Mother and baby being sold separately
Some of my ancestors owned human beings: placed them in terrible living conditions on plantations and had no problem abusing them, selling their babies, and inflicting other atrocities upon them. I understand that some will say slavery was a product of the time they were living in and that enslavement was normal for families who could afford to buy people and land. Well, I have plenty of ancestors who did not own humans and who actively fought against enslavement. I also have plenty of ancestors who spoke out against slavery during that time period and assisted in the Underground Railroad. I refuse to believe that any person with a heart could look at a mother and her newborn baby and just see them as commodities to be sold – to be listed as property alongside horses and goats. We all have brains, hearts, and critical thinking skills. So no, ancestors, I do not accept that because enslavement was normal during your lifetime that what you did was acceptable. My ancestors who enslaved others had the same opportunity to oppose it as my abolitionist ancestors but they chose not to.
One of my 5th great grandmothers Catherine Margaret Coward (maiden name Scarborough) was born 6 March 1772 in Accomack, Virginia, and died June 1831. On February 9th, 1831 she made a will where she goes into detail about the future lives of the people her family enslaved. I know according to the 1830 United States slave census she and her husband owned a total of 19 people: 10 men and 9 women, most of them under the age of 10.
Here is a transcript of her will:
“My slaves Patty & her daughters Margaret & Isabella & her son Edward shall all be free immediately after my death. To grandson Samuel W. C. Pettitt, after the death of his mother, two Negro boys Griffin & Charles. To grandson George D. Wise two Negro boys Thaddeus & Sandy after the death of his mother. To granddaughter Catharine S. Pettitt after the death of her mother, Negro girl Harriet. To granddaughter Elizabeth M. W. Wise after the death of her mother, Negro girl Caroline. Should my daughter Eliza E. Wise choose to take my house & lot in Pungoteague, then my daughter Louisa W. Pettitt should draw the equivalent value in cash or slaves. To female slave Patty all the property she has belonging to me. To Negro girl Margaret, daughter of Patty, … To my sister Alice S. Bayly $25. To friend William P. Moore $25 for the many favors he has done for me. Two sons-in-law John R. Wise & William M. Pettitt & friend William P. Moore Extrs. Witt: John A. Ames, John J. Ayres & George K. Taylor.”
To recap: Patty, Margaret, Isabella, and Edward are to be free after Catherine’s death. Griffin, Charles, Thaddeus, Sandy, Harriet, Caroline and others not listed by name are to remain enslaved.
What happened to those who were freed or remained enslaved? It was a miracle to find the names of those enslaved in the will since in US slave censuses individuals are listed only by age and sex up until 1870. No first names, no surnames. Finding out everyone’s fate will take considerable time and research – something I am happy to do as every genealogist enjoys a challenge. But, it is more important to remember that these individuals likely have descendants searching for them. The more we transcribe the wills of slave owners and make them searchable, the more likely it is their descendants will find them.
I decided to start with Sandy, listed in the will as being a “negro boy” given to George D. Wise. Remember, many of those enslaved took the surnames of those who owned them after emancipation, but some did not. It is not completely foolproof to search for a freed person by their former master’s surname. But I got lucky. In the 1870 US census, I found a Sandy Wise, age 50 (which places his birth year as 1820) living in Accomack, VA with his wife Lillie/Lydia and their children Leah, Ann, Sandy Jr., and George.
This is the only Sandy who fits the profile (age, skin color) of the same Sandy listed in Catherine’s will in Accomack, VA. Since Sandy was owned by the Wise family it is not unrealistic to imagine he kept the surname. However, this is only the beginning of researching Sandy and his family. Who were Sandy’s parents? He is first listed only as a number and age in the 1830 slave census. Were his parents there as well? Or were they split up and sold separately? Clearly, as you read in Catherine’s will, she had no problem giving young children to different families.
I do not want Sandy’s name lost to history. Sandy and others like him are why my ancestors became rich, could educate their children, and participate in the shaping of the United States government. On the back of a 10-year-old like Sandy, slave owners built their empire. For some this might be uncomfortable to discuss, embarrassing, or shameful. To me it is nothing more than sharing the truth.
If you know the names or information about the people your ancestors owned please share the information with Our Black Ancestry. To read subsequent blogs about Sandy, his family, and the others enslaved by Catherine’s family feel free to subscribe to this blog or keep checking back for updates.