Finding Out that Your Ancestors Owned Slaves

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

For years I believed that I didn’t have to worry about finding slavery in my family tree because my ancestors didn’t come to this country until the mid-1840s.  Although those ancestors arrived prior to the Civil War, they lived in northern states and therefore would not have owned slaves.  Over the years, I have learned about the horrors of slavery and was so very thankful that I wouldn’t find out that my ancestors were part of this horrible institution.

Then came the realization that I had ancestors who settled in Maryland during the 17th and 18th century.  Most of these ancestors were planters on tobacco plantations…..tobacco plantations during this period relied heavily on slave labor.  I went through the initial denial phase….”My ancestors were different.  They couldn’t have possibly owned slaves!”.  This post will provide a brief glimpse into several branches of the Motter family tree.

As I find more information on my sixth and seventh great grandparents, at least those that lived in Maryland, I am beginning to realize that they did own slaves.  I’ve always known this was a horrific piece of American history.  I’ve found and read numerous manumission papers in which slaves were being freed by their owners.  While I was excited to find and read these freedom papers, there was always an emotional disconnect.  After all, I truly believed that my family had never been involved in slavery.  When I found the connection in our family tree to Seth Hill Evitts, I was so excited because there was evidence that he was an abolitionist.  As I continued tracking down other members of the Evitts family, I found a record that made me realize it was time for a reality check.

Evitts-Woodward TreeeThe record that I found was a deed, recording the sale of property belonging to Joseph Evitts (the grandfather of Seth H. Evitts), to his daughter Mary.  Keep in mind that the purpose of a deed was to record the sale of any property, not just land.  Among other deed records of Anne Arundel County, in book RB #3, I found the following:

Know all ye whom it shall and may concern that I Joseph Evitts of the City of Annapolis in Annarundel County and Province aforesaid Carpenter Have Given Granted and Delivered unto my daughter Mary Butler and the heirs lawfully begotten of her Body One Negroe Girl named Jenny and her horse for Ever.  But if my Said daughter Mary Butler die without heirs as aforesaid I give the Said Negroe Jenny and her horse (anything heretofore to the contrary notwithstanding) unto my youngest Daughter Martha Evitts and her Heirs for ever.  In Testimony who I have this twenty third Day of August Anno Domini One thousand seven hundred and fifty four hereunto set my hand.

There it was.  A written record where my seventh great grandfather sold a human being to his daughter.  In this particular case, no money was being exchanged, but the transaction was recording the transfer of “property”.  Unlike in the past, while reading this record I was suddenly emotionally connected to it and the people involved.  My mind was racing with questions: How old was Jenny?  How did my ancestors treat her?  I realize that I’m not responsible for the actions of my ancestors, but I truly hope that they treated Jenny as a human being.  I hope that perhaps they taught her how to read and write.  These are questions that will most likely go unanswered.

I have also found records that Seth’s grandmother, Priscilla (Ruley) Woodward, also owned slaves.  In her will, she leaves a “Negro man Sam and a Negro woman Sail” to her son Thomas.  There are also several other unconfirmed branches of the family tree where it appears slavery also existed.

While I am thankful that my direct ancestors spoke out against slavery, I have learned that some branches went on to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. It is this fact that makes me hopeful that my ancestors did treat their slaves humanely.

I guess my entire point in this post is that even though you may think that your family was not possibly connected to the horrible institution of slavery, it is possible.  Slavery was a huge monster that reared its ugly head in many forms and in many places and it just might pop up in your family tree!

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