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.