Friday, June 1, 2012

When Compelling Pieces of Circumstantial Evidence Just Ain’t Enough for Me


     With relative ease, I traced one of my paternal lineages back to my great-great-grandfather, Peter Belton of Vicksburg, Warren County, Mississippi.  He was found living alone in the 1870 census.  That year, his reported age was 23 (born around 1847), and he was the only Belton in the county.  His reported birthplace was South Carolina.  I found him again in the 1900 Warren County census and his reported birth date and birth place were January 1840 in Mississippi   Because of these findings and no oral history about him, I ascertained that tracing him back even further would be quite a challenge.  Unfortunately, I was right.  A number of clues were unearthed, but I have been longing to find something that I consider concrete.

     Before I go into a few details about my research of Peter Belton’s history, let me present a brief synopsis about a very interesting and notable figure in Mississippi history.  His name is Capt. Isaac Ross of Jefferson County, Mississippi.  I believe Peter’s history is directly connected to this man.  Maybe one day soon, instead of using the terms “I believe”, I’ll be able to say, “The facts are.”  On the other hand, the circumstantial evidence that I will present just may be preponderantly adequate for some people to positively tie Peter to Capt. Ross.  I’ll love your personal feedback and opinion about the weight of this evidence.

       In a nutshell, Capt. Isaac Ross left Camden, South Carolina in 1808 and established a large plantation in Jefferson County that was known as Prospect Hill.  When he died in January 1836, his will stipulated that his plantation be liquidated and the proceeds be used to provide safe passage for his 200+ slaves to be freed and transported to Liberia in West Africa through the American Colonization Society (ACS).  His will also stipulated that his slaves be allowed to vote whether or not they wanted to go to Africa as free men and women.  It further stated, “Should the slaves refuse to go there, they (except those that have been specially named) are to be sold, and the proceeds paid over to the ACS, to be invested at 6 per cent, the interest to be employed for 100 years, in maintaining an institution of learning in Liberia, in Africa. If there shall be no government in Liberia, the said fund to be transferred to the State of Mississippi for a similar institution.”

     Not surprising, his heirs contested his will and battled it in state courts for nearly ten years.  Well, the enslaved Prospect Hill laborers grew very frustrated, and they orchestrated a revolt that burned the Ross mansion to the ground in April 1845.  Luckily, Capt. Ross’s will was finally upheld by law, and on January 7, 1848, the first group of 35 former Ross slaves left New Orleans on the Nehemiah Rich. A second group of 141 sailed out of New Orleans in 1849 on the Laura.  Both groups settled near the towns of Sinoe and Greenville in Liberia.  Their saga is told in Alan Huffman’s Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today

     Let me now present the circumstantial evidence of why I believe one or both parents and/or a grandparent of Peter Belton may have been on Prospect Hill plantation. 

EVIDENCE A:  The estate of Mary Allison Belton, Jefferson County, Mississippi, 1823 & 1827

     In my quest to determine who Peter Belton’s last enslaver may have been, I quickly determined from census research that no white Belton families ever resided in Warren County. I could not even find any white Beltons in the neighboring counties of southwest Mississippi, although a number of African-American Belton families were found living in those counties – Jefferson, Franklin, Claiborne, and Adams County.  This seemed odd.  However, an explanation was soon found.  Turns out, there was indeed one white Belton who resided in Jefferson County up until 1823.  Her name was Mary Allison Belton; someone had placed a transcription of her will online which named 16 slaves.  Dated April 12, 1823, it also named two nephews, Isaac & Arthur Ross. 
   
     Very interestingly, Internet contacts revealed that Mary Allison Belton, the childless widow of John Belton of Camden, South Carolina, had moved to Jefferson County with Capt. Isaac Ross and his family.  Capt. Ross’s wife Jane Allison was her sister.  The nephews she mentioned in her will were their sons.  I soon found her estate record at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and an inventory dated Dec. 6, 1827 listed 20 slaves by name, age, and value.  Capt. Ross was the executor of her estate.  This was a major find, but unfortunately I have not been able to determine the names of Peter Belton’s parents.  Perhaps, someone on this inventory was his parent?  I look at this inventory in wonderment.


