Sadly, the horrible act of splitting children from their parents is deeply entrenched in American history, especially African American history. Rather if we know the specifics or not in our family histories, it happened a lot. One of my passions has always been unearthing and reconnecting those lost ties that have been unknown for generations. Fortunately, some of those lost ties have been uncovered from in-depth, slave ancestral research. Many more are being uncovered thanks to DNA technology. Yet, many will never be found.
I can’t even begin to phantom the emotional pain a mother and father felt to have children forcibly separated from them, temporarily or permanently. Many enslaved ancestors endured this inhumane act, including my 3x-great grandfather, Thomas “Tom” Bowden. I first learned of his existence over 10 years ago when I found the 1871 Freedman’s Bank application of my father’s great-grandfather, John “Jack” Bass of Warren County, Mississippi. He reported that his father’s name was “Tom Bowdin.” That discovery was golden.
If Grandpa Jack had not opened an account in the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (aka Freedman’s Bank) in 1871, Tom would have probably remained unknown to me. Since finding that application, I’ve uncovered much more about Grandpa Jack Bass’s history. I’ve detailed some of these discoveries in previous blog posts. He lived a relatively short life, but a lot occurred during his 40 or so years on this Earth.
As a recap from previous posts, Grandpa Jack was born about 1844 in Northampton County, North Carolina, nestled in the northeastern part of the state, bordered by the state of Virginia. When he was around 5 years old, his mother’s legal enslaver, Elizabeth (Bass) Bass, petitioned the Northampton County court to send her “legacy” (slaves) to Mississippi. She and her second husband, Jesse Bass Jr., had moved to Hinds County (Jackson), Mississippi shortly after her father Council Bass’s demise in 1830. In his Sept. 1830 will, Council bequeathed Grandpa Jack’s mother, Beady Bass, three of her brothers, and their mother Rose to Elizabeth, to be placed in a trust. This trust kept Grandma Beady in North Carolina for 19 more years, under the enslavement of Bryan Randolph, the appointed trustee, who lived in the vicinity. She and her brothers were hired out, and the profits from their labor were sent to Elizabeth.
Council Bass’s will indicate that his “dwelling house” was on the south side of the “road leading from Bryant Crossroads to Rich Square.” Elizabeth had also inherited the “big house,” while her two sisters, Martha Bass Mayo and Charlotte Bass Holloman, had inherited other enslaved people, including Grandma Beady’s sisters, Jemima (and her children), Barsilla “Zillie”, and Brittie Ann, and other adjacent land on the north side of the road. A planter named Lemuel Bowden also resided on this road. Per the 1850 slave schedule, Lemuel owned 37 enslaved people that year. One of them was Tom.
Shortly before Tom was counted in that 1850 slave census, simply as a 35- or 40-year-old Black male, he suffered a devastating blow. His son, Grandpa Jack, and Jack’s four older sisters, Eliza, Jemima (Mima), Hasty, and Peggy, and their mother Beady were forever taken away from him – gone to Mississippi, a state that held a reputation of being a more vicious, back-breaking slave state. Elizabeth Bass’s request had been granted. Undoubtedly she was thrilled, but my family was shattered beyond repair. The expenses Elizabeth incurred to transport them 900 miles to Jackson, Mississippi were documented in probate case no. 942. She filed this case in the Hinds County Chancery Court, shortly after the death of her husband, to be appointed the guardian of their minor daughters.
Recently, I felt that it was time to see the area where this family dismantling occurred. So I made the 209-mile trek down to Northampton County, North Carolina for the first time. In a spiritual sense, I took Grandpa Jack back to North Carolina to see his forcibly estranged father. Since he was around 5 years old when this separation occurred, I presume that he remembered very little or nothing about him. But he knew his father’s name. In turn, I imagine Tom mourning the loss of his family, somewhat synonymous to a husband getting a phone call or a visit from the police to inform him that his wife and children perished in a bad car accident. Many enslaved men suffered this travesty, including my mother’s great-grandfather, Pleasant Barr. They had no control at all over the stability of their families.
Now digitized and accessible on FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, Lemuel Bowden’s probate record bulls-eyed the place and made this spiritual reunion possible. He had owned over a thousand acres of land at Bryant Crossroad. He died intestate (without a will) in 1859, so his probate record shows that his acreages and slaves were divided into three nearly equal shares. His three children, Hiram Bowden, Hortense Bowden Hardy, and Martha Bowden Gatewood, inherited a share. Thomas Hardy, the estate’s executor, drew a detailed land sketch, “plotted to a scale of 80 poles to an inch” (see below). As shown below, Bryant Crossroad and the “road to Rich Square” were found on an old 1863 map. Modern maps show that Bryant Crossroad is now known as Bryantown, located four miles west of Rich Square. The “road to Rich Square” is now Bryantown Road.
Standing there at Bryantown, I pictured my ancestor Tom reacting with anger and tears that his family was gone, never to see them again. Fortunately, he had additional children with a lady named Hasty, who bore him at least eight children after 1850 – Junius, Jane, Nicholas, Cherry, Tom Jr., Collins, Alice and Sarah Bowden. In my heart, mind and soul, I feel that he never forgot his previous family. I can’t help but wonder if he told his second family about Grandpa Jack and his sisters. I will believe that he did.
Tom would have certainly been proud of the man that Grandpa Jack had become. He had signed his own name on his Freedman’s Bank application. So somehow, he was given a clandestine education, which was illegal for enslaved people. The 1870 and 1880 censuses also show that he was able to read and write, while over 90% of formerly enslaved people were unable to do so.
Fourteen years after the family separation, Grandpa Jack fought for his freedom in the Civil War, with the 49th Regiment, formerly the 11th Louisiana Infantry, of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). His bounty application was found in the Mississippi Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records via www.discoverfreedmen.org. It was dated 16 January 1871, the same date as his Freedman’s Bank application. According to his military service record, he enlisted on 16 May 1863, at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, and he soon fought in the Battle of Milliken’s Bend on 7 June 1863. Luckily, he survived that bloody battle, and his and other USCT units were noted for their bravery, despite their lack of military training and their inferior weaponry. Grandpa Jack was later promoted from Private to Corporal on 1 February 1865, by order of Lt. Col. Cyrus Sears.
Grandpa Jack married my great-great-grandmother, Frances Ann Morris, on 6 February 1869. She had been enslaved on Col. John Hebron’s plantation, LaGrange, near Bovina, Mississippi in Warren County. He died around 1885, leaving his wife and eight young children, Ada, Caroline, Mary, Jacob, Beady, Eveline, Angeline (my father’s grandmother), and Mariah Bass. He likely never laid eyes on Tom Bowden again, but I’m glad that I – his great-great-grandson who inherited some of his DNA – stood in the area where his father was last known to be residing back in North Carolina.