A Constant Threat of Erasure: Pt. 2: Towards a History of the Varner Family

 “All that I know of my ancestors was told to me by my people.“

The words of William J. Edwards, educator and founder of the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute in Wilcox Alabama, are from his autobiography, Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt (1919). The book both explains how he received knowledge of his ancestors, and shows what they, and by extension, the Varner and McDuffie families were up against in the nineteenth to twentieth century. 

Born in 1869, Edwards was born on the cusp of Reconstruction, and his perspective is firmly turned towards a brighter future of uplift. Given the centrality of oral history to this experience, it is worth reading the opening pages of Chapter 1. Childhood Days, as the Varners and McDuffies shared a similar history:

All that I know of my ancestors was told to me by my people. I learned from my grandfather on my mother’s side that the family came to Alabama from South Carolina. He told me that his mother was owned by the Wrumphs who lived in South Carolina, but his father belonged to another family. For some cause, the Wrumphs decided to move from South Carolina to Alabama; this caused his mother and father to be separated, as his father remained in South Carolina. The new home was near the village of Snow Hill. This must have been in the Thirties when my grandfather was quite a little child. He had no hope of ever seeing his father again, but his father worked at nights and in that way earned enough money to purchase his freedom from his master. So after four or five years he succeeded in buying his own freedom from his master and started out for Alabama. When he arrived at Snow Hill, he found his family, and Mr. Wrumphs at once hired him as a driver. He remained with his family until his death, which occurred during the war. At his death one of his sons, George, was appointed to take his place as driver

As I now remember, my grandfather told me that his mother’s name was Phoebe and that she lived until the close of the war. My grandfather married a woman by the name of Rachael and she belonged to a family by the name of Sigh. His wife’s mother came directly from Africa and spoke the African language. It is said that when she became angry no one could understand what she said. Her owner allowed her to do much as she pleased.

My grandfather had ten children, my mother being the oldest girl. She married my father during the war and, as nearly as I can remember, he told me that it was in 1864. Three children were born to them and I was the youngest; there was a girl and another boy.

I know little of my father’s people, excepting that he repeatedly told me that they came from South Carolina. So it is, that while I can trace my ancestry back to my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, I can learn nothing beyond my grandparents on my father’s side. My grandfather was a local preacher and could read quite well. Just how he obtained this knowledge, I have never been able to learn. He had the confidence and respect of the best white and colored people in the community and sometimes he would journey eight or ten miles to preach. Many times at these meetings there were nearly as many whites as colored people in the audience. He was indeed a grand old man. His name was James and his father’s name was Michael. So after freedom he took the name of James Carmichael.

One of the saddest things about slavery was the separation of families. Very often I come across men who tell me that they were sold from Virginia, South Carolina or North Carolina, and that they had large families in those states. Since their emancipation, many of these have returned to their former states in search of their families, and while some have succeeded in finding them, there are those who have not been able to find any trace of their families and have come back again to die. [1]

Edward’s account traces the movement of families, their sale and separation across states, the role of faith that was a path for his grandfather becaming a preacher, those who heard the voice of his African great grandmother who spoke an African language and through these traces, he makes the outlines of his community visible. All of these details were handed down via oral history, and made a document through the pages of his 1919 book.

Uncle Charles Lee and his home in the Black Belt. Edwards, Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt.

The photo of Uncle Charles Lee standing before his home, supported by two canes,  begins to tell of the conditions that Edwards sought to address after attending Tuskeegee and returning to Snow Hill to establish the first institute for Black education in Wilcox. The powers that be had little interest in seeing those who labored in bondage literate, educated and successful. And when they did gain it, threats intensified.

Violence &The Social Landscape of Wilcox County

Workers, possibly enslaved, picking cotton near Montgomery, Alabama, Library of Congress.

A barometer of the low regard that people of African descent were held in is evident in this article “Extension of Slavery” from the 1862 issue of The Southern Cultivator, originally published in the Wilmington Journal. It evinces a line of white supremacist readership stretching from the middle to southern states, and the intent to keep the enslaved as a permanent unfree eternally laboring underclass.

