Friday, April 20, 2012

The Question of Slavery

So, how is it that some of the good folks selected to be the focus of "Who Do You Think You Are?" are always somewhat surprised and also somewhat embarrassed to discover that their middle-class white ancestors in the the South were actually slave-owners?

And that they sold slave children at slave auctions? And that some of those children were mulattoes, and probably the children of their owners?

In other words, they sold their own children?

Do we not teach this? Is this a mystery?

History is hard, apparently.

It's much easier if we don't dwell on the really complicated parts, like slavery.  Of course, that's why slavery comes as such a surprise to many folks for whom the Civil War was supposed to be all about "states' rights" (whatever that might be) and the "war of northern aggression."

Nobody wants to address the hard parts, like buying and selling people.

It's simple, really. 

There were parts of the United States in 1860 where people - real people with names and faces and personalities - could be bought and sold like houses, horses and sacks of potatoes.  The "state's rights" in question were the rights of slave-owners - often lower middle class white folks, not plantation owners - to be able to buy and sell people and in the process, divide up families.

 It's just that simple.

Everything else is commentary.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act - Did You Remember?

D.C. Emancipation Celebration
Today, April 16th, 2012 is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts.  It’s also the anniversary of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which pretty much nobody outside of D.C.’s boundaries ever heard of.  

You probably missed it.  However, that’s the reason why you don’t need to file your taxes today.

Everybody knows about the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.   However, the earlier District of Columbia Emancipation Act, signed by President Lincoln on 16 April 1862, produced a number of records that genealogists need to know about.  

First of all, the Act freed all the slaves in the District of Columbia. In addition, it established an owners’ compensation schedule, as well as a way for them to apply for it.

The D.C. Emancipation Act provided slave-owners loyal to the Union with compensation of up to $300 for each of their freed slaves and also provided for the voluntary relocation of slaves to locations outside the United States, with each former slave choosing to emigrate entitled to a cash payment of $100.00. 

Slave owners seeking compensation had to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.  

No oath of allegiance, no payment for you!

According to the National Archives and Records Administration website, over the nine month period following the signing of the Act, “…the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves”.

So, what’s a genealogist to do with this kind of information?

First off, a visit to the website being developed by the folks at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln is probably in order.  The website, called “Civil War Washington” and findable at contains transcripts of many of the applications for reimbursement, all of which come from “…Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in D.C.," National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 217.6.5, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, 1775-1978, as part of the "Settled Treasury Accounts" series.

There are some petitions that have not yet been transcribed, but those that have provide a unique insight for genealogists, both for slave-owning families and the slaves themselves.  

In addition to detailed physical and character descriptions of slaves, the petitions often describe specifically how the owners acquired their slaves, thus providing evidence of purchases from other owners, or, in the case of some slave-owners, a line of descent from an earlier ancestor that may not be available elsewhere.

For example, on 6 May 1862, about 3 weeks after the Act went into effect, Lucy A. M. Counselman, of Montgomery County, Maryland filed for compensation for her freed slave Lucinda Martin, who had been living (and working as a slave) in Georgetown for the previous two years.  In the application for compensation, Lucinda Martin was described as “…A black woman, Five feet, Two inches high, named​ Lucinda Martin, large eyes, wide mouth.”   She further notes that “said woman was willed to me by my Grandfather (Samuel Counselman,) Six years since, which said will is Recorded in Rockville Maryland.” Valuable genealogical information that provides today’s researchers with additional information on the Counselman family.    

As for Lucinda Martin, her former owner noted that she was “…of the value of Eight hundred dollars in money [and that] said woman is a good housekeeper she has been living out, since a child.

While this petition seems – on the surface – straightforward, slavery itself was complicated. 

This becomes obvious if you search for Lucy Counselman in the 1860 census.  There she is, age 23, in District Four, Rockville, Maryland, in her father’s household.  At the very end of the family listing, we find listings for two free blacks:  Virginia (the family’s washerwoman) and William Martin. 

 Here’s the actual listing:

In addition, the slave schedules for District Four, Montgomery County Maryland, show that John Counselman, Lucy’s father, owned eight slaves.  A William Counselman of Rockville, Maryland also owned eight slaves, and Rachel, John, Marion and Charles Counselman of the same location each owned one slave.  No doubt a familial connection could be established with these various Counselman slaveowners, likely going back to Lucy’s grandfather Samuel Counselman.

So exactly how were Counselman household free blacks William and Virginia Martin related to Lucy’s slave Lucinda Martin of D.C.?  This information is unavailable.   Were the other eight slaves of John Counselman also surnamed “Martin?”  Again, this information is not available.

There’s still more to come on this UNL website, as more petitions get transcribed and uploaded.   

However, even as it stands, it’s a great illustration that (a.) not all slaves worked on plantations;  (b.) slaves were hired out by their owners and were therefore a source of income; and (c.)  slaves and slave-owners’ fates were inexorably intertwined. 

The genealogical information in slave records often pertains to the owners and slaves alike.

