As we studied the US Civil War era, we spent quite a bit of time learning about the history of slavery in the US, and the division the issue of slavery caused in the country leading up to the war. Being quite open with my children about the difficult realities of history and humanity in general, we discussed the fact that we have slave holding ancestors… several of them. Their immediate reaction was one of revulsion and shock. They had already been touched by the horrors of slavery and the poor treatment and even flagrant abuse that many slaves endured. How many of our ancestors had been a part of this?
We decided that we wanted to find out how many of our ancestors did own slaves, and how many they owned. I taught the children how to look at where our southern ancestors were living in the 1850 and 1860 US Censuses and then go look for them in the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. During our week long study, we found nine ancestors who owned slaves. The children made a spreadsheet listing the ancestor, the year of the census, the place they were living and the ages and genders of their slaves.
As they began listing the slaves, they began to ask some very deep, thoughtful, troubling, and mostly unanswerable questions:
“Is that a baby? How can a poor little baby be a slave?”
“Wait! The ages and genders don’t match [from the 1850 and 1860 censuses], where did those other people go, and where did these new ones come from?”
“What about all the other [same surname individuals] with slaves around our ancestor… Are those other relatives with slaves?”
“Did our ancestors treat their slaves well, or were they mean to them?”
They were trying hard to correlate who might be who between censuses, and were frustrated that no names or unique identifiers of these PEOPLE were given, only owner’s name and age and gender.
They also noticed that several of the ancestors that owned larger numbers of slaves continued to expand their holdings between census years. My oldest son created a map of each year showing dots with size adjusted to reflect the numbers of slaves each ancestor owned. They wondered if this was another reason that tension continued to rise in our country over slavery… It was a growing stain.
We had several serious discussions about these frustrating and unresolvable issues. I also brought it to their attention that perhaps through a more thorough study of our slave holding ancestors’ documents, we may be able to ferret out a few more details about the individual persons held in slavery. We discussed how our diligence in searching for these clues may help a descendant of these slaves be able to piece together their ancestry. This idea was very intriguing to them… That maybe, even though our ancestors participated in the abhorrent practice of slavery, we might be able to help identify some of those slaves as unique persons. This will be an ongoing project for us.
I then shared with them a story I learned in my research about a positive post-Emancipation outcome for one of the Donohoo slaves due to the generosity of Mrs. Caroline Donohoo (see Caroline Green Donohoo: Beloved Wife, Mother and Benefactress) This was an eye-opening study for my children and for myself as well. This study made the history and terrible reality of slavery personal to us.
To learn more about why we study genealogy along with history: School+Genealogy= History Becomes Personal