What is telling is the absence of a name for the author, which speaks to fears about the power and potential of those fighting for their freedom from bondage. It is also an example of a proto-eugenic logic of an inherent, biological inferiority circulated via print media by the descendants of enslavers and their cohorts that later blossomed in the early twentieth century as eugenics. This reductionism still circulates in the present, as we struggle with 21st century issues of prison abolition and the returning semblance of debt peonage.

Extension of Slavery, The Southern Cultivator. 1862. Internet Archive.

In case you can’t read the image:

A correspondent of the Wilmington Journal makes the following prediction: “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, but I now predict that one of the consequences of this war will be, that in three years from the end thereof there will not be a free negro in America; that our institution of slavery will be established on a more firm basis than ever; that the Northern States Rights party will get into power as soon as the elections roll round; the abolitionists will be hunted down like mad dogs, and the whole civilized world will become satisfied the our slaves are in the very condition for which nature designed them. Mark the prediction.”

In 1860, Wilcox County held only 26 ‘free colored’ and 17,797 enslaved people, with 6,795 whites, proportions that cast light on the nature of social and political life before the Civil War. By 1870, the ‘colored’ population increased to 21,610, a 21% increase, yet the white population remained at 6.795. [2]

Benson Seller’s Slavery in Alabama (1950) while remaining the main study of enslavement in that state, never addresses the humanity or “soul value” of Blacks held in bondage. Instead, the emphasis reflects the concerns with production, so that there are entries such as the following regarding planter James Asbury Tait’s management of overseers and their counsel to them. Violence and terror are the means of control, yet the text is in denial; we know that details of mangled, murdered and lynched bodies are omitted from this volume, instead we hear about ‘efficiency’: 

First glimpse: 1866 Alabama State Census of Colored People

Only three generations back, the story of the Varner family that Della McDuffie Varner descends from has its first outlines in the documents issued during Reconstruction. On the Alabama Black Belt, Wilcox County borders Marengo County, and it is there in the 1866 Alabama State Colored Census for Marengo County that three Varners appear: King Varner, Matilde Varner, Haig Varner.  

1866 Alabama State Census for Colored Population showing King Varner, Matilde Varner and Hays (Haig) Varner. Note the lack of notation for the county on the page.

Making it official: Haig Varner & Fannie Varner

Haig Varner (b.ca 1820) and Fannie Varner (b.ca 1825) are Della Varner McDuffie’s great grandparents, the furthest back in the tree we can go at present. What we can’t tell from the data in the 1866 AL state census is how close these Varner families lived, and whether they were family or kin, as this is not spelled out. What is evident is that one to three generations lived across these households, and as this remains stubbornly opaque when  compared to later census, now further documentation is needed to flesh out the details as to where exactly they lived in Marengo, who they were enslaved by, and how long they were in Alabama. Information from later census can vary as to origins of parents noted across the Federal census.

The Civil War ended, and the passage of The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments offered up citizenship and the start of Reconstruction offered hope for change. Alabama Voter Registration records were created as a result of the Reconstruction Act passed  on 23 March 1867. [3]

Hague Varner, Returns of Qualified Voters, Marengo County, AL, 1866. Ancestry.com

Just months later, as a free man, Haig Varner registered to vote in Marengo County in 1867, an arrangement made possible by the presence of Federal troops; King Varner also appears in Volume 13.   Other Varners appear in another volume of Alabama voter registrations, with Henry Varner in Volume 11, Alfred Varner and Anthony Varner in Volume 7 .[4]

Beyond the census, the total search results yield 16 Varners in Marengo County Alabama for the 1866 AL Register of Voters on Ancestry.com. The results are actually 8, as the page was shot twice on the microfilm:

Varner, Voter Register results, Ancestry.com

Haig and Fannie Varner’s son, Richard ‘Dick’ Varner (1847-1920) took the opportunity to officiate his marriage vows, and have them recognized by the state on 25 March 1867. That they could marry and have their union officially recognized was also made possible by the Federal, rather than state government.