     1-  Bridget very old wench  nothing
     2-  Harry   ditto ditto           ditto  (ditto means same as above)
     3-  Fanny  54 years of age                                                           $100
     4-  Hector 52 years old Stepney 34 years old                                 800
     6-  Sam 31 years old Esaw 29 years old                                       1200
     8-  Jacob 29 years old Hector 27 years of age                              1200   
     10-  Jefferson 25 years old Ben 24 years old                                1200
     12-  Dinah 43 Mathew 7                                                               450
     14-  Mary 26 years old Laura 4 years old                                       500
     16-  Risse (?) 24  Irn alia worth nothing
     17-  Henderson 5 years of age  Peggy 24 years of age                   500
     19-  Thornton 6 years old  Adam  4 years of age                            400
                                                                                                       6350

EVIDENCE B:  Peter Ross and Hector Belton of Liberia

     Twenty-four letters were written by “Ross Negroes” in Liberia to ACS officials in the United States.  A man named Peter Ross wrote the most letters before he died after 1859, and many of them expressed his grievance over the Ross estate administrators’ failure to submit funds in accordance with the provisions of Capt. Ross’s will.  Seeing the name “Peter” among the “Ross Negroes” raised my eyebrows. 

     On October 12, 1849, a man named Hector Belton wrote a letter to John Kerr of the A.C.S.  He stated, “….Now my dear sir, knowing you were always kindly and friendly disposed towards me, even when Capt. Ross were alive, and I now am old and helpless, can’t work, let me intrude upon you, notwithstanding past events…”  Hector Belton was undoubtedly the 52-year-old Hector in the slave inventory of Mary Allison Belton’s estate, 1827 (see above). 

EVIDENCE C:  Location

     As I mentioned earlier, Peter was the only Belton in Warren County in 1870.  However, considering Warren County’s close proximity to Jefferson County, one can plausibly surmise that a connection to Capt. Isaac Ross’s slaves seems very possible.  Perhaps, Peter decided to migrate up to near Vicksburg when he became a free man?


EVIDENCE D:  Peter Belton’s Marriage Record

     In 1880, Peter married Mrs. Martha Wilkins (nee Miller) in Warren County.  On his marriage record, a man named Jack Ross was his bondsman.  Bondsmen on marriage records are often relatives or long-time friends. In fact, a bondsman named Wesley Johnson was part of my great-grandfather John Hector Davis’s marriage record. I later learned from an elder family member that Wesley was a first cousin to John’s father.  Seeing Jack Ross’s name on Peter’s marriage record was quite an eye-opener. 


EVIDENCE E:  James Belton’s Accounts

     An online contact encouraged me to get into contact with James Belton of McComb, Mississippi.  He descends from the Beltons who lived in Franklin County (see map above for its location).  Luckily, his contact information was in the phonebook and I called him up.  As a lover of family history, he was very happy to talk to me.  James didn’t know anything about Peter Belton of Vicksburg, but he shared the following interesting tidbits based on oral history told to him by his father, Julius Belton, who was born in 1888.

(1)   His father had two great-uncles named Wade & Edmond Belton who were part of the Prospect Hill uprising in 1845.  Edmond escaped to Louisiana.
(2)   Most of the slaves that Capt. Isaac Ross owned and transported to Mississippi in 1808 were obtained from the Belton Family of South Carolina.  Many of them were mulattoes and were known as the “Ross-Beltons”.

     These oral accounts have not been proven with documentation.  However, it establishes that the African-American Belton families in southwest Mississippi in 1870 are likely linked to the enslaved people on Prospect Hill plantation.  Yet, in my personal opinion, the circumstantial evidence have not been enough to positively prove that Peter Belton is linked to the “Ross-Belton” slaves of Prospect Hill as well. Or is it??  What are your thoughts?  More research will be done to try to determine Peter's parentage, which has been the major brick wall in this research.  I can’t let it go!  Stay tuned.

16 comments:

  1. Nor should you let it go! Great research. It seems to me, you are on the right track with your theory. I hope you get a break in your brick wall.

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  2. Keep the ball rolling here. I think that your hypothesis is plausible, but that you need more information. Have you had any contact with genealogy people in Liberia? Who knows, they may have records there - diaries or manuscripts or letters.

