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Boom! The Brick Wall Came Crumbling Down!
African-American Genealogical Research in Motion
by Melvin J. Collier
However, once that goal is accomplished, “The 1870 Brick Wall” is there standing tall and strong, blocking one’s path to more ancestral discoveries. In some cases, knocking down this brick wall can be relatively simple. For example, in the 1870 Panola County, Mississippi census, my widowed great-great-grandmother, Polly Partee, and her children were residing adjacent to a white, widowed lady named Martha Partee. Census records, slave schedules, and estate papers verified that Martha’s late husband, Squire Boone Partee, had been the enslaver of Grandma Polly and over 70 other enslaved African Americans prior to his demise in 1863. Additionally, oral history that was relayed to me by a dear elderly relative confirmed that “Grandma Polly came off the ole Partee Place in Panola County where she had been a cook during and after slavery.” However, for other cases, knocking down that “1870 Brick Wall” is not so simple, especially when the ancestors did not retain the surname of their last slave-owner. (For statistical info about surname selection, see Playing the Name Game.).
Indeed, this was the case for a branch of my father’s family, and the absence of any oral history on that side of the family made it even more arduous to break down that wall. Nevertheless, with relative ease, I was able to find my great-grandmother, Angeline Bass Belton, her parents, John “Jack” Bass and Francis Morris Bass, in the censuses, from 1920 back to 1870, Warren County, Mississippi. Luckily, on Thursday, June 17, 1880, when the census enumerator visited the Bass household (or their neighbor), Francis’s mother Caroline Morris was living with them; he officially recorded her in their household, which enabled me to identify my great-great-great-grandmother. According to the 1880 census, Grandma Caroline was born around 1820 somewhere in Virginia. I instantly wondered how and under what circumstances during slavery did she end up near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Unfortunately, I was soon thrust against that recognizable “1870 Brick Wall,” and I could not find the “explosives” or a wrecking ball to knock it down. Researching the 1850 and 1860 Warren County slave schedules and censuses yielded no white Morris families who had owned slaves and no white Bass families who had slaves that matched the profile of Grandpa John Bass. Therefore, it became evident that my Bass and Morris ancestors likely did not take these surnames from their last slave-owners. What do I do? I was stymied.
For years, that ugly “1870 Brick Wall” was in my path. I couldn’t go any further – into the slavery era. Eventually, I decided to put this research away and concentrate on other family branches – ones that I was able to knock down that unsightly wall. However, as my prior research articles indicated, the ancestors don’t care for any form of quitting or abandonment. Periodically, they’ll send a nudge with clues. No joke. Really. Fortunately, Grandma Caroline gave me a big nudge recently, 17 years later. And as it turned out, the clues had been there all along. She simply provided the “Visine Eye Drops” so that I could see them more clearly, right there in front of my face.
Immediately after watching the Lionel Richie episode of “Who Do You Think You Are,” which aired on NBC on Friday, March 4, 2011, I thought about my great-great-grandfather, John “Jack” Bass; he was Grandma Caroline’s son-in-law. In that episode, Lionel Richie discovered that his great-grandfather, John Louis Brown, who was born into slavery near Nashville, Tennessee in 1839, was a very literate man who formed an organization called the Knights of Wise Men. Brown was the Supreme Grande Archon of the organization and editor of their publications. Grandpa John Bass, who was born into slavery around 1845 in North Carolina, was also a literate man. The 1870 and 1880 Warren County censuses indicated that he could read and write. In 1871, he even signed his own name on his Freedman’s Bank application that I had found in 2001, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints of Salt Lake City, Utah released the Freedman’s Bank Records CD. Imagine the excitement of that discovery!
That night after the show, I retrieved this bank application to marvel at the fact that my great-great-grandfather was also an educated man, wondering how he was able to garner an education when it was illegal during slavery to teach enslaved African Americans. That’s when Grandma Caroline gave me a nudge! Suddenly, I was drawn to the line on the application that stated, “Works for Daniel Canon.” Since the 1870 census reported that Grandpa John Bass was a farmer, I’d deduced that he may have been farming or sharecropping the land of Daniel Canon. In 2001, when I found this application, I searched for Daniel Canon in the censuses and slave schedules (microfilms) to see if he was the owner of slaves; I wondered if he was Grandpa John Bass’s last slave-owner. To no avail, a “Daniel Canon” was never located. I was perplexed for 17 years. Why was Daniel Canon not found in any of the censuses?