Richard Varner + Lucy Varner, Marriage Certificate, 29 March 1872.

The Will of Samuel Varner, Marengo County, 1848

The names of some of these head of households—, Matilda Varner, Benton Varner also appear in the  1848 will of Samuel Varner, which I transcribed below. 22 enslaved people are listed. I found no appraisal documents online to determine age, but perhaps this post can help descendants locate further information. Another earlier will for John Varner contains the names of a smaller number of those he enslaved. Tharin’s Marengo County Directory for 1861 has three white Varner men living on M’Kinley: Benton Varner, mechanic, Ransom Varner, planter and James Varner “(deaf and dumb)” planter.[4]

Note how the young girl Emely is selected to be an enslaved assistant for Varner’s mute children, so disability is yet another permanently assigned duty. Or were there additional services intended, given Varner’s words at the end of his will: “Should there be an increase in property before my death…”?

, Will of Samuel Varner, 25 July 1848, Marengo County, AL. FS.org

Will Record A, F291 Will of Samuel Varner [1848]

Marengo County 

Will of Samuel Varner, Decd  

In the name of God [   ] I Samuel Varner of the county of Cahaba and the State of Mississippi, considering the certainly of life yet  being of sound and perfect mind and memory do make and  publish this my last will and testament making all others heretofore made no manner  and form following (that is today). First I do give and bequeath  to my two daughters  Sara Bevel formerly Sarah Varner and Martha Lassater formerly Martha Varner  the Sum of $2 each — Second I do give and bequeath to my Sons  Joseph Varner, James Varner, John Varner also my said daughter Mahala Varner and  Minerva Jane Whitley formerly Minerva Jane Varner the following  and all  Estate to wit one tract of land [Selnato?] lying and being in the County of Marengo in the  State of Alabama, Consisting of one hundred and twenty acres, to wit — adjoining the now named Bevel tract of land which Said land the [Datoso?] road sent through the  East corner of the same Also twenty two negroes to wit four negro men  Nat. Ransom, Dave and Alfred  & the following negro women and children, Emily and her six children to wit:  Candis, Caroline,  Norton, Emeline, Adaline and Mary Frances Courtney. Matilda and her two children,  Levi and an infant girl[;] Fanny and her four children: Allen, Fairchild and Mariah and an infant and Mary and her child Spenser together with all my stock of every manner and description whatsoever with all my farming tools waggons carts plows and every manner of implement or thing needful and necessary for the carrying on the same and all my household and kitchen furniture Saving the beds and furniture with all  monies, debts due to me owning in any manner or description whatsoever to have  and to hold to my Said Children of the Second Bequest mention to them and  items forever Subject to the following hereafter restrictions. I desire that when I  depart this life that my remains be buried in a decent and Christian like manner  and that all my just debts be paid before a division of my estate, and it is my  desire that at my death the negro girl Emely shall belong to my daughter Mahala  at her appraised value and shall answer So much to her portions of Said Estate in a final division, and it is my desire ^that Mahala have one bed and furniture and also James and  Minerva Jane Whitely take the Same as Specific legacies and not come with a  general division— and as my Sons Joseph Varner, James Varner, Mahala Varner  are unfortunate being deaf and dumb and it being somewhat doubtful that no law  whether they can take by the will. I do hereby constitute, nominate and  appoint my son John Varner and my son in law Decator Whitely trustees for them and  on their behalf to receive their intended portions of my estate for them & their use and benefit and in case one or both of said trustees should die or refuse to act then it wish that a proper count should be applied to competent to protect them and their property. – It is further my will and request that often deducting Specific Legacies and paying off funeral expenses & debts on a division of said Estate. Should any one depart this life without heirs the portions of said child it is my will should lapse in common to the equally divided will  contained in the Second – bequest and it is further my will and request Should my life be Spared by providence and should there be an increase of  property before my death, My desire is that it lapse in common to the equally divided with those  contained in the Second bequest and in case of one’s death his share to his or her children — And I do lastly appoint John Varner and Decator Whitely Executors of my Estate in this my last will and Testament. Witness my hand and seal the 18 day of July 1848 