Check it out, even if you’re not tracing a slave or slave-owning family.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Some Folks Call It "...The Single Best Civil War Photograph Collection in the World"

Sometimes, the best things are those things you find on your way to trying to find other things.  

Things that are totally unrelated to what you went looking for in the first place.  Things that are interesting in their own right, but not seemingly connected with your own very specific research interests.

In other words, serendipitous discoveries.

The word “serendipitous” and the noun “serendipity” came into general English usage because of the English writer Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Orford (1717 – 1797).  Walpole recounted the amazing (albeit fictional) story of the three princes of the phantasmagorical kingdom of Serendip, who were in hot pursuit of a lost camel.  

In the process of recounting the story, Walpole coined the word “serendipity.”

These days, “serendipity” suggests fortuitous things or discoveries that seem to just pop up by happenstance, unplanned and unsought-after.

And so it was that in the search for something entirely different, I learned that the folks at the U.S.Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle Pennsylvania had digitized the 19th century photo albums of the Massachusetts Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States(Mass - MOLLUS).  

This was no small feat as those albums contain literally thousands of Civil War era photographs.  In fact, the finding aid to the Massachusetts MOLLUS collection indicates that there are more than 4100 photographs taken in the mid-19th century in the collection.

The photographs cover a wide variety of topics:  portraits, group shots, panoramas, buildings.  You name it – there are all kinds of stuff in the one-of-a-kind photos in the Mass-MOLLUS albums.

Note that this is not actually a “new” online resource.  The digitization of these photos – and their appearance online - goes back to 2009.  However, like lots of stuff, if you haven’t seen it before, it’s “new” to you, just as it was “new” to me a few days ago.

That’s the thing with online resources – it’s hard to keep up with all the new stuff as it becomes available.

How important is this collection?   Here’s a quote for someone who should know:

"This collection is truly unique and considered the single best Civil War photograph collection in the world," stated the USAHEC's photo curator, Molly Bompane. "Now not only have we preserved this collection for future generations, we have made it much more accessible to the many researchers and enthusiasts around the globe who have an interest in the Civil War." 

So, what exactly was (or is) the “Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States” or MOLLUS?

MOLLUS was established in Philadelphia in 1865 after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  It was set up as a Civil War equivalent of the Revolutionary War’s Society of the Cincinnati, with membership open to officers and former officers of the Union military forces loyal to the Federal government.  Today, it is a hereditary organization open to male descendants of those Union officers who served during the Civil War.  You can learn more about it here.  Pehaps you can even qualify as a "hereditary companion."

The online collection of MOLLUS photographs on the USAHEC website is searchable, although I noticed that the results returned are not always correct.  (Note to USAHEC catalogers – “Port Royal” Virginia and “Port Royal” South Carolina are two different places.)  Still, with that caveat in mind, give it a try.

When you search and find a photo of particular interest, be sure to click on the “metadata” button.  You’ll learn a whole lot more about what you’re looking at.

So, what did I find?

A hitherto unseen Civil War-era photo of one of the grandkids’ third great-grandfathers, Edward William Hooper (1839 – 1901), the grandson of pirate fighter and entrepreneur William Sturgis, whose adventures were described in one of my earlier blogsposts here. 

Hooper, a recent Harvard graduate lawyer (class of 1859) that everyone called "Ned", was sent to Port Royal, South Carolina in March 1862 as part of the contingent of teachers & administrators from the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society (of which his father was vice-president) and served as private secretary to General Rufus Saxton, during which time he held the nominal rank of Colonel.  He was an important part of what is now known as the "Port Royal Experiment", about which I will write more in the near future.

Here’s the nattily dressed Ned Hooper, not yet 23 years old, looking quite properly Bostonian Brahmin-ish and all "private secretarial.”  The photo is part of the digitized MOLLUS photo albums on the USAHEC website.

Maybe you have no Massachusetts Civil War officers in your family, so you figure that MOLLUS is not for you.  Don't be so sure.  You may find that it doesn’t matter.   

Try searching by place (North Carolina) or event (Gettysburg).  All kinds of interesting photos will appear.

More importantly, poke around the nooks and crannies of the US Army Heritage and Education Center’s website and learn about resources you never knew existed. 

Remember, serendipitous discoveries are always great fun!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Those Pesky Penciled Census Codes in The 1940 Census

The Famous Ovaltine Decoder Ring
As genealogists, we strive to extract every last bit of information from a record. This, of course, is a good thing, all things considered.  

The problem comes when we try to read too much into a record and then start to see things that aren’t really there.   

Surely that mark or code must mean something important, we tell ourselves, otherwise why would it be there in the first place?

Do we need to get ourselves a secret decoder ring?

For example, now that the images of the 1940 Federal census are available for free in a number of locations online, people are flocking to the sites, downloading the images that they need, and now puzzling over some of the cryptic additions that were added to the census sheets once they reached the Bureau of the Census in Washington.

Could these cryptic codes added by the Census Bureau clerks contain additional information that would better help us understand the census entries in question?  If we knew exactly what they meant, might we better understand some small part of our ancestors’ lives?  Really, do we need that ring?