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  3. More is needed to connect Peter to Isaac Ross. Don't let it go, something will come along to prove or disprove your hypothesis.

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  4. This is great research...Hope you find more information to make the connection.

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  6. Pursuing the descendants of Edmond Belton, who escaped to Louisiana might possibly lead to new contacts and/or details about the people and events of the Prospect Hill uprising. Likewise, a pursuit of information on the “Ross-Belton’s” of South Carolina could likely net the same or more. Based on the census material you have on your gg grandfather, Perter Belton, he would have been—at most—five years of age during the time of the uprising. The younger he may have been in 1845, the more likely he was with his mother or other family member.

    If I did my math correctly, the individual on the slave inventory who could likely have been the mother of Peter was, Laura. Laura may, or may not have been born at the time of Mary Allison Belton’s demise in 1823. She was age 4 in 1827/age 17 in 1840/age 22 in 1845/age 25 in 1847. Perhaps you have already considered a pursuit of information on Laura.

    Access to Liberian records would certainly be on my, to-do list.

    It is an interesting case! Surely, you will solve this mystery in due time. I will stay tuned.

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  7. A good puzzle, Mel. I think this line of research looks promising, but I think you still lack the proof! By the way, Peter Belton had an earlier wife -- he married Esther Friar 8 April 1871 in Warren County, see the marriage indexed on familysearch.org.

    And where the heck is he in 1880?!!!

    The most difficult folks I have found to search are those who were single or just married in 1870. The men were rather mobil, and if they aren't living with their parents there may be no clue about how to place them. And if someone is born in the 1840s, there is not much time to find them in the period 1840-1865.

    Keep up the good work on your blog!

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  8. Your hard work has uncovered some really plausible connections! After all, how far can coincidence explain things? No wonder you can't let it go. In a culture where parentage was so often hidden, it was hard even at the time to find proof, not to mention 150 years later. A daunting task, but I hope you keep with it!

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  9. This is great work and very detailed. I'm starting to question my own family tree because I not as diligent and discriminating about the evidence I find on the census. I think I might need to start being so. I don't believe in coincidences very much but I know that when searching for family history it can be difficult because their are certain names that are very common. But I believe that they are connected. You have done your due diligence, the only think I could think of is probably contacting people in Liberia who maybe descendents of Hector. I hope you keep up the amazing work you have done. Your story has inspired me to keep digging.

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  10. I was wondering if you've been able to discover more about Peter? I recently re-read Mr. Huffman's book and have been doing some digging of my own, being a descendant of the Ross and Wade families. My grandmother was the daughter of Eugene Allison Ross and Margaret Idella Wade. They all seemed to marry cousins and such, making it hard to track down exactly how we are related to people. I grew up hearing stories of Prospect Hill and the fire. It was such an amazing tale from both perspectives, but especially the desperation that must have been present in the slaves to torch the house. It was so jarring to look at your list of slaves and see how they were "valued" as "Old wench" etc. It makes you feel ill to view it. I wish you the best of luck with your search! I hope that you do in fact have some new information!

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    1. Hi Melissa, I haven't been able to uncover more about Peter Belton. I do match someone on 23andMe who identified her ancestors as Peter & Lizzie Ross, who lived in LA. I haven't been able to garner more info about her Ross ancestors because she won't respond to my message. And she is indeed my paternal relative. Hopefully, one day I will be able to get that big clue.

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    2. Hi Melissa, did anyone in the Ross/Wade family move up to Warren County, MS (Vicksburg) before 1865? You can e-mail me at melvinjcollier@yahoo.com. Thanks!

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  11. Hello Melvin, I enjoyed reading your blog and wish you the best in your pursuit of information about your ancestors. In reading your blog, I learned that Melissa Miles must be a cousin of mine as I am also a descendant of Eugene Ross and Margaret Wade. I see from your response to her that you have taken the 23andMe DNA test. I was curious if you have also taken the Ancestry.com test. I have and it would be interesting to see if there is a connection.

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    1. Hi William, yes I've taken ancestry.com test. Not sure how you can compare to see if we're related? My username is melvinjcollier.

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