Signed Samuel (his X) Varner, Seal, Signed Sealed and delivered  

The Estate of James Varner, 1827

The earlier 1827 subdivision of “The Estate of James Varner” includes mention of a son also named Benton Varner and several minors. There was a writ for Letters of Administration and Lorian Tibbs, Elizabeth Moon with Wright Moor and Matilda Varner appear as heirs; Martha Lindsay was named as James Varner’s wife.

Four persons enslaved by this Varner family were:

Nancy 

Ben 

Isom 

Peter 

.”.that there are slaves name by Nancy, Ben, Isom and Peter cannot legally be divided and on motion of the Administration it is therefore ordered, by the Court that an order of sale do to sell” [5]

Potential Resources

As additional papers were not included in the court records, and as it is a collection which is not complete, additional documents may exist, dispersed across the Special Collections of colleges and universities.  There are two collections that feature Varner family papers, one at James Madison University, and the other, Campbell and Varner family papers at  Virginia Military Institute .  From the overview and information provided here, perhaps an interested descendant can take it back further through a combination of research and DNA testing.

A call to the libraries can confirm if there is relevant material. For the Varners of VA, while it is said there was no ownership of enslaved people at Stony Man Creek, unlike the remaining areas of the district in 1860. Robert H Moore’s post “Page County’s Appleberry/ Applebury men in the USCT.” notes some 30 men who served in the United States Colored Troops were born in Page County. [8]

Click on the bold link to see the Finding Aids for each collection:

Varner Family Papers -1774-1933 SC 0129 – Page County, VA  James Madison University:

“The Varner family of Page County, Virginia was of German descent, and their name appears as early as 1801 on records of the Antioch Christian Church near Stony Man Creek, Virginia… Despite wide-spread anti-liquor sentiment in the Shenandoah Valley in the nineteenth century, the Varners operated a distillery.”

Campbell and Varner Family papers MS-0282 – Lexington, VA Virginia Military Institute [9]

“Robert Henry Campbell of Lexington, VA; shoemaker; served with Rockbridge Rifles during Civil War (1861 only); discharged due to illness (tuberculosis); Clerk, Quartermaster and Treasurer at the Virginia Military Institute, 1864-1870; d. 1870, age 28, Lexington, VA.

Charles Van Buren Varner, b. Lexington, VA. 1838; served with Rockbridge Rifles during Civil War; cabinetmaker; carpenter at VMI; d. 1907, Lexington.

The families were related through the marriage of R. Henry’s sister, Augusta, to Charles V. Varner.”

Emanuel Montee McDuffie: from AL to NC

Mrs Della McDuffie’s husband, William ‘Snowball’ McDuffie’s uncle– Emanuel Montee McDuffie — was among the people that left Snow Hill, precisely because of the efforts of William J. Edwards. After graduating from Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, like his mentor, he became Principal of the Normal and Industrial Institute in Laurinberg, North Carolina, where he lived the rest of his life, until his death in 1953. This is not to say he escaped experiencing or knowing the potential violence of Jim Crow. His photo is on the upper left of the group, and appears in William J. Edwards’ Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt. (1919)

A Change is Gonna Come

I can think of no better way to end than to leave you with Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. These posts were written to honor the resilience and the survival of these ancestors, and to help write them back into history. “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.”

