Legacy of Slavery in Maryland: Searchable Database of 300,000 names

The Maryland State Archives Online is constantly changing, which can be confusing for users but more often presents new opportunities for research without leaving home. Today I want to draw your attention to the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland database. Now expanded and easier to use, this database includes more than 300,000 names of people both black and white. It searches Census records from 1776-1880, and 26 additional categories of records, including runaway ads, chattel records (sales of slaves), manumissions, slave jails, accommodations docket (fees for housing runaways), and assessment records (assessments of slaves in estate inventories). Most of the records are from 1830-1880. The database provides basic information, sometimes a description of the person, the name of the owner, and a full citation to the Maryland State Archives (MSA) Record Series from which the information has been transcribed.

Runaway ads can be extremely important sources of information. Slaveholders provide the most complete information about a slave when in it is their interest to do so, so the ads often include personal characteristics and skills, as well as full name, appearance, height, and distinguishing marks. They also include speculation about where the runaway might be headed, and most often that is back to where they came from or where they have family members. Browsing the ads for runaways from Magruder plantations, I’ve learned that one man likes to dress well; that another is a good carpenter; that a woman is an excellent cook; that another woman talks too much; that another man had been free to hire himself out in Washington City, but had recently disappeared, probably headed for Baltimore and then to Pennsylvania and freedom.

Good luck in your search.

Priscilla Gray & Her Descendants, in bondage to Maryland Magruders for 150 years

For at least a year I have been promising to compose a page about Priscilla Gray and her descendants. Priscilla was a mulatta “born of a white woman,” indentured as a servant to Sarah Magruder, widow of Samuel Magruder (d. 1711). Technically, Priscilla was a free woman, because her mother was a free white woman, but long periods of indenture imposed on both mothers and their illegitimate children kept women like Priscilla in virtual slavery for years, sometimes for life.

In 1727 Priscilla was convicted for the same crime her mother had committed–bearing an illegitimate mixed-race child–and sentenced to seven additional years of servitude to Sarah Magruder. Her child was sentenced to 31 years of servitude. It was rare in Prince George’s County, in those years, for a woman to be prosecuted more than once for the crime of “mulatto bastardy.” Priscilla, her daughters, and other women held in bondage by the Magruders and families with whom they intermarried seem to have comprised a majority of the repeat offenders. In all, Priscilla bore seven children and served an additional 35 years of bondage for the “crime” of childbirth. Her daughters–each of whom was held in servitude to the age of 31–suffered the same fate, their terms of service extended with the birth of each child. Some of Priscilla’s daughters and other descendants did manage to survive long enough to obtain their freedom; others not. Slaves named Gray were named and manumitted in Magruder wills right up to 1860, the eve of Emancipation.

There are many gaps in my information on the Gray family. I hope in future to fill some of those gaps; but for now, here is what we know about Priscilla Gray and her legacy. If you are an African American descended from Priscilla, please get in touch, and teach me more about your family’s story.

More on the Mullin/Mullen Family

I have just finished a major overhaul of my page about the Mullin/Mullen family, whose members were manumitted between 1803 and 1817. The first to gain freedom were “Old Basil” Mullen and his wife Ester or Easter, who were manumitted by the will of Benjamin Hall in 1803. (Benjamin Hall was the father of Eleanor Hall [widow Clark] who married John Smith Magruder.) Basil was a carpenter, and it seems he immediately set about earning money to purchase and manumit his relatives. In 1806, he manumitted his daughter, Sarah Digges, with four of her children, having purchased them from Henry Lowe Hall (son of Benjamin and brother of Eleanor Hall Magruder). In 1810 he purchased another daughter or daughter-in-law, Dolly Mullen, with one of her children, and a son, Basil, who was also a carpenter, with his wife Suck [Sukey] and one of their children. Finally, in 1814, Basil purchased his son Joseph with wife Kate and two daughters from John Smith Magruder, and manumitted them in 1817. Read more about this hard-working and loyal family and the process of “bootstrapping” to gain freedom.

More on family of William & Matilda Bowie

James Louis Bacon, a descendant of William & Matilda Bowie, is working on a family history that includes the Bowies, as well as his Jackson ancestors who were key figures in the Underground Railroad in Jersey City, New Jersey. He has very kindly shared information about the Bowies and answered many of the questions left open in my page about William & Matilda. I have updated that page, accordingly.