In 2001, census research was primarily done at libraries, archives, or any place that housed them on microfilms. Ancestry.com was not even a thought at that time, as far as I was aware. Ten years later, researchers now have the luxury of researching digitized census records on their computers at Ancestry.com. Their search engine allows for searches to be conducted under a number of parameters – first and/or last names, middle names, birthplaces, possible people in household, etc. This made it more possible for people to be located in the censuses. That night, I decided to search for “Daniel Canon” again under two parameters – first name (Daniel) and place of residence (Warren Co., MS). Among the search results was a Daniel CAMERON, who resided in the Bovina District of Warren County. This was where my ancestors resided. Interestingly, Cameron was a merchant in Bovina with a personal estate value of $55,000. He was also from North Carolina. His name caught my attention because I recalled there being an African-American Cameron living several residences from Grandma Caroline in 1870. Hmmm…
Desiring to find out more about this Daniel Cameron and assuming that he was actually Grandpa John Bass’s employer in 1871, and possibly his last enslaver, I searched for more information on FamilySearch.org, an official site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That search revealed that Daniel Cameron married a lady named Sarah HEBRON in 1849 in Warren County. The surname HEBRON leaped out at me because Grandma Caroline Morris lived two residences away from a white Hebron family that was headed by Adaline Hebron in 1870. More searching on FamilySearch.org revealed that Adaline Hebron was the widow of John Hebron, and John Hebron was the father of Daniel Cameron’s wife, Sarah Hebron. Could it be that John & Francis Bass and her mother Caroline were last enslaved by the Camerons and Hebrons? That thought immediately entered my mind. Grandma Caroline was nudging even more. Hmmm…
The 1860 slave schedule revealed that John Hebron owned over 60 slaves, who were living in 12 slave houses – establishing a plantation-like setting. Geographically located between the Mississippi River on the west and the Yazoo and the Big Black Rivers on the east, Warren County is a mixture of fertile Delta lands, hardwood forested hills, and lakes and wetlands. The Bovina area in the eastern part of the county, eight miles east of Vicksburg, is situated along the fertile banks of the Big Black River; that area was adorned with large plantations like the rest of the Mississippi Delta region. While investigating Grandma Caroline’s neighbors in the 1870 census, I immediately noticed that a large majority of the older adults in her vicinity had all come from Virginia. I somehow felt that this was more than coincidental. Interestingly, a Freedman’s Bank application was also found for one of her neighbors, Henry Hunt; it noted that he was born in Greensville County, Virginia around 1824. His brother, Stephen Hunt, lived adjacent to John’s widow, Adaline Hebron. Henry Hunt’s application also noted, “Mother, Mary, lives on LaGrange Pln.” I speculated that “Pln” was the abbreviation for plantation. An elderly Mary was Grandma Caroline’s next-door neighbor in 1870. Hmmm…
I decided to google the name “John Hebron” to see if I could find more information about him. Low and behold, the following paragraph was in a book entitled The Lost Mansions of Mississippi by Mary C. Miller. Sections of the book had been digitized and uploaded to Google Books. It contained the following about John Hebron:
Rural Warren County was home to dozens of prosperous antebellum plantations. Most were planted in endless rows of cotton, but one operation near Bovina was unique for Mississippi. John Hebron, using his wife’s inheritance to establish himself in Mississippi in 1834, acquired land east of Vicksburg and cultivated it with the usual cotton. The rich overflow topsoil near the Big Black River was ideal for that crop, but Hebron was more innovative than his fellow Deep South planters. He placed peach, pears and apple trees between the cotton rows, and, as they successfully took root and began to produce, the orchards gradually took precedence over the fiber crops . . . Hebron built a home, LaGrange, close to the orchards . . .The results of John Hebron’s hard work (my side note: who’s hard work??) stood directly in the path of hostilities in 1863; Twenty-five hundred Union troops camped in his orchards as they laid siege to the river city. Hebron died in 1862, and did not live to see General Grant use his house as a temporary headquarters . . . (page 38).
This snippet in that book provided a wealth of interesting information! More Internet searching revealed that John Hebron and his first wife, Julia Sills, had relocated to Warren County, Mississippi from Greensville County, Virginia in 1834. Perhaps, that’s why a number of Grandma Caroline’s older neighbors in 1870 were born in Virginia? She too was born in Virginia around 1820. Interestingly, as previously mentioned, her neighbor Henry Hunt verified that he was born in Greensville County, Virginia. Could it be that Grandma Caroline and her family were enslaved on LaGrange Plantation during slavery? The clues were there, but I desired to prove it without a shadow of doubt.
Since John Hebron had died in 1862, maybe his probate/estate record will list his slaves since slaves were “property.” Maybe a slave inventory can be found? I was hopeful. This past weekend, I decided to make a detour through Jackson, Mississippi to visit the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) before going to Canton. Somehow, I felt that if Grandma Caroline had nudged me to uncover this much information after 17 years of looking at that “1870 Brick Wall,” I would find something significant at the MDAH.
Fortunately, I discovered in the Warren County, Mississippi Probate Index, published in 1993 by Heritage Books, that a probate court case file for John Hebron exists. I immediately wrote down his probate number (no. 2089) and retrieved the Warren County Probate Court Cases microfilm no. 17142 for the time period 1861-1862. With anticipation, I loaded the film on the microfilm reader. Minutes later, I came upon John Hebron’s will; he wrote the following on March 1, 1862:
“ . . . It is my wish and desire that my boy William and his wife Elva may choose their own master, they have been faithful servants to me, and I want them well taken care of; the same of my boy Britton and his wife Harriet; they also have been faithful servants to me. I want my negroes divided according to valuation…I give to my son Doc. John Hebron my negro boy yellow Henry…The negroes that my daughter Sarah J. Cameron and Doc. John L. Hebron has in possession is to be appraised with the other negroes as above written, but my first wife’s children is to have the liberty of choosing such negroes of those that came by their Mother, Those negroes in possession of my daughter Sarah J. Cameron and Doc. John L. Hebron, they are to have in part of the division at the same valuation as the other negroes . . .”
After reading his will, I scrolled further and soon came upon a slave inventory listing 91 slaves by names, ages, and by family groups! (See table below.) Among the names were “Caroline 40 and child, 5 months.” Great-great-great-grandma Caroline Morris was found! Listed after her were seven more children, including “Fanny, 10.” This child was undoubtedly my great-great-grandmother, Francis Morris Bass, wife of John Bass. Fanny was a very common nickname for Francis. Also, a number of Grandma Caroline’s neighbors in 1870 and in 1880 were on the inventory. I sat there in amazement looking at the inventory. Boom! The Brick Wall Came Crumbling Down!
SPECIAL NOTE: AFRICAN ROOTS UNCOVERED – Grandma Caroline Morris was a descendant of the Tikar people of Cameroon. For more information about that discovery and ethnic group, see The Tikar of Cameroon.
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