Researching Enslaved People Through Plantation Papers

Researching Enslaved People Through Plantation Papers

the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

— from “Pilgrimage” by Natasha Tretheway

On Fridays, I tuck myself into one of the most special places I know, one of the places that rest quietly beneath the ivory towers, which I now realize are not ivory just because they are consider precious but because of how very white most of them still are. Still, when I descend into the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, I feel like I’m walking the spiral stairs into a sacred place, where the records of enslaved people nestle tight against those of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

When I’m there, I make a point of calling those two men, TJ and Jimmy Mad.  It’s all about equalizing our perspective of history as I see it.

My research right now is focused on the people who were enslaved at Bracketts Farm in Louisa County, Virginia.  I am charged, by the foundation that manages the farm, to locate the names, occupations, and family connections of the people that were enslaved by the Watson family for a period of approximately 70 years.

The Search

The boxes are heavy, cut from green cardboard that is acid-free and sturdy.  Inside, brown, acid-free folders are arranged by date and labeled, by hand in pencil, with a general description: “notes, receipts, and accounts – 1837”, or “Sally Watson to David Watson – n.d.”

The great tragedy is that I am most likely to find references to enslaved people in the financial papers – in the account and cash books, in the receipts, in the records from Jack, the enslaved shoemaker’s shop.  Occasionally, I read a letter and see someone mentioned – Charlotte, whose daughter Mary is very ill, is noted in a letter from the farm mistress to the master – but these are rare mentions.  Their obscurity belies the intimacy in which the enslaved and the enslavers spent their days.

I scan lists of purchases – nails, fabric, rum – hoping to see the name of one of the waggoners, who took the wheat to the mill or carried the money from the master to the shop keeper.

I flip page after page of accounts and watch for the names I’m coming to know like my own family’s – Randol, Reuben, Marinda, Manuel.  The master is buying chickens from some people, paying others for their work in the tobacco harvest.  An overly optimistic look at these purchases might think he was preparing them to buy their freedom.  I’ve not yet (and don’t expect I will) found one record where someone here purchases their freedom.

Sometimes my skin lights up with anticipation when I see a list of names. Here, finally, more names.  But that happiness quickly tarnishes when I remind myself that the list exists because these people are being willed to children, shifted around based on their relative value.

I read:

Forester, 80 years old, worth nothing

Leanthy, Old and worth nothing

I know, I recognize the dismissal of the old as burden more than gift of wisdom – sometimes these records say these older or infirm people are “worth less than nothing” – but to have it written out, laid into the page against valuations of young, able-bodied men as being worth $500  . . . or a blacksmith worth $600 because of his trade and ability to make his master money – this inscription carves the wound of my heart around slavery even deeper.

The Prayer

I pray as I look, not that my heart will be protected, but that I will see with honesty and not gloss over what I witness and that my heart will stay strong enough for this day’s work.

I pray for the people whose lives I am seeking to recover, for the flesh and bones and beauty and pain is captured, now, only in these fragments of fragile paper.

I pray for their descendants, for the ones searching and for the ones who able to search.  I give thanks for their fortitude, for their wisdom.

I do not know how I came to have this calling, this heavy calling that I treasure more than anything else I do with my time.  But I say prayer of thanks for the mantel of this vocation and another prayer that I may have just a dose of the perseverance that these people displayed to survive the dismal, abominable days of enslavement.


Louisa County Roots

If you have ties back to Louisa County, Virginia, I’d love to hear from you.  I am part of a team, organized by the Louisa County Historical Society, that has as our ambitious goal to research as many of the enslaved communities in the county as possible and to make our findings public and searchable.  We are also hoping to work with property owners to help preserve slave cemeteries and burial grounds.

So far, some of the surnames we have found include: 

  • Ragland
  • Quarles
  • Morris
  • Watson
  • Bunch
  • Holmes/Homes
  • Johnson
  • Tinsley
  • Jefferson
  • Hawkins
  • Carter
  • Hill
  • Barbour
  • Stewart
  • Mitchell
  • Marshall
  • Desper

I hope we might be able to work together to put together more of the stories of these incredible people. 

