Sunday, March 22, 2015

Confronting the Real History of American Families: Stories Hiding in Plain Sight

This is one of those family-history postings that may interest only a slice of regular readers of this blog — except that it tells, I myself think, a story that may interest people who aren't particularly interested in genealogy. A story that hrh might call zaftig . . . . Often, in our research about family history, such fascinating stories are hiding in plain sight. This is one of that sort, I've concluded, one about a cross-racial family. 

The story has to do with a man in my family tree who is my three-great-grandfather, Daniel Sumner Holland (1795/8-1869). Daniel was the son of an older Daniel Sumner Holland (1755-1839) and wife Zilpah Lane, who moved from Edgecombe Co., North Carolina, to Burke Co., Georgia, shortly before Daniel younger's birth. They then moved on to Twiggs County, where the younger Daniel spent his adult life, and finally (in the case of the older Daniel after Zilpah died), to Dooly County, where Daniel elder (or Sumner Holland, as he often appears in records) died.

(Zilpah: a slave given by Laban to his daughter Leah when she marries Jacob. When Leah's sister Rachel, also Jacob's wife, proves barren, Rachel gives her slave Bilhah to Jacob so that he can father children by her. When Leah stops having children, she takes a leaf from Rachel's book and gives Zilpah to Jacob so that he can beget children on her  — see Genesis 29 and 46.)

There's some blood connection, I suspect, back in this Holland family tree to the Sumner family of Nansemond Co., Virginia, where Daniel elder was born. Not only did he and his son Daniel carry that surname as a given-name tag, but Daniel elder named another of his sons Jethro for Revolutionary general Jethro Sumner, who was also born in Nansemond County. Nansemond's records burned in 1734, again in 1779 when British troops burned down its courthouse, and in 1866, so that researching families with roots in that county is hair-tearing. The county itself no longer exists, and is now known as the independent city of Suffolk, Virginia.

Daniel the younger married late for a man of this period, about 1837, by which date, he had had four children by a woman in Twiggs Co., Georgia, named Mary Pearce. Those children, Cordelia Frances, Lucy Ann, Sarah Amanda Fitzallen, and William A., were born from 1827 to 1834. And there's the first big clue that something's hiding in plain sight in this story: why did Daniel have a family by a woman who appears to have been unwilling to marry him for the decade in which the couple were having children together, a woman whose uncle Theophilus Pearce was a well-known Baptist minister in the county, and so her unusual marital arrangement with Daniel younger is certain to have caused much talk?

An answer to that question lies, I suspect, in the 1830 census. That census shows Daniel living alone in his household, a man aged 20-30 (the 1850 census has him born in 1798, and the 1860 in 1795), with a female slave aged 24-36, 2 male slaves of the same age, and 4 female slave children. Neither Mary Pearce nor the two daughters Daniel had fathered by her prior to 1830 are in the household. They're listed (it's clear, when one looks carefully at the census data) in the household of Mary's widowed mother Charlotte Ezell Pearce in Twiggs County.

Then this happens (second big clue of a story hidden in plain sight): in 1837, Daniel petitions the Georgia legislature to legitimize his children by Mary Pearce, naming her as their mother, and they are legitmized. His father Daniel elder is dying. In fact, he dies less than two years after this time. Illegitimate children are not permitted by law to inherit property in Georgia at this date. Daniel clearly wants his children by Mary Pearce to inherit from their grandfather as he dies.

When the Georgia legislature legitimates his children by Mary, she marries him, and by 1840, the family are living together in Daniel's household in Twiggs County, per the federal census of that year. Two telling clues on the census suggest what has happened: Daniel's household has 20 slaves enumerated in it, but those slaves do not include the woman aged 24-36 found with him in 1830. And interestingly enough, also enumerated in the household are 4 free black male children.

