This past weekend, I took a trip to Wytheville, VA with my Grandma Mary Gwyn to visit with her Aunt Ossie and family. My grandmother’s mother Addie was Ossie’s sister, but she died in childbirth. My grandmother came to know this part of her family because her paternal grandmother took special care in bringing her down to visit with them. I too, am grateful to my paternal grandmother for introducing me to these cousins I would otherwise not have personally known. Of course, in addition to wanting to meet my distant family, I insisted that I would take some time to research. I get few opportunities to travel to a family history destination and I had to make the most of it. My first trip to Wytheville was made when I was expecting my eldest son, now 11 years old. The second trip was made with my sons, sisters, aunt and Grandma. I’ve been back several times, and each time I seek a little more. This time was no different, and I was richly rewarded!
Ossie is 97 years old now, in a nursing home and rather frail. We stayed with her daughter Janet, who was very sweet to us, and grateful for our company after having lost the companionship of her mom and her brother Eddie who passed away in 2008. On our first day in, we visited a while at the house then spent some time with Aunt Ossie at the nursing home, and then I dropped Grandma & Janet back at the house and hightailed it to the Mary Kegley Genealogy collection at Wytheville Community College library. Mary Kegley is a descendant of Kegleys in the area, as well as a researcher and writer, having written extensively about Wytheville’s history. Visits are by appointment only, and I felt pressed for time as it the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. This was followed by a quick trip to the court house, and later that night by a visit to a local researcher I had met years ago.
I felt a little unprepared at the library, as I had to request the specific records I wanted, and I really didn’t know what I was looking for. I asked for the books listing marriage records and death records, as well as files about the Kincannons who were the last owners of my Great Great Great Grandmother Phoebe Sanders Sayles. In each case, I looked for the surnames in our family: Johnson, Jackson, Sayles, Sanders, Howard. Eventually, I located a file labeled “Blacks.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant. (A surname? African Americans? Something else?) but it was soon obvious – it was all African American records of various sorts. They were indexed by number with a list describing the contents at the front of the file. In it I found a record I had read about years earlier, and was thrilled to now hold in my hand. It concerned an 1880 court case of a man named Allen Smith, attempting to prove in court that he was next of kin to Edmund Smith, (his stepson, the son of his wife Mary Bell/Kincannon) who died intestate, but with an estate of some value. One of the defendants in the case was Wesley Johnson, my GGG grandfather. (He was Mary Bell’s brother.) The papers I held had been hand written, and were an edited transcription of the original court depositions of the former slaves who knew Allen, Edmund and Edmund’s mother Mary Bell. Years earlier I had transcribed the rest of the case from photocopies loaned to me by another Wytheville researcher, but my copies had not included these depositions. Even better, they had already been transcribed (I believe by none other than Mary Kegley) so I was spared the tedium of trying to decipher the old script in the original file.
What a gold mine! Most of these people were former slaves owned by the Kincannons and by their neighbors and associates. They named their owners, as well as the people they had been hired out to, and their spouses. One even described his decision to never again marry a slave woman, because his first slave “wife” had lived 40 miles away. He continued to “court” other women, but finally married a free woman, and was approaching his 28th anniversary at the time of the deposition. Several of them were either relatives of mine, or knew them well. They spoke about their owners, their work, their living situations, their families and/or the family of Edmund Smith, and whether Edmund favored either of his purported fathers in looks. There was rather a lot of attention focused on Mary Bell Kincannon – when and with whom she was intimate. Of the three potential fathers brought up during the case: were they married (in slave marriages or otherwise), how often were they there visiting or “courting”, had they been seen in bed together? I found myself feeling a little badly for her – I am sure she would have been mortified to know she was the subject of these kinds of discussions, if she had still been living – but I would hope she could have settled it all rather easily if she had!
Throughout the testimony, there was a consistent avoidance of ANY discussion of slaveholders and their potential paternity, despite comments about how fair one slave or another was, and looks shared by (for example) the “Austin negros”. No one said that anyone had more “white” in them, but rather mentioned one slave being darker than another. I imagine that the judge and the lawyers and white former slave holders who testified may have known about slaves who looked rather fair and similar to their slave holders (even themselves or their parents) but obviously this topic was never touched upon. I noticed when I followed up on some of the names listed while searching marriage and death records that many documents would list “unknown” under father’s name, when I had a strong suspicion that the name was well known, but was just typically unspoken.
Previously, the most valuable records for me were the marriage and death records. The slave births were rarely recorded, but marriages (either those found in the Freedmen’s records that were “ratified” after slavery’s end, or those made after slavery) often recorded birthdates, birth places and parents names. Likewise, death records recorded these details, although often less reliably. Several of my records contradict each other. (For example – my GGG Grandmother’s children’s marriage records list three different maiden names for her – which I believe had to do with the fact that as a slave she didn’t really have an official last name – so she was probably known by the various slaveholders she worked for. I had already traced what I could for most of my direct ancestors and some close cousins, but these transcriptions provide an additional layer of information about the generation first out of slavery – about the time when the details of their lives were generally unwritten. Most of them are not direct ancestors of mine, but they are close!
Early in my research in this area when I first visited with Ossie, I brought with me an early version of my family tree – several pages taped together that I had generated with my family tree program, using information from a list I believe was a handwritten copy of entries in a family bible along with a few census records. I sat in the kitchen with Ossie and asked her about every name on the tree. Were they married? Who was the spouse, what were the maiden names? Who were the children? Were they married? Where did they live? Before her health failed her, she was sharp as a tack! With the “tree” layed out in front of her, it was easy for her to give me all the names. Then I visited with Ossie’s older sister Leon Holliday around the corner and spoke with Leon and her husband Albert who told me all they knew of their family history, and then let me copy down all of the information from the many funeral programs and cards they had kept in the front of their family bible. I wrote down everything, then at home I followed up with census records for initial dates, and then marriage, military and death records to fill in the blanks and additional names. Over time I met more cousins – and continued the process.
I have learned how the African American Crockett, Kincannon, Johnson, Jackson, Chaffin, Sayles, Sanders, Howard & Woolwine families were interconnected, as well as the relationships between some of their slave holders. There are very few records of slave sales in Wythe County, but clearly these slaves moved from household to household and had relationships, friendships and marriages – some formal and others assumed, to the extent it was possible. A lot of these families were affiliated with the Red Bluff Church in Ivanhoe and have extended families still in the area.
At this point, our family tree on Ancestry.com now includes several branches that are not “connected”. The community of people who lived there made up a kind of family even when they lacked ties of blood or marriage. Even between the Black community and the descendants of former slave holders there is an aknowledged “kinship” whether or not there are known blood ties (although in some cases this was a known and accepted fact). I’ve started hoping that some day we could have a big reunion, maybe even including descendants of former slave holders. Very soon I’ll need to write a post about finally connecting with a descendant of the man who owned (and likely fathered) my GGG Grandmother, Phoebe Jane Sanders Sayles. If you are interested in reading the court case transcription, please let me know.