  • Larry Hamilton

    My father told me his grandfather John Hamilton had come out of Louisa County Virginia. I have found nothing to substantiate that. But other distant relatives did in fact have Louisa County roots. Andrew and Elisha Jackson who came to the Columbus, OH area after the Civil War were from Louisa County.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thank you for your ancestors’ names, Larry. I have not come across any Hamiltons, but I will certainly keep your great-grandfather’s name near. And I will add Andrew and Elisha Jackson to our list of names as we continue research. Thank you again.

    • Lorenzo M. Brown

      My grandfather, my maternal side was Thomas Henry Bishop from Louisa County. He had several brothers and sisters. One of his brothers was Earl Bishop. Their father was a German named George H. Bishop. I have relatives with the sir names of Morris, Ragland, Johnson, my grandmother paternal side was Cora Heart Morris, of strong native American decent.

      • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

        Thank you, Lorenzo. I will keep an eye out for your family as we continue researching.

  • Karen mobley

    I have Barbour ancestors.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Oh, that’s wonderful, Karen. Do you feel comfortable sharing any of their first names? If so, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for them as we research. Thanks.

  • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

    Thanks, Linda. So grateful for more surnames. We’ll all keep searching together.

    Thanks, too, for adding this bit to your original comment. “I also have Quarles ancestors, some born in Louisa and some in Fluvanna. Again, I am not sure if they are connected to Bracketts. I have Randalls/Randals/Randols who may be associated with Green Springs but pinning that down is proving to be problematic”

  • Cornelia Simpson Nixon

    Great Grandmother,Mary Simpson supposedly born in West in 1855.She had a son ,Chasteen Simpson ,supposedly sired by a member of the Clough family(caucasion) in Cuckoo,Jackson Louisa County Virginia.The black family member names were:Bird , Lewis. Carter,Jackson,Poindexter at least.I would like to find out more of what happened to Mary.Chastee. was born 1875.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thank you for sharing that information, Cornelia. I’ll be sure we keep an eye out for information about Mary and Chasteen. I have found some information about Lewises and Poindexters. We’ll be sure to share that as soon as it’s in a format that can be used by others. Again, thank you.

  • T.L. Metheney

    I have multiple family lines from Louisa County. The main surnames are Gibson, LeMay, Napper, Thacker, Freeman, Branham, Dorton and Adams. All of these lines have been listed in censuses as Mulattoe, Black, FPC, White, etc. Some of the Nappers claim to have been slaves before the Civil War and several of these folks owned slaves.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thank you so much for sharing that information, T.L. I’ve recorded your family surnames, and while I’m not familiar with those names, but we’re just getting into this research. I’ll be sure to share if we find information about those folks. Thanks again.

    • David Pummell

      I also have Freeman and Thacker names in my genealogy research. The Joseph Freeman I mention in the post below regarding the slave schedule married Barbara Knighton in 1835. Just wondering if this name is familiar also. It’s about as far back as I go in my research and I’ve come up against a brick wall.

  • darlette wilson

    My mother’s family are Powell and Brice we have traced them back to my great-great-grandfather in Louisa County Virginia.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Wow, Darlette. Very great. I”ll be sure to post more information here as we discover more. Would you be comfortable sharing your 2x great-grandfather’s name so I can keep it in mind as I research? Thanks so much.

  • Suzie Morris Ball

    Two of my lines from Louisa County are Morris and Mills. I descent from the George Morris line, not the William Mortis line. DNA seems to indicate they were not related. Nathaniel Mills Sr. and Jr. are also mine. I will look at the wills to see if slaves were mentioned.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thank you very much, Suzie. I am just getting to know the extensive Morris lines in Louisa, and I’d be eager to hear anything you find. Thank you again.

