This post is a glimpse into my working practices when it comes to researching black ancestors who were enslaved. On the one hand, it will probably look like Olympic standard mental gymnastics. On the other, I hope it gives a good framework for other African Americans researching their own enslaved ancestors.
In this post, I’m going to concentrate solely on my Sheffey ancestors in Wythe County, Virginia.
A tale of a very tight knit family
Part and parcel of researching ancestors who were enslaved is acquiring knowledge about the family who owned them. Any chance of discovering such ancestors can only be accomplished through the records kept by slave owners. Our enslaved ancestors’ lives were inextricably linked to their owner’s family. Obvious, I know. Still, I’m stating this for a specific purpose. My enslaved Sheffey ancestors were kept together within the extended Sheffey family. I have no overall understanding of how usual or unusual a practice this was. The fact that the black and white sides of the Sheffey family were related may have had a part to play in this. With an increasing knowledge of the beliefs and quirks of the slave owning Sheffeys, I wouldn’t be surprised if this kinship was behind keeping my black Sheffey ancestors and relations together.
Not only was the family structure of my enslaved Sheffey ancestors and relations kept intact, it definitely seems as though the extended black Sheffeys were in regular contact with one other. It makes sense. My white Sheffey ancestors and kin were a close knit and very sociable bunch of people. Going from family home to family home, with slaves in tow, seems the most obvious way my black Sheffey cousins kept in regular contact with one another and maintained their closeness.
How do I know the black Sheffeys were every bit as tight knit as their white counterparts? The 1870 Census. Whether it’s Wythe County towns like Wytheville, Cripple Creek, Ivanhoe or Black Lick (and Marion in neighbouring Smyth County) – there they all are, my black ancestors, all living near to one another. And through numerous marriage records showing second and third cousins from the different Wythe County towns (and Marion) marrying one another.
In other words, it wasn’t the habit of Sheffey slave owners to split the families of their black relations apart. Which has made researching my black ancestors an easier task than if they had been sold all over the southern states. Research is showing that my black Sheffey ancestors and kin were passed, intact, by my white Sheffey kin to other Sheffey family members in their Wills.
Now all I need is to find the Wills to actually prove this. Which segues quite nicely back to my opening sentences.
Enter genealogy: Focusing on the oldest known generation of back & mulatto Sheffeys
Let’s take a look at the oldest known members of my earliest known black Sheffey ancestors.
I’m going to focus on three people: Jemimah, her son Jacob Sheffey and his wife, Elsey George.
Once you’ve identified an owner for an enslaved ancestor, it’s a good idea to do a rough work-up of that owner’s family tree. Slaves were usually passed from generation to generation. Doing a genealogical work-up of a slave owner and his family can provide clues about your enslaved ancestor’s genealogy – identifying siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins to additional children they may have had.
Once you have done an outline of a slave owner’s family tree, the next step is to find any Wills, estate records, estate inventories (usually done as part of the probate period), tax records, letters and journals – anything that might make reference to slaves by name. I have uncovered previously unknown family lines through this practice.
If an enslaved ancestor lived to an advanced age (say, seventy or older), and appears on the 1870 Census, you stand a good chance of tracing who owned them when they were born and then all the subsequent family members who owned them and their family. The caveat is this works so long as they were kept within the same family.
I find that it helps my research if I draw some outlines of inter-connections and relationships between enslaved ancestors and how they connect to various owners. Visual aides always help my research. Like the working example below:
The image above is a working outline I’ve shared with some Sheffey DNA cousins trying to place their ancestor, Godfrey Taylor Sheffey, into my overall Sheffey family tree. We know there is a connection. The men in their line bear an uncanny resemblance to me and many of the men who are descendants of Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Seriously! It’s like the men in Jacob’s line were cloned!
Through plotting the image above, it’s my hunch that Godfrey Sheffey’s parents were Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Laying out all the known, pertinent facts – as they have been in the image above – just makes that hunch even stronger.
However, the image above serves a few purposes. There is more within it than meets the eye at first.
Jemimah’s origins remain a mystery. By that I mean I have no clue who owned her when she was born in 1770. This void means I have no clue about who her parents were, or the identity of any siblings – or what family name her family would have used. Her early life requires a lot more work. She was born before the second generation German-American Sheffey’s (e.g. Daniel Sheffey and his brother Henry Sheffey) arrived in Virginia and became save owners. Daniel and Henry were still children themselves in Frederick County, Maryland. So she couldn’t have originally been owned by them. I’m hoping a trail of Virginia Slave Deeds of Sales will lead me back to her first owner.
Some Deductive Reasoning and Critical Thinking
Now the next bit requires deductive reasoning and critical thinking. These are not ideal tools of the genealogist. However, my previous critical thinking and deductive reasoning has led to some remarkable genealogy breakthroughs.