“…There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will”

QEPD

References

  1. William J. Edwards. Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt. Electronic Edition, Documenting the American South.
  2. “History”. Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records Database. http://archives.alabama.gov/voterreg/index.cfm
  3.  Index, Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records Database, http://www.archives.alabama.gov/voterreg/results.cfm
  4. Richard Varner and Lucy Varner marriage certificate. Ancestry.com. Alabama, County Marriage Records, 1805-1967[database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
  5. Tharin’s Marengo County Directory for 1860-61. https://sites.rootsweb.com/~almareng/marengodirectory.htm
  6.  Will of Samuel Varner, 18 July 1848. Film: Alabama County Marriages, 1809-1950, 005330947, item 2 image number 305. FamilySearch.org
    https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-L15D-8DN?i=304&cc=1743384&cat=211258
  7. The Estate of James Varner, 1827. Alabama County Marriages, 1809-1950 Film #005330947 image number 189. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G15D-PCW?i=188&cc=1743384&cat=211258
  8. “Remaining property of said estates” https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G15D-P4K?i=190&cc=1743384&cat=211258
  9. ”District #3, Stoney Man – There were no (0) slave-owners and no (0) slaves” Where Were the Slaves in Page County in 1860?  http://www.geocities.ws/cenantuaheight/WhereWereSlavesPage1860.html
  10.  Robert H Moore “Page County’s Appleberry/ Applebury men in the USCT.” https://toolongforgotten.wordpress.com
  11. Note collection is on deposit from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society.

Paul Rucker: Stories from the Trees

This morning I sit with the work of Paul Rucker, who manifests the realities behind terminology, and the coercive, body destroying violence that is a part of the legacy of white supremacy. His strategic use of sound and image in a multi-disciplinary performance reanimates imagery to memorialize the nearly 4800 African Americans lynched between 1882-1968. While people from different ethnicities were also lynched, African Americans were disproportionately targeted.

The video  begins with his electronic score for revealing the rate of prison building in America, to one a day. Lights begin to appear, color coded to time periods in which areas rapidly spread and merge. This is a parasitic system on the body politic, something that continues to suck lifeblood as the system of penalties keeps removing access to education, housing, food out of reach while providing a captive labor force with wages under $2 an hour. This violence is slow moving, constraining millions of people from the ability to define themselves, their families and their lives. It’s enshrined in the 13th Amendment.

Evolution

Yet many are unable to grasp just how high the social cost of imprisonment actually is, and that the US holds over 2.1 million people in prison, a disproportionately black population that continues to grow.

As genealogists & family historians, this growth means that working with records of incarceration will become a requirement as we close towards a present where generations are being shaped more by incarceration and deportation than schools, families and communities. And last week, we saw the plans for indefinite incarceration of brown people escaping violence and seeking asylum, and this weekend, people march against the policy, with over 750 locations across the country. That sinking feeling returns, yet knowing we are witnessing another round of the 1870s and 1890s gives me hope that this country can do better than inspire last century’s racist vision of purity. We have been here before.

There’s a close connection to the economy and the logic of targeting the poor as the reason, rather than the structural inequality of wealth produced in the US . The Great Depression was not caused by Americans living in poverty. That the GDP for Puerto Rico is half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, was not caused by the people of Puerto Rico. Let us turn further back.

For hundreds of years, slavery removed or hampered access to equality for millions of people. Colorism (which is with us in myriad forms) then refined that access further. Both are legacies that need to be grappled with in the building of family trees and the acceptance of DNA results. The legal structures that made those issues possible are still present today, and continue to shape inequality. How to tell those stories differs, and different formats help to convey different facets of experience. I want to share the work of artists who communicate a complex story visually, to provide a visceral understanding for difficult historical and contemporary moments.

Rucker’s work transforms the news of lynching into dangling figures that remind us of the human toll, a legacy that cannot be denied or forgotten. Numbers serve to abstract realities , and when humans are represented by numbers, their lives can sink into definitions that render them unremarkable and disposable. We write against this tide.

“…when humans are represented by numbers, their lives can sink into definitions that render them unremarkable and disposable. We write against this tide.”

This ongoing work of restoring humanity to our ancestors continues. QEPD, May they Rest In Peace, may we realize a long term vision for a world with restorative justice. To seek an end to inequality, racial terror and trauma is the task of every generation, just as it is urgently ours today.

Learn more:

Report on Racial Terror & Lynching:  https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

Equal Justice Initiative: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration:

Interview with filmmaker Ava DuVernay on her film, 13th (2016):

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