  • David Pummell

    I’m a descendant of the Freemans and Knightons from Louisa County, VA. In researching my genealogy I found an 1850 slave schedule showing my 3rd great grandfather Joseph Freeman on the document as slave owner and listing 5 slaves and their ages. I would like to forward the slave schedule in hopes that it may assist you in your research and that it may also provide feedback about the Freeman family and possibly the names of the slaves and what may have become of them. Please reply if you would be interested in the document and an email address that I can send it to. Thank you.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Oh, David, thank you so much, and we would LOVE to see that schedule. You can email it to me at [email protected]. Thank you.

      And I don’t know Freemans or Thackers, but I suspect the director of the Louisa Co. Historical Society does. I”ll ask her what she knows and email you with anything we may find.

      thank you again.

  • Thank you got doing this important work. I am especially interested in the Carters and Marshall surnames that you found. Is there s way I can get more info about those names smongst the papers?

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thanks, Kanika. We are, right now, in the process of creating a means of sharing the data publicly. We want to be sure it’s searchable. But the papers are all at the University of Virginia, and if you’d like to drop me an email – [email protected] – I’d be happy to share what I know now. It’s not a great deal at this point, but I’m happy to share what I know.

  • Angie B. Jefferson

    Hello, I stumbled across your page while following an articles about researching enslaved people. I live in Fluvanna County which is adjacent to Louisa County. On a list at the end of the article is a list of names. On that list is the name “Jefferson” which is my husband’s family name. He is the last surviving male from that family.

    I have been researching the “Loving” name from Lovingston in Nelson County, VA who were slave descendants. Would love to talk with you or share information regarding the Jeffersons. My husband has a couple of sisters who still live in Louisa and know the family background fairly well.

    Angie B. Jefferson

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Morning, Angie. It’s so nice to meet you. I know Fluvanna well – that’s my home county. I grew up in Bremo.

      I’m booked up for the next couple of weeks – my father is getting married here on my farm – but I”ll call you when I have some time to chat – maybe we could even meet up for coffee near the Lake?

      And have you been in touch with Shelley Murphy of the Central Virginia Chapter of the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society? She may have some good information, too, and she lives in Fluvanna as well.

  • Linda

    Hi Andi,

    I left a rather lengthy reply about my Quarles, Timberlake, Bryce or Price ancestors. Most of it centered on Spencer Timberlake, his mother Judy, brothers Peter and Werther (or Winter) wife deceased prior to 1866, Una (or Uny), wife in 1866, and children Cephas, Henry, Aloise, and Jennie. Did you get that post? Shall I re-post?

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Hi Linda, I got the comment. Not sure where it went – that’s odd. But we know your family history since you work with Gloria, and she’s a member of this team of researchers. No need to repost. We’re on the look out for connections to your family.

      • Linda

        Thanks. I knew that Gloria is working the Quarles side. Just wanted to add the Timberlakes to the mix.

        Thanks for all that you do relative to African American genealogy (and by extension African American history, Andi.

  • Jan Desper Peters

    My dad is a Desper and my Mom, a Moody. Both from Louisa county, Va. I’m surprised that Moody is not a surname on your list.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Glad to know of your family names, Jan. . . and we are jut at the VERY beginning of this research and focusing on two sets of plantation papers to begin. . . I’m sure we’ll come to Moodys; we just haven’t gotten there het.

  • Jerrie Stewart

    I see “Stewart” in your list of surnames of Louisa County Virginia slaves. My great-grandfather was Fortune Stewart. He had a very unique name. I have been unable to determine his beginnings; I have no record of him before the 1870 census which indicates both of his parents were born in Virginia. I hope you can keep him in mind as you research the Stewart slaves of Louisa County.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thank you, Jerrie. Several men named Fortune were in Louisa around this time, and I imagine they were all named after one man. Perhaps that will help us find more about your great-grandfather. We will definitely keep him in mind.