Monday, September 8, 2014

Can’t Find Out; Was Bought From a Slave Trader

The death certificate of Nancy Cole, who died in 1914 at age 83 in Tate County, Mississippi
Notation for parents’ names: Can’t find out, was bought from a slave trader in 1845 aged 14 years

Yesterday was Grandparents’ Day, and as I was viewing the many death certificates I have found over the years, I stopped at this one of an elderly grandmother who died in 1914 in Tate County, Mississippi. It is rare to see notes like this on death certificates. Typically, if the informant didn’t know the names of the deceased's parents, the words “don’t know” or “unknown” were written, or the space would be left blank. However, when Nancy Cole’s son was asked who his mother’s parents were, his reply was detailed, sad, and stunning. It was also the reality of many formerly enslaved African Americans. I envision him saying something like this: “Momma came from Tennessee, but I don’t know who her parents were, and I can’t find out, either. She was bought by a slave trader at age 14 in 1845. That's what she told us.” I imagine that the pain of being sold away from her family was so great for Nancy, that she didn’t talk much about her childhood.

For years, I have tried to figure out how my great-great-grandmother, Lucy Milam Davis, was related to Nancy and her children. Many family members, including my mother and her siblings, knew Nancy Cole’s children and grandchildren – the Coles and Freemans of Tate County, Mississippi – as their cousins. No one has ever been able to tell me exactly how they were our cousins. Even my go-to elderly cousin, the late Sammie Lee Davis Hayes (1920-2007), could only say, “All I know is that they were close kin to Grandma Lucy.” Cousin Sammie Lee was my maternal grandmother's first cousin who loved talking about family history; she would tell me anything that she remembered. But, she too didn’t know how her grandmother Lucy was related to Nancy’s descendants.

My great-great-grandmother, Lucy Milam Davis (1846-1927), of Panola County (Como), Mississippi
Daughter of Wade Milam and Margaret “Peggy” Milam

What I do know is that Grandma Lucy was the daughter of Wade Milam, who was born c. 1820 in Alabama, and Peggy Milam, who was born c. 1829 in Williamson County, Tennessee. Initially, I had theorized that perhaps Nancy and Peggy were sisters. Further research into Peggy’s history revealed that her enslaved parents, Adam and Sarah, also had children named Random, Caledonia, and Sam. They all had been enslaved by Edward Warren, who brought them to Marshall County, Mississippi in the 1830s from Williamson County (Franklin), Tennessee. The family was named in an 1839 bill of sale. Peggy and her brother Sam were eventually sold to Joseph Milam of present-day Tate County by 1845. This blog post further explains that research discovery. Even my researching cousin Henrietta, a descendant of Sam Milam, was told by her elders that Nancy Cole’s children were their cousins, too. Maybe Nancy was actually Caledonia? Their ages match perfectly. Caledonia was reported as being 8 years old in that 1839 bill of sale. That possibility is very real; it was not uncommon for some people to be known by different names. Of course, those scenarios make genealogy research extra nerve-wrecking. Unfortunately, a lot of unknowns are not revealed through documentation.

To add, Nancy was married to a man named George Cole, with whom she had at least eight children. According to the 1870 and 1900 censuses, he was born around 1830 in Mississippi. His race/color was consistently reported as “mulatto.” This color designation is presumably accurate; family elders recalled that George and Nancy’s children were “light-skinned.” Since George Cole also fathered one of Peggy’s children, that left me to wonder if maybe the connection could be through my great-great-great-grandfather, Wade Milam, who was always noted as “Black”. But Wade was from Alabama. Could they still have been half-brothers? Right now, I don’t know. 

Maybe one day Nancy Cole will send down more definitive clues. I’ve had that death certificate for over 15 years. I’ve read that rare notation many many times. I remain confident that the pieces of the puzzle will come together.


  1. In all the years I have spent losing my eyesight trying to decipher death certificates, I have never found anything quite as awesome! I would absolutely get chills from reading this, but it is priceless information. Thanks for sharing!

  2. What radical testimony to make in 1914 on the legacy of slavery. I so admire the informant’s audacity to tell the truth and how his truth talking reached you generations later. “Unknown” would have shadowed the past even more, but instead Mr. Cole bared his heart and the conundrum of so many Black American families. To capture that kind of statement on a death certificate is priceless and so deeply profound!

    I hope one day you will be able to make the connection between Nancy and Lucy. Best wishes.


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