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  • Kristin Wenger

What I Was Afraid I Would Find (#52Ancestors week 44: Frightening)


It was what I was afraid I would find.


After realizing that one of my great grandmothers had deep roots in the South, it seemed almost inevitable that slavery would rear its ugly head in one way or another. I only had to go back a few generations before the truth stared me in the face.


Photograph of two young boys who were enslaved [1]


Precious human souls were treated as nothing more than property by some of my ancestors. My emotions ranged from deep sorrow to complete outrage as I considered the gross injustice and indignities that were inflicted upon each life of those individuals who were enslaved.


This single writing cannot even begin to adequately address the colossal atrocity of slavery and its lasting impacts on families and our nation. So I’m not going to try. I’m just going to let the facts speak for themselves.


Take the map below published shortly before the start of the Civil War in 1861.

“Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the Southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860.” In some counties, more than 80% of the population was enslaved. [2]


My great grandmother Alma with me and my mom in 1979


Alma Lee Burnum was born in Alabama in 1891. [3] As I traced her family back to a time prior to the Civil War, I discovered that they had only been in Alabama for a few generations.


The Cain Family

Alma's paternal grandmother, Malinda D. Cain was born in Walker County, Alabama not long after her parents, Randolph P. and Cassandra (Sullivan) Cain, became some of the early settlers there. [4]

One of Randolph P. Cain's Alabama land patents, 1837 [5]


Both Randolph and Cassandra had been born in South Carolina. [6] As I researched their parents and grandparents, I found South Carolina or Virginia slave owners branching out in every direction. [7]


For the sake of narrowing the scope of this story, I will focus on Randolph P. Cain’s parents and younger brother, William, Mary (Vaughn), and Sampson Cain, all of Abbeville, South Carolina. [8]


South Carolina

Abbeville played a noteworthy role in the Civil War. On 22 November 1860, Abbeville hosted secession meetings which led to South Carolina being the first state to secede from the Union. [9] Located in the northwest part of the state, Abbeville (along with neighboring Edgefield District where Cassandra’s parents lived) was “one of the major cotton-producing areas in South Carolina. The plantation economy shaped society, with slaves comprising a majority of the area’s inhabitants and a few families controlling much of the wealth.” [10]

While my 4x great grandfather Randolph Cain moved west to Alabama, most his family stayed in South Carolina. The documents that follow are just a few examples of their multi-generational involvement in slavery.


Sampson Vaughn Cain (Randolph’s younger brother)

In 1850, Dr. Sampson V. Cain owned 50 human beings, listed only by age and gender on the image below. (His list actually included nine more slaves on the preceding page.) [11]



The first time I saw this 1850 slave schedule, it felt like a punch to the gut. I was sickened by the idea that living and breathing people, including babies and toddlers, were viewed solely as property and unworthy of being identified by name. I wept.


But my emotions motivated me to dig deeper and somehow try to learn more about each individual who was unjustly enslaved. To do that, I had to turn to the records of the slave owners.


Eight years after he enumerated his slaves, and just three years prior to the commencement of the Civil War, Sampson Cain died. [12]



In his will, as was common practice prior to emancipation, he bequeathed certain slaves to members of his family. [13] For African Americans attempting to trace their family history prior to the Civil War, studying the documents of slave owners is often the only way to identify their ancestors.

Identified by name (and bequeathed to Sampson's wife): Lavinia, Mira, Martha and her child, Louisa, Ella, Margaret, Georgianna and her child, Emma, Bob, John, and Jane.

Sampson named eleven slaves (along with their future children) to be given to each of his children. For example, his son John E. Caine was given individuals named "Joe, Allen, Solomon, Harriet, Adeline, Sylva, Jane + Milly (daughters of Jerry), Aleck, Catherine + Aaron."


Sampson was following in his parents’ footsteps.


William Cain (my 5x great grandfather)

Captain William Cain died in 1817, leaving this inventory of his “possessions.”[14]




Here is a close up of the names of individuals along with their “appraised value.”


Mary (Vaughn) Cain (my 5x great grandmother)

Mary outlived her husband by 30 years. Her will, just like her youngest son Sampson’s, gives very specific directions regarding the distribution of named enslaved people to specific grandchildren and her children. [15]





One paragraph of Mary’s will gave me at least a small glimmer of hope.

Lastly I desire that my old + faithful negro woman, Ginny, may have a home + maintenance among any of my children whom she may select and be regarded as nominally[?] free.

However, then I read Mary’s inventory and I went right back to feeling furious.

On the left side of the page, individuals were assigned to new owners in "lots". I hope and pray that they kept family members together in every instance, but that often was not the case. On the right side of the page, monetary values are assigned to the enslaved human beings.


When you dig into your family’s past and discover the very thing you were afraid you would find, how do you respond?

Here are a few questions I've been pondering...

  • Are we at fault for the decisions, actions, or values of people who lived almost two hundred years before us? (I really don't think so).

  • If not, then what is our responsibility? I think it is critical that we learn from their failures. In this case, they failed to recognize and treat every human soul as a precious creation of God, worthy of love, respect, and dignity. I hope I am teaching my children by my words and my example to do just that. Honestly, with three teenagers in my house, that can be a tall order some days. I can do better. We can all do better.