My conclusion: while fathering children by Mary Pearce, Daniel also had a family of children by a slave woman who was living with him in 1830, and whose name I have not found (Twiggs County records burned in 1901 in a fire that was a total loss for that county's records, and it's very difficult to do historical and genealogical research in that county as a result). Mary Pearce refused to marry Daniel as long as he was keeping his enslaved common-law wife in his household. Daniel decided to put the slave wife away as his father approached death, so that he could legitimate his children by Mary Pearce and she would marry him and come to live with him — and so he may well have sold the slave wife away, retaining several of the children he had fathered by her as free children of color. The 1850 census shows Daniel owning 26 slaves in two separate groupings of 17 and 9, none matching the age of the woman found with him in 1830.

An interesting suggestion that these deductions appear to be correct: all of Daniel and Mary's four children moved to Bienville (later Red River) Psh., Louisiana, in the early 1850s. One of my paternal great-grandmothers, Lucy Frances Harris Snead, was a daughter of Daniel's daughter Sarah Amanda Fitzallen Holland, who married Simeon Lawrence Harris. This family moved from Twiggs Co., Georgia, to Bienville Psh., Louisiana, in 1853.

After the four Holland children moved to Louisiana, Daniel's son William lived with his sister Amanda until the Civil War arrived, at which point, he went back to Georgia and enlisted in the Confederate army. He had a leg shot off in battle during the war and came back to Twiggs County to live with his mother Mary (who was by then a widow) up to her death. After she died, William, who seems never to have married (though his burial record states that he was a widower), moved to Brunswick, Georgia, where I find him at the end of his life living with two young men named Lee and Percy Holland, who appear on various censuses as mulatto men with an African-American mother. These two young men take care of William up to his death — and I am certain they are his relatives, descended from the children his father Daniel had by the unidentified slave woman, or perhaps fathered by William himself with an African-American woman.

When William dies in 1893, he's buried in a plot in Brunswick's Oak Grove cemetery belonging to one Marshall B. Holland, a son of Henry D. Holland, who was mayor of Jacksonville, Florida, in the early 1850s, and involved in the slave trade in Charleston, South Carolina. Obviously, these Hollands are somehow related to the family in Twiggs and Dooly Co., Georgia, to which William belongs.

The story one can tease out of the preceding records is not, unfortunately, a unique one in Georgia at this time. Two counties from Twiggs, in Hancock County, Amanda America Dickson was born in 1849 on the plantation of planter David Dickson, who raped his slave Julia Frances Lewis Dickson, America's mother, when she was 12 years old. In 1871, with Julia in his house as housekeeper and America living in the house as his acknowledged daughter, David married Clara Harris, a cousin of Simeon Lawrence Harris mentioned above, who married Amanda Holland. The marriage did not succeed, because David refused to repudiate America and her mother — a story told by Kent Anderson Leslie in his book Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, 1849-1893 (Athens: Univ. of GA Press, 1995).

Through the magic of the internet, a mother and daughter have contacted me and told me that they're distant cousins of mine through the Lane family mentioned above. As I note above, Daniel Sumner Holland elder married Zilpah Lane. When Daniel and Zilpah moved from Edgecombe Co., North Carolina, to Burke Co., Georgia, in 1795, Zilpah's brother Ethelred Lane moved along with them, Zilpah and Ethelred both having inherited slaves from the estate of their father James Lane in Edgecombe County in 1789. Ethelred had a grandson named William Lane, who fathered children by a slave woman belonging to him in Burke County, a woman named Cilla. One of those children is the ancestor of the cousins who have tracked me down online and shared wonderful documents and pictures from their branch of my Lane family, which had previously been unknown to me. As they have told me, if we can only put together all the various pieces of family history we each have, then maybe we can come up with a real and not a fake history of our American families for a change.

The graphic is a 1799 plat to Daniel Sumner Holland elder in Screven Co., Georgia, for 111 acres on the Ogeechee River, out of a headright grant of 250 acres awarded to him for Revolutionary service (Screven Plat Bk. A, p. 186). Screven borders Burke on the south.

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