War Accessed 8 Jan 2018.

“United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9RVX-DC?cc=1727033&wc=QZZW-XXL%3A133641901%2C134134901%2C135097501%2C1589089008 : 24 June 2017), Mississippi > Clay > West Point Ward 2 > ED 67 > image 10 of 10; citing NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

“Palo Alto, Mississippi.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palo_Alto,_Mississippi Accessed 8 Jan 2018.

“Reconstruction.” https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/reconstruction.htm Accessed 8 Jan 2018.