  • What are we doing in our world today that our grandchildren might look back upon and say, "How could they?!"

We cannot change the past or atone for the sins of our ancestors. But we can make sure that we do something tangible every day to make the future better for our children. Yes, I know that slavery in this country has been abolished for over 150 years. But, take a look around and I think you'll agree with me. We still have a long way to go until we fully address the heart issue that was behind the atrocity of slavery:

Recognize and treat every human soul as a precious creation of God, worthy of love, respect, and dignity.

Have I done that in all of my words and actions today?

Have you?



For fellow family history resesarchers:

Here are two ways you can honor the lives of people who were enslaved.

  • Identify individuals by name and reconnect family members who were enslaved so that their descendants can trace their family history. In most cases, this will first involve researching the families who owned them through wills, family papers, and plantation records. I recently listened to an excellent podcast featuring genealogists Amy Johnson Crow and Ari Wilkins that explains how to locate these southern plantation records. I am planning to get my hands on the book she mentioned. It may lead me to original family papers like this journal which provides details that could assist in identifying and piecing together families who were separated by slavery:

Plantation journal, 1822-1865. Entries include a list of slaves working at White Hall and Goshen plantations; blanket distribution lists; slaves on road work duty; list of crops; list of the names, mothers’ names, and birth, death or sold date of plantation slaves; list of 28 slaves with attributes... [16]
  • Read about their experiences in their own words: Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA). [17]


Return to blog


Sources:

[1] “Young boys,” Digital Public Library of America (https://dp.la/item/b55f71993fcf4c995d740b9697866bf1 : accessed 22 October 2018).


[2] E. Hergesheimer, artist, and Th. Leonhardt, engraver, “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the Southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860,” published by U.S. Coast Survey (1861); public domain image at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SlavePopulationUS1860.jpg : accessed 22 October 2018).


[3] "United States Social Security Death Index," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JYQ4-3YS : 19 May 2014), Alma Oswald, Aug 1983; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).


[4] For Malinda’s birth in Alabama, see "United States Census, 1850," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MH5C-4CZ : 12 April 2016), Milinda Cane [Malinda Cain] in household of Rondolf Cane [Randolph Cain], Walker county, Walker, Alabama, United States; citing family 254, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). For one example of Randolph’s land in Alabama, see Randolph P. Cain (Walker County, Alabama), homestead patent certificate no. 13718, 30 March 1837; digital image, General Land Office Records (https://glorecords.blm.gov/details/patent/default.aspx?accession=AL0900__.365&docClass=STA&sid=mo4jleox.f2w#patentDetailsTabIndex=1 : accessed 22 October 2018).


[5] Randolph P. Cain (Walker Co., Ala.). image, homestead patent no. 13718.


[6] “U.S. Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MH5C-4CZ : 12 April 2016), household of Rondolf Cane [Randolph Cain], Walker Co. Alabama, fam. 254.


[7] Kristin Wenger, relationship chart from William Cain (1776-1817) to herself, Joshua Alexa Nathan Wenger Family Tree. This chart is provided for visual reference with no specific documentation attached.


[8] “South Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1670-1980,” database with images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 September 2018) > Abbeville > Probate Records, Boxes 112-114, Packages 3311-3364, 1782-1958, will of Mary Cain, written 7 April 1845, proved 6 September 1847, images 563-566 of 583.


[9] Lowry Ware, “Abbeville,” South Carolina Encyclopedia (http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/abbeville/ : accessed 22 October 2018).


[10] For William Sullivan’s residence, see “South Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1670-1980,” database with images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 September 2018) > Edgefield > Probate Records, 1816-1826, inventory for Capt. William P. Sullivan, 5 March 1823, image 365 of 564. For 19th century economy, see “About Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, S.C.), 1836-current,” The Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026897/: accessed 22 October 2018).


[11] "United States Census (Slave Schedule), 1850 ," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MVZK-27D : 29 July 2017), Sampson V Cain, Abbeville county, Abbeville, South Carolina, United States; citing NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 444,824.


[12] “South Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1670-1980,” database with images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 September 2018) > Abbeville > Probate Records, Box 147, Packages 4158-4169, 4171-4182, 1782-1958, will of Samspon V. Cain, written 26 June 1858, proved 6 September 1847, images 148-151 of 308.


[13] Ibid.


[14] “South Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1670-1980,” database with images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 September 2018) > Abbeville > Probate Records, Boxes 21-22, Packages 456-510, 1782-1958, inventory for William Cain, 26 April 1817, image 50 of 434.


[15] “South Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1670-1980,” database with images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 September 2018) > Abbeville > Probate Records, Boxes 112-114, Packages 3311-3364, 1782-1958, will of Mary Cain, written 7 April 1845, proved 6 September 1847, images 563-566 of 583.


[16] Finding Aid for “Cain Family Papers, 1690-1900,” South Carolina Historical Society (https://schistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Cain-Family-papers-0565.00.pdf : accessed 23 October 2018).


[17] “About This Collection: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938,” Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/ : accessed 23 October 2018).