Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Runaway Slave in the Family Tree

Slave ad offering $100 reward for unnamed man, about 30 years old, Ripley Co., Missouri (Source)

The ancestors are working overtime! Within this past week, they have led me to two revealing court cases! The first one involved my paternal 3rd-great-grandmother Annie, the mother of Grandpa Robert “Big Bob” Ealy of Leake County, Mississippi. Last week, I found the 1832 North Carolina Supreme Court case of William Hunt vs. Edwin Bass et al, in which William Hunt, Edwin Bass and his brothers fought over the ownership of Grandma Annie, her youngest child Lazarus, and a man named Ned, all in Nash County, N.C. Elated about this genealogical discovery, I was also saddened from picturing the agony Grandma Annie faced while people fought over her and her infant child's fate. A published opinion of that case can be read HERE.

Well, two days ago, I received an e-mail from a descendant of John & Anna Burnett, the last enslavers of my maternal 3rd-great-grandparents, Jack & Flora Davis (both born c. 1815 in S.C.), and their children of Panola County (Como), Mississippi. This descendant had found my blog post, Ain’t Gonna Take Massa’s Name, and realized that her ancestors owned slaves. I hadn't researched the Burnetts in a while. Therefore, because of our e-mail exchanges, I decided to do some "googling" just to see what else is out there about the Burnetts. Around 1861, they left Abbeville County, South Carolina and settled on land located on the now Tate-Panola County line, transporting Jack, Flora, their children, and others with them.

Before I go into the “juice” of this discovery, I must first mention a man named Wesley Johnson. He was born around 1852 in Abbeville County, South Carolina. The Burnetts also brought him to Mississippi. Years ago, I found my maternal grandmother’s parents’ marriage record. Poppa John H. Davis married Grandma Mary Danner in 1892 in Panola County. I noticed the name Wesley Johnson as being the bondsman. Learning that bondsmen are often family members, I asked my maternal grandmother's first cousin, the late Cousin Sammie Lee (Davis) Hayes, about him. Immediately, Cousin Sammie Lee relayed, “Oh, that’s Cutin’ (Cousin) Wesley! He and Grandpa Hector were first cousins, but they were real close like brothers.” Obviously, Poppa John was close to him too because he named his first son John Wesley Davis, who was my grandmother's oldest brother.

1910 Panola County, MS census: My great-great-grandparents, Hector & Lucy Davis, lived adjacent to Wesley & Evaline Johnson, solidifying my cousin’s claim of their closeness. Neighbors were often family members.

Poppa John’s father Hector Davis (1842-1925) was one of the sons of Jack and Flora. Therefore, somehow Cutin’ Wesley Johnson was Jack or Flora’s nephew. Fortunately, I had found Cutin’ Wesley’s death certificate at the Mississippi Dept. of Archives in Jackson. It reported that his father’s name was Ale Johnson. The mother’s name was not reported, but I had surmised that his mother was probably “Old Nelly,” who was inventoried in John Burnett’s 1863 estate, along with Jack, Flora, and some of their children. Cutin’ Wesley was “boy Wesley,” who was valued at $700. That slave inventory can be seen here.

What was particularly interesting about Cutin’ Wesley was that he took the surname Johnson. Since his death certificate reported Ale Johnson as his father, I realized that he chose his father’s surname. But where was Uncle Ale? He was not listed on that 1863 slave inventory. Interestingly, Johnson was also the maiden name of John Burnett’s wife, Anna. Could there be a connection here? For a while, I have theorized that either Ale Johnson or “Old Nelly” may have been Grandma Flora’s sibling. That’s why I have chosen to call him “Uncle Ale.”

Now, let's get to the “juice” of this discovery. Please remember that effective google searches can be your doorway to many genealogical clues! Yesterday while googling for more information about the Burnetts, I found the 1851 court case of Joseph M. Alexander vs John Burnet, Abbeville, South Carolina. A published opinion of this case was found here. To my surprise, the case involved the ownership of a “mulatto” slave named Ail, who was also known as Caleb. I had found Uncle Ale Johnson! The details of this court case revealed the following chronology of Uncle Ale Johnson’s eventful life during slavery, and eventful is an understatement!

1821: Uncle Ale was born the "property" of Benjamin Johnson in Abbeville County, South Carolina. He was noted as being “mulatto” in the court case.

1831: As a young boy around 10 years old, he was living on John & Anna Burnett’s farm. On June 13, Anna, with young Uncle Ale in tow, went to her brother Benjamin, and they agreed to make her his legal owner. So on that day, he wrote out a deed of gift giving Uncle Ale to her for one dollar, and he will become her legal property upon his death. Anna paid Benjamin the money that day, and then she and Uncle Ale went back to the Burnett farm. The deed of gift was never recorded in court records.

1832: Young Uncle Ale remained on the Burnett farm for another year, and then he went back to Benjamin Johnson’s place. He remained there until Benjamin’s death in December, 1836.

1836: Immediately after Benjamin’s death, his widow instructed their son, John Johnson, to take Uncle Ale and sell him. She clearly wasn’t interested in him being around. I wonder why? So at night, John clandestinely took Uncle Ale, who was now 15, and sold him to James Caldwell, who was visiting South Carolina and on his way back to Marengo County, Alabama.

1837: Shortly after arriving in Alabama with Uncle Ale, Caldwell sold him to Joseph M. Alexander on January 12. He remained with Alexander for 12 years.

1837 – 1845: Alexander took Uncle Ale with him on his many trips back to his birth home, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, passing through South Carolina in 1837, 1841, 1844, and 1845. I wonder if Uncle Ale had been his carriage driver?

1849: On October 31, Alexander and Uncle Ale stopped off in Pendleton in Anderson County, South Carolina, on their way to North Carolina. Since Abbeville County was just south of Pendleton, Uncle Ale seized the opportunity and ran away. He made his way back to the Burnett farm. Alexander learned of his whereabouts, sent an agent to retrieve him from the Burnetts, but they refused to relinquish him. They considered themselves as Uncle Ale’s legal owner, so Alexander took them to court.

1851: Alexander initially won the case, but after an appeal to the Court of Appeals, the court overturned the decision and decided that John Burnett, husband of Anna, was the rightful owner.

Currently, I haven’t figured out what became of Uncle Ale “Caleb” Johnson, but he fathered Cutin’ Wesley (and likely more) on the Burnett place. Cutin’ Wesley and Grandpa Hector Davis grew up like brothers, were transported to northern Mississippi together shortly before the advent of the Civil War, and their descendants grew up together as blood cousins. One never knows where diligent genealogy research will take us and what stories will be unearthed. And like genealogist Nicka Smith recently expressed in her post, The Magic Door Should Not Be Televised, we all have fascinating stories in our family trees just waiting to be unearthed, not just celebrities. This one adds to the many mouth-dropping stories that I have been fortunate to capture. Thank you, ancestors!