Fortunately, my uncle had this picture of my great great grandparents in his attic. It had belonged to my maternal grandmother, Minnie Davis Reed. The couple are her paternal grandparents, Hector Davis & Lucy Milam Davis, who had been born into slavery about 1842 and 1846, respectively. I was able to trace them back to the 1870 census, but I soon hit a brick wall like most who are researching enslaved ancestors. Hector’s 1925 death certificate revealed that his parents were named Jack & Flora Davis. Who was the last slave-owner?
As I wrote in my 2012 blog post, Ain’t Gonna Take Massa’s Name, my biggest clue to breaking down that 1870 census came when I found Hector & Lucy’s 1866 marriage record. While researching marriage records at the Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History, I discovered a marriage record for a couple named Hector BURNETT and Lucy Milam. They had married on July 3, 1866, which matched what Grandpa Hector or Grandma Lucy (or someone else) had told the 1900 census-taker – that they had been married for 34 years. Interestingly, I had also found Hector’s parents in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, and their surname was reported as Davis. Why was Hector’s last name reported as being Burnett in 1866?
I soon discovered that a 74-year-old white woman named Anna Burnett lived near my family in 1870. Like Hector and his parents, she was from South Carolina. The publication, Cemeteries of Panola County, Mississippi, revealed that Anna was the widow of a man named John Burnett, who had died in Oct. 1862. He died in nearby Tate County, which was DeSoto County prior to 1873.
I soon drove down to the DeSoto County courthouse to locate court records (will, probate, chancery, etc.) for John, in order to prove or disprove that he may have been the last enslaver. Fortunately, I found his probate record that contained a slave inventory dated March 20, 1863. Grandpa Hector and his family were on that slave inventory (see below). This is how I was able to find the last slave-owning family, John & Anna Burnett. They had moved to northern Mississippi from Abbeville County, South Carolina about 1862, and John died shortly afterwards.
Looking back over the censuses, I realized that I still would have been led to finding the last slave-owning family, even if I had not found that 1866 marriage record reporting Burnett as Grandpa Hector’s last name. The FAN Club (or cluster genealogy) methodology would have also yielded brick wall-breaking results. This very effective approach, coined by noted genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills from the words “Family Associates Neighbors,” is essentially researching the community where your ancestors resided in order to garner crucial clues about them. This methodology is particularly effective for slave ancestral research.
Since the 1870 census is often the pivotal census for beginning the research of a once-enslaved ancestor, with the goal of identifying the last slave-owner, the 1880 census was paramount for this case. The 1870 census-taker in my area of Panola County had awful, very unreadable handwriting. Below is the 1880 Panola County census of my 3x-great-grandparents, Jack & Flora Davis, reported ages 65 and 63, respectively. They were living alone, but examining their white neighbors would have led to great clues.
From household no. 437 to 444, we have the following “cluster”:
437 – Louisa Leverson. Although their names were written as Harper & Louisa Livingston, their surname was really Leverson. According to my grandmother’s first cousin, another grandchild of Hector & Lucy Davis, the Leversons were closely related to the Davis Family. I don’t have documented proof or DNA evidence yet, but I have theorized that Louisa was another daughter of Jack & Flora Davis. She was born in South Carolina.
438 – Johnson Burnett (white). He was a 60-year-old male also from South Carolina. He was a son of John Burnett & Anna Johnson Burnett.
439 – Clinton & Martha Mitchell (white). Martha’s maiden name was Burnett. She, one of her children, and her two Buchanan nieces were born in South Carolina. Her marriage to Clinton Mitchell was her second marriage. Johnson Burnett was her older brother, as both of them are children of John & Anna Burnett.
440 – Wesley Johnson. According to a late family elder, Wesley Johnson was a first cousin to Grandpa Hector Davis. Therefore, “Cut’n Wesley,” as he was called, was a nephew to Jack or Flora Davis. He too was born in South Carolina, about 1856. He was also on the 1863 slave inventory.
441 – There is no known connection to Isaac & Hannah Griffin, who both were from North Carolina, and their boarders.
442 – Flora (Roland) Scott. She was the wife of William Scott and the daughter of Mariah Davis Roland, another daughter of Jack & Flora Davis. South Carolina was reported as her parents’ birthplace.
443 – Jack & Flora Davis, my 3x-great-grandparents. They were born in South Carolina. (Side note: Their sons, Grandpa Hector Davis, Uncle Jack Davis Jr., and Uncle Sampson Davis were living a short distance away but in Tate County.)
444 – Mariah (Davis) Roland. Aunt Mariah was Jack & Flora’s widowed daughter, confirmed by her death certificate and oral history. She was also born in South Carolina. She was not on the 1863 inventory, so John Burnett likely had given her to one of his children.
Seeing a similar migration pattern (South Carolina > Mississippi) within this cluster would have been a great clue. For Mississippi and other Deep South researchers, this research observation is important. Most emancipated Black adults in Mississippi after the Civil War had been brought to the State from the Upper South, including South Carolina. Like my Davis family, many can be found living near or on the same farm where they had been enslaved, even as late as 1880.
Thorough genealogy research of Johnson Burnett and his next-door neighbor, Martha Burnett Wardlaw Mitchell, who were both from South Carolina, would have certainly led to the names of their parents, John & Anna Burnett. Assiduously following the rule of researching the court records of the potential slave-owner and his family, the slave inventory from John Burnett’s estate would (or should) have been discovered, thus confirming that he had enslaved my Davis ancestors. Consequently, diligent usage of the FAN Club methodology would have achieved the same goal.
That’s the nature of slave ancestral research – actively searching for clues in records (censuses, slave schedules, land records, tax records, etc.) on people living within the community (FAN Club or cluster) shortly after slavery to see where it may lead. That is, if an identifying record such as a Civil War pension file (USCT soldiers and widows), a Southern Claims Commission record, oral history, a Freedman’s Bureau record (1865-1872) or labor contract, a Freedman’s Bank Record (1865-1871), a slave narrative, and other records identifying the last enslaver can’t be found on a particular ancestor. Diligence and patience are necessary. Slave ancestral research is not easy, but many successes can be obtained.