“Brick Wall” is a metaphor used in genealogical and historical research when one reaches a point in their research where he/she is unable to progress further or “dig deeper.” All researchers and family historians encounter it. For those tracing African-American ancestors, this proverbial brick wall is commonly encountered at the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, a vitally important census particularly for African-American research.
Since it was recorded just five years after slavery ended, the 1870 U.S. Federal Census was very often the first official record that recorded formerly enslaved African Americans by their first and last names. The key to African-American genealogy research is to trace families from the 1940 census all the way back to the 1870 census. That feat alone is considered a big success.
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, I found my widowed great-great-grandmother, Polly Partee, and her children 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. 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.
As a side bar, let me explain this fact. Many took the last enslaver’s surname, and many did not. The statistics vary on this subject. However, the general consensus, based on a number of sources, indicates that the number of people who did NOT take the last enslaver’ surname is greater than the number of people who did. FamilySearch.org reports that only 15% of former slaves took the last enslaver’s surname (source). Other sources, which I discuss in Ain’t Gonna Take Massa’s Name, give a larger percentage, yet still showing that most did not take the last enslaver’s surname.
Indeed, this was the case for a branch of my father’s family. I quickly ascertain that some of my paternal ancestors from Warren County, Mississippi did not appear to have retained the last enslaver’s surname. 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.
Luckily, on Thursday, June 17, 1880, when the census enumerator visited the Bass household (or their neighbor), Francis’ mother Caroline Morris was living with them. This 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 in Warren County that matched the profile of Grandpa Jack Bass. Therefore, my Bass and Morris ancestors evidently did not appear to 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, 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 Morris gave me a big nudge, 17 years later. She simply provided the “Visine Eye Drops” so that I could see the clues more clearly, right there in front of my face!
In 2001, I had found Grandpa Jack Bass’s Freedman Bank application, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints of Salt Lake City, Utah released the Freedman’s Bank Records CD. His employer’s name was reported as being a Daniel Canon. I was unsuccessful in locating “Daniel Canon” in the censuses. This was disappointing because I had theorized that he may have been the last slave-owner.
Grandma Caroline’s nudge led me to search for Daniel Canon again. This time, I searched for him in Ancestry.com’s search engine under two parameters – first name (Daniel) and place of residence (Warren County, MS). Again, no Daniel Canon existed. However, 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 seeing an African-American Cameron living several residences from Grandma Caroline in 1870. Hmmm…
I desired to find out more about Daniel Cameron. A search in FamilySearch.org revealed that he married a lady named Sarah HEBRON in 1849 in Warren County. The surname HEBRON leaped out at me because Grandma Caroline lived very near a white Hebron family that was headed by Adaline Hebron in 1870. They were on the same census page.
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 Jack & Francis Bass and her mother Caroline were last enslaved by the Camerons and/or 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.
I decided to employ a genealogy methodology called cluster genealogy by investigating Grandma Caroline’s neighbors in the 1870 census. To read more about this important technique, read here. 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 Grandma Caroline’s neighbors, Henry Hunt. It noted that he was born in Greensville County, Virginia around 1824 (See below). His brother, Stephen Hunt, lived adjacent to John’s widow, Adaline Hebron. Henry Hunt’s application also noted, “Mother, Mary – lives on Lagrange Pln.” “Pln” was the abbreviation for plantation. An elderly Mary was also 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. Lo 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: whose 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! Census records indicated that John Hebron was from Virginia. A marriage record on Familysearch.org shows that he married his first wife Julia Sills in 1825 in Greensville County, Virginia (Source). 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. As previously mentioned, her neighbor, Henry Hunt, reported that same place as his birthplace! Could it be that Grandma Caroline and her family were on LaGrange Plantation during slavery? Hmmm…. 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 contains the names of his slaves since enslaved African Americans were “property.” Maybe a slave inventory can be found? I was hopeful. I soon visited the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) to research this clue. 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 Probate Index, published in 1993, that there’s a probate court case file for John Hebron. 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. His probate record is now available on FamilySearch.org. 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 that contained 91 slaves recorded by names, ages, value, and by family groups! (See below.) Among the names were “Caroline 40 and child, 5 months.” After 17 years, cluster genealogy and other clues led me to find the name of Grandma Caroline Morris’ enslaver and the name of the plantation! Listed after her were seven more children, including “Fanny, 10.” This child was undoubtedly my great-great-grandmother, Francis Morris Bass, wife of Jack 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!