William & Matilda and three of their children were manumitted by the will of Roderick McGregor. (Two older sons were not included in that manumission.) One of their grandsons (William A. Bowie, son of Nathaniel Bowie) was co-founder of a bank in Washington D.C. and prominent in the black community. Considering that Nathaniel was 15 when he was manumitted, that his parents were illiterate and that he himself received little formal schooling, it is truly impressive that his son William achieved so much. I am very grateful to Mr. Bacon for sharing this information and pointing me to articles and advertisements in the Washington Bee (a black newspaper in  D.C.) that detail William A. Bowie’s career. I look forward to reading the history of his family, on both sides.

I also have new information about slaves inherited by Roderick McGregor’s wife, Ann Eleanor Eversfield Berry (widow Eaton), in 1832. I’ve not yet had time to update the page on the slaves of Roderick McGregor, but will do so soon.

Will of William Mordecai Bowie/Af-Am Addisons

I’ve just put up a new page, with info from the 1863 will of William Mordecai Bowie, including a probable link between the 1880 census and two slaves named in his estate inventory–Roderick Addison and Aaron Addison. In 1880, three Addison households + other Af-Am families named Coats, Simms, Ferley, Shaw, Pottinger, Sprigg, Marshall, Fletcher, and Diggs were living in close proximity with Margaret Bowie (William M. Bowie’s widowed daughter-in-law), as well as Roderick McGregor (II), his mother Susan E. McGregor. Af-Am servants named Williams were in the Bowie and McGregor households. And not far off lived John T. Sansbury (“Sandsbury” in this census) who had previously been an overseer for Roderick’s uncle, the first Roderick McGregor.

The effects of small slaveholding in Maryland

From Barbara Jean Fields’ Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century–some context on the problem of tracing African-American family members in Maryland.

Though almost anyone would select slave trading as the villain of almost any piece, small-scale slaveholding does not seem as obviously type-cast for the role of villainy. Nevertheless, much of the suffering incidental to slavery in Maryland resulted, directly or indirectly, from the small size of slaveholdings, a characteristic that had become steadily more marked over the years from the Revolution to the Civil War. Few holdings in Maryland would have rated the name “plantation” in the eyes of slaveholders from the lower South… (p 25)

Despite Fields’ claim that this was a growing phenomenon in the early years of the Republic, Russell Menard describes very similar patterns in the late 17th c. In the period 1658-1710, nearly half of all slaveholders owned only one or two people, and only 15 out of the 300 surveyed owned more than 20. “More than half of the slaves lived on plantations with ten or fewer blacks, nearly a third on estates with five or fewer…making isolation and loneliness a prominent fact of life for Africans in the Chesapeake colonies.” Evidence suggests that some slaves in this early period, especially those who were married, had more autonomy in their daily lives than was common in later periods. (Economy and Society in Early Colonial Maryland, pp 266-69)

Back to Fields:

The most common slaveholding in Maryland by 1860 was one slave; half the slaveholders owned fewer than three slaves, three-fourths fewer than eight, and 90 percent fewer than fifteen slaves. (p 24)

Small holdings divided family members among several owners, exacerbating the potential trauma of sale and attacking the integrity of family life even when the question of sale…did not arise. Husbands and wives might live apart…seeing each other only when granted permission… What went for husbands and wives also went for parents and children, and doubly so for  grandparents and grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles. (p 26)

The desire to be reunited with family members figured prominently in escapes, as owners made clear when advertising…[For example], the purchaser of Barbary Williams, a fifty-year-old woman who escaped soon after being sold by her deceased owner’s estate, mentioned five different neighborhoods to which the fugitive might have gone seeking relatives, including her husband. (p 26)

The division of family members among a number of small slaveholders multiplied…the danger of a family’s disruption by the financial mischance or simple human mortality of an owner. Small slaveholders were more vulnerable than planters to the financial reverse that might require the liquidation of slave property. Slaves with families parceled out among several such owners must have lived in permanent apprehension of disaster, especially since the evidence of that disaster’s having befallen others lay constantly before them. From the death of an owner slaves had more to fear, furthermore, than the possibility of sale. For every slave sold upon the death of an owner, many others must have been simply sent elsewhere–to the residence of an heir, for example–where old attachments would be sundered as surely as if a sale had taken place. (p 26-27)

Here is one painful example from early Magruder history: in 1734, Sarah Beall Magruder (wife of Samuel Magruder, son of Alexander the immigrant) left her nine slaves to nine different heirs in eight households.