Our enslaved ancestors’ stories are inextricably linked to the story of the families who owned them. This includes their Properties and Places of residence – I refer to this as P&P.
Here’s a working example: In order for Jacob and Elsey to have a ‘union’ and produce children, they were more than likely resident within the same Sheffey household. So which one? My thinking is that Jacob and Elsey were owned by Henry Sheffey. And here’s how I came to that deductive conclusion:
- Elsey’s first child was by James Lowry White, Henry Sheffey’s brother-in-law. Elsey and James were both teenagers when that child was born. So it makes sense that she was owned by James’s father, William White, and not by James. Carrying this deductive reasoning further, it seems highly probable that Elsey was born into William White’s household. William White more than likely also owned her parents and siblings – I’ll come back to this in a bit**.
- Elsey more than likely became a part of Henry Sheffey’s household through his wife, Margaret White. I’m guessing that Elsey was part of an inheritance. And she came with her first born, the son she had with James White. In order for Elsey to meet and be courted by Jacob, I can only see this if he was already established in Henry Sheffey’s household.
- If Jacob was already part of Henry Sheffey’s household, there is a strong likelihood that Jemimah, his mother, was also part of this household.
Now deductive reasoning requires a paper trail in order to convert reasoning and deduction into fact. Henry Sheffey has stymied me in this. He died fairly young. Some of his sons were raised by his brother, Daniel Sheffey, while others were raised by his brother-in-law, James White. If Henry left a Will, I haven’t been able to find a copy of it. Nor have I been able to find any reference to a Will. Nor have I been able to find any probate or estate inventory papers. This means I have no idea what happened to my ancestors when he died. Did his sons inherit them? Were they held in trust by the boys’ guardians? I don’t know. In short, there is no paper trail to follow…yet.
Jacob and Elsey had their first child while Henry was still alive (this was my 2nd Great Grandfather, Daniel Henry Sheffey, Sr). Jacob and Elsey’s remaining 5 children were born after Henry Sheffey’s death. Jacob and Elsey were clearly together. But where? In whose household? That remains a mystery.
What I do know is the trail picks up in the Wythe and Smyth Cohabitation Records that were compiled in February of 1866. The Cohabitation Records cite the last slave owner for each formerly enslaved person cited within it. And many of my Sheffey ancestors and relations are listed within these documents. By and large, all were owned by members of the extended Sheffey family.
Intricately Connected Lives
Last Wills and Testaments would answer so many of the questions that I have. And these are proving stubbornly elusive. Wills for Henry and his brother Daniel would answer quite a few. Their children’s Wills won’t provide any answers. They all died after the end of the Civil War. There were simply no slaves for them to bequeath. Added to this, not all of their children, notably the Reverend Robert Sayers Sheffey, owned slaves.
The two Wills I have mentioned, however, would shed some light on:
- Which of Henry and Daniel’s children inherited family slaves before the onset of the Civil War
- How my family members came to be with extended family members like the Morrisons, Spillers, Robertsons, Sanders and Porters.
Knowing this would better enable me to understand how formerly enslaved Sheffeys came to reside where they did within Wythe and Smyth Counties. In other words, this knowledge adds missing context to their lives and their histories.
**Now, back to Elsey George, her family, and how their lives were so closely entwined with that of the White family (let’s not forget I’m related to this family too through my mother’s Harlan lineage!).
William White owned extensive land holdings and enterprises throughout Virginia as well as Kentucky (Harlan County) and Alabama (Hunstville, Madison County). His son, James White, expanded upon his father’s business and became one of the wealthiest men in the southern states. William and James moved slaves throughout their various estate holdings in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. And in all the places they owned property, I find members of the George family.
Every. Single. Place.
It’s going to be quite the adventure to stitch the George family story back together. I have yet to find a copy of William White’s Will. James White died intestate. However, his billion dollar estate (in today’s money) resulted in a long and protracted lawsuit between his heirs. His estate holdings, if reports are accurate, were well documented as part of this lawsuit. And I’ve found where all of his estate and personal papers are kept: The University of Virginia Library http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=uva-sc/viu00730.xml This collection will be a goldmine of information when it comes to piecing together the George family tree. I’m also hoping it will shed some light on Henry Sheffey’s estate, including which family members inherited Henry Sheffey’s slaves.
So, let’s recap.
There’s no getting around it. You have to do some genealogy work on the family or families that owned your enslaved ancestors. Yes, it’s extra work. Rather a lot of extra work, if the truth be told. In my case, it was part and parcel of my family genealogy research because the people who owned my enslaved Sheffey ancestors are blood relations.
Once you’ve done a genealogical outline of the family who owned your ancestors, the next thing on your list is to track down any existing Wills or probate estate inventories that will cite and list the slaves. Provided your enslaved ancestors were kept within the same family for generation after generation, you can trace them from place to place, and by generation after generation.