Actually… probably not.

Once the 1940 census sheets got to the Bureau of the Census in Washington, coding clerks went through them, looking for obvious mistakes, inconsistencies and so on.  An elaborate coding protocol was established so that the results could be quickly tabulated mechanically.  For example, if someone self-reported as “married”, but no spouse was present in the household, coding clerks were instructed to draw a line through the census taker’s “M” and write the code “7” in the space.  Thus a penciled “7” means “self-reporting as married, but no spouse present.” 

So, does this add anything to the researcher’s understanding of the census entry?

Actually… probably not.

The census entry clearly shows that the spouse is not present in the enumerated household.  It is not possible to tell from either the entry or from the coder’s actions whether the person coded as a “7” is married or not, even though he or she self-reports as such.

In reality, the coding clerks in Washington were not privy to any additional information.  Their only job was to code the information on the census sheets so that they could be machine-tabulated.  The coding operation was elaborate, employing, at its peak, 848 clerks working in two shifts.  There were general population coding clerks for the initial review, “comparison clerks” and even special editors to review and pass judgment on the new migration information contained in the question about residence in 1935.

Still, the information being coded was simply the information on the census sheets, as filled in by the census taker, nothing more and nothing less.  The Washington coding clerks were not endowed with special powers to know more about your ancestors than what was recorded by the census takers in the field, and even THAT information may be suspect.

Of course, sometimes, the code or correction was used to adjust a census taker’s failure to follow instructions.

For example, enumerators addicted to detail often put exact amounts in column 33 in spite of instructions to the contrary (column 33 was the “other income” column).  The Washington coding clerks were instructed to cancel out the amount and replace amounts over $50 with “yes” and amounts below $50 with “no.”  After all, that was what the question actually asked.  It was a “did you” question, not a “how much” question. Similarly, in the “income” column (Column 32) coders were instructed to cancel amounts over $6,000 and replace them with “$5,000+”

For those interested in the specifics of the Bureau of the Census’s 1940 coding operation, one of the best sources of information is an extensive document about the procedural history of the 1940 census on the IPUMS-USA website.  IPUMS is not a genealogy site; it is the acronym for the “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series” and is part of the University of Minnesota’s PopulationCenter.   Data geeks, statisticians and epidemiologists – all of whom use census data – are the primary users of this site. 

Here’s the specific link to the procedural history:

(Note: if you were at my talk at the wildly successful New York Genealogical and Biographical SocietyNew York Public Library’s “Road to the 1940 Census” event on March 24th, you would have found a link to the IPUMS site in my handout and would possibly have remembered my exhortation to the audience of nearly 500 genealogists to “Read the Enumerator’s Instructions and also Read The Procedural Histories”, both of which can be found on the IPUMS website.)

Bottom line:  Sometimes, what you see on the population schedule is actually all there is.  Coding clerks are rarely in a position to add new or more conclusive information.

Sometimes – and with all due apologies to Sigmund Freud - , a cigar is just a cigar, no matter how much we’d like to have it convey much more meaning.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Trouble Getting Those 1940 Census Images???

I decided to vent about the difficulty in accessing the 1940 census images on my other blog.  Yup, it's political. If you like to live in a rose-colored world where everything is wonderful, you won't like it.  If you truly believe that government is the root of all evil, you definitely won't like it. 

If you think that the private sector is made up of "job creators" and has all the answers, you'll likely hate it.

But if you had trouble accessing the census images today, especially after all the hype you've been hearing, you might want to take a look.

Today's 1940 Census Newspaper Story

On Saturday, there was a call on my voice mail from a reporter at the local newspaper, the Albany Times-Union.  The Times-Union is one of the largest circulating papers in eastern upstate NY, so, naturally, I was curious what he wanted to speak to me about.

I returned his call mid-afternoon; he said he was calling me because he was doing a story on the 1940 census.  We chatted for a bit about the census and why people might be interested in the forthcoming release.  I told him about crowd-sourcing the index and a bunch of other stuff, not all of which made it into print.

I asked him when the story was going to appear.  "Monday morning", he said.

So, this morning, I checked the online edition of the T-U and got to read the story.  Most of my quotes were reasonably intact.  Here's the link to the story online

Later in the morning, I got the print edition and was pleased to see that the story appeared on the first page above the fold - a position of prominence usually reserved to earth-shattering events like political indictments, murders, bank heists and the like.

Anyway, here's an off-the-cuff observation:  people who only see the print edition will not ever see (or even know about) the series of 12 photographs that appear in the online edition.  On the other hand, the folks who read the story online will never, ever know that the story itself ran on page one above the fold in the print edition.  

Each of those isolated facts adds something of interest to our understanding of the story's content.

In a sense, this is kinda what Marshall McLuhan was talking about back in the 60s when he wrote that "the medium is the message."  Information tends not to stand on its own;  it stands in a context that is provided both by the media and by the surrounding and enhancing content.

That's why it's important to always consider and understand the source of our information.  Editions matter.  Media matter.  Content may vary from place to place.

More than one source?  Check 'em all out!