Wills of John Read Magruder Sr. & Jr. (& of George Lee)

Today I published info from the wills of John Read Magruder Sr (d 1811) & Jr (d 1831) under Slavery’s Legacy. Buried in there is some detail from the will of George Lee, a close family friend. There are no surnames in the lists of slaves from the two Magruder estates. The surname Gillam appears in Lee’s will, and all three documents include some family relationships among the slaves. Lee gave immediate freedom to a “yellow woman” named Letty and her son Carter, and freedom after ten years to Letty’s “yellow girl” Anna.

Using sources that may be dodgy

I started this train of thought in my last post, re: ACGS Yearbooks. Here’s a little more.

The perpetual problem in family history research is that so many of the available narratives are unreliable–sometimes intentionally so, more often because the authors and compilers haven’t exercised a very high standard of evidence analysis. Often no distinction is made between what has been proven and what is believed, and enthusiasm counts for more than accuracy. It hardly matters whether you’re looking at your grandmother’s genealogical notes, a magazine article about a local historical site, or the efforts of an amateur historian–rarely will such sources prove entirely sound.

People make mistakes. (About half the family trees I’ve seen on Ancestry.com give the wrong name for the father of John S. Magruder. His father was Nathaniel; his uncle was Nathan. Read Nathaniel’s will if you don’t believe me.)

People hide secrets. (Is the birthdate in a family Bible accurate? Or does it hide an out-of-wedlock conception?)

People find one record and stop looking. (The wife’s not in the will, therefore the wife was deceased.)

People assume public records are accurate. (Try comparing ages for one person across 2 or 3 19th-century census records!)

People look for evidence to confirm what they already believe, or want to be true, ignoring gaps and contradictions. (Among those associated with a particular family, I’m looking for African-Americans named Basil Mullin, so I want to believe a slave named Basil, with no surname given, must be another Mullin.)

People like heroes, villains, and good stories. (We’d like it if Roderick McGregor had freed all his slaves in his will. Sadly, he didn’t.)

That’s the reality, so what should we do? The question is not whether to use sources that may be unreliable–often they are our only starting point. The question is how to use them. And the answer is twofold: cautiously and proactively.

Here’s an example from my own research.

In the 1917 Year Book of the American Clan Gregor Society, Caleb Clarke Magruder, Jr., published a 26-page article titled “Nathaniel Magruder of ‘Dunblane’,” in which he summarized and quoted from the wills and estate records of Nathaniel Magruder (d.1786) and a large number of his descendants. C.C. Magruder was one of the better researchers among the early ACGS writers, and I am interested in this particular family, so I am quite happy to have this article. It has pointed the way toward several interesting lines of inquiry, clarified some family relationships about which I was hazy, and given me a large panorama of the family’s property-transference, slave-owning, and other matters.

But that’s not the same as accepting C.C. Magruder as the final word. Here’s where caution and proactive research come in.

I had already read a few of the wills he quotes, so I spotted one large error right away: he says Roderick McGregor did free all his slaves, when in fact he freed only one family. This is very clear in the will and in the estate inventories. (I’ll refrain from theorizing how this mistake could be made, but there it is; and others have quoted it as authoritative.) This alerted me to treat the article with caution, but you shouldn’t need any special red flags. You should always follow up with your own legwork. (See Will of Roderick McGregor and related pages, for images and transcriptions.)

I discovered another error quite by chance… or, rather, by casting a wide net. On subjects that interest me, I read every published source I can find, and I often start with the index. That’s how I discovered–in Letitia Woods  Brown’s Free Negroes in the District of Columbia 1790-1846–that one Elizabeth Magruder made her will in the District in 1827, including detailed provisions regarding her slaves. When I first found that information, I didn’t know who this particular Elizabeth Magruder was. C.C. Magruder’s article clued me in that she was Nathaniel Magruder’s unmarried daughter (and John S. Magruder’s sister). Why Elizabeth made her will in Washington, D.C., despite the fact that her legal and apparent residence was the family plantation, Dunblane, in Prince George’s County, may be explained by the will itself: her executor and all her heirs are found in the family of one of her sisters, a D.C. resident. Another lesson here: check other jurisdictions, wherever your target has relations, business interests, or property. (See Will of Elizabeth Magruder and related pages, for the rest of the story.)

The last issue I’ll talk about took a while to pin down. Because Roderick McGregor’s wife, Ann, is not mentioned  in his will, C.C. Magruder states that  she predeceased him. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption in a time when divorce was so extremely rare. But once all the clues are assembled, it seems very probable that Roderick and his wife Ann were legally separated or divorced at the time of Roderick’s death. I picked up this trail in the 1850 census, which shows Roderick living alone and Ann living with a woman who is likely her mother. It took me a while to feel  confident that this Ann McGregor was Roderick’s wife–I think I first drew the connection from the genealogy in Sue Emerson’s Magruders in America. Sue doesn’t give sources, so at that stage I had to call it a working hypothesis and keep digging. Eventually, I found Ann McGregor’s will, from 1871, which confirmed her identity. My last confirmation came from details in an 1850s land record. Again, the lesson is: cast a wide net. Search every category of records you can reasonably reach, for any and all information about your target. (See Interrelations page in the Magruder-McGregor pages, for details of this story.)

One way to contextualize any article you are reading is to consider what sources were and were not consulted. C.C. Magruder’s article on Nathaniel was based primarily on a survey of wills in Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia. You immediately know that you can and should look for other categories of records to confirm and expand the information.

And then, since we are people, too, and prey to all the mistakes I listed at the top of this post… distinguish carefully between what you can prove and what you believe to be true, and then be thorough and transparent in documenting and revealing your sources, allowing others to judge how firm the basis for that belief might be. It is useful to read each other’s theories; it is the opposite of useful to read a theory presented as if it were fact.

No time to do all this? Fine, just practice that very last piece of advice, letting the rest of us know that (so far) your only source is an uncorroborated article or family tree, and more work remains to be done.

In Evidence Explained, in the chapter on “Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis,” Barbara Shown Mills offers 6 descending “Levels of Confidence” that a conscientious researcher can communicate to readers.

Certainly: no reasonable doubt, sound and adequate evidence

Probably: more likely than not, good evidence but not quite certain

Possibly: some evidence, but far from proved

Likely: enough evidence that the odds are in its favor

Apparently: you’ve formed an impression but not tested it

Perhaps: you think an idea is plausible, but have not tested it

This is a useful vocabulary, whether or not we all conform to Mills’ exact  distinctions. It allows us to share what we’ve found without making too-large claims about what our research “proves.”

Probing the Past

I’ve added a link to my blogroll for this excellent site (from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and Gunston Hall Plantation). You’ll find, in addition to resources for teachers, a fully-searchable archive of 325 probate inventories from the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia from the period of 1740 to 1810. As the introduction says–

Probate records provide valuable information about the lifestyles of people during the colonial and early national periods. Such listings of possessions, from a time when household goods were not widely mass-produced, illuminate a family’s routines, rituals, and social relations, as well as a region’s economy and connection to larger markets. They also shed light on attitudes and policies toward slavery. For famous people, these records enrich our knowledge and understanding of their daily lives and values. For ordinary people, they offer a rare glimpse into their lived experience. These records also provide an opportunity to engage in comparative studies with other eras and to analyze how culture changes over time.

The project was begun by researchers at George Mason’s home, Gunston Hall Plantation, as a way of building a context for data about Mason and life on his plantation. The criteria used in selecting the 325 estates therefore assure that this is primarily a portrait of the wealthiest planters of his day. A few others sneak in because they have features of special interest, such as room-by-room inventories. Three Magruders by name and other Magruders by female descent are included. Note that in the record for Nathaniel Magruder (who met the room-by-room criterion) the transcriber omitted two pages, including the page where slaves are inventoried. All pages seem to be present in the scans of the original document.


Progress on building the site

In Slavery’s Legacy, I’ve finished the pages for the wills of John S. Magruder and his son Roderick McGregor, also for the William & Matilda Bowie family, and for Washington and May Magruder. African American surnames that show up on those pages include: Magruder, Bowie, Dodson, Godfrey, Henry, Buchanan, Vermillion, Chapman, Shaw, Chase, and Stewart. I can’t list all the first names, but you can use the Search function to look for them–that’s why I type out all the names, even when I’ve uploaded an image of the document they come from.

I thought I knew this material backwards and forwards, but in fact there was a lot to learn. Writing out the details, listing the names and ages, checking the sources, I stumbled on a couple of new connections and several  unanswered questions.

I also invented some new curse words for the broken Search page on the Archives of Maryland “Beneath the Underground: The Flight to Freedom” site. Good thing I compulsively download and save copies of just about everything…and can even occasionally find them.