My cousin, Monique made this pillow for me as a Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year's gift. It displays our ancestor Tempy Burton's 1891 newspaper ad, looking for her family whom she had been separated from by slavery.
During our New Year get together while the kids were busy playing Wii, Monique and I poured over the book "History of Queen Anne County" by Frederick Emory. It's full of information about our Stuart ancestors during their time in Chestertown, Maryland.
After spending all day amongst friends to begin the new year, my family and I sat down at our dinner table to celebrate the last day of Kwanzaa. This African-American holiday helps restore and root us in our African culture lost in the Middle Passage. It seemed fitting to end this restorative holiday and begin a new year by listing the names of about 100 slaves I came across while researching my family tree. Hopefully by listing these names found in the Lewis Stirling Family Papers, archived at Louisiana State University, some family researcher will be connected with their ancestors. All of the following people were enslaved to Lewis Stirling of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana and were listed in a mortgage as collateral. These names and any other of enslaved people I come across in Louisiana will be listed on the page, “Enslaved Communities of Louisiana.”
Yesterday, Christmas showed up a little early and in my email. That seems to be the way I get all of my best genealogy-related surprises.
First, a third cousin, once removed shows up in my ancestry.com email a year and a half ago and jump-starts my ancestry research with her common obsession and appreciation for all things “relative.” A year later, a complete stranger emails said cousin and me information about a third great-grandmother we didn’t even know existed, helping us reclaim another generation of our family’s tree. Then last night, a fellow geneablogger I haven’t “met” yet named Yvonne posted a comment on my blog, congratulating me on the nomination which then showed up in my email.
“What nomination?” I wondered. Between my daughters’ swim practices and meets, Holiday Pageant rehearsals, PTA meetings, a book proposal that I’m writing, and Christmas shopping that mocks me from my ever-increasing list of things to do, I’m a little out of the loop.
My cousin Monique is now the queen of all Internet searches. It was her voracious searching that turned up my second great-grandfather’s Civil War era sword on ebay, a portrait of one of our ancestors at the Maryland Historical Society on their online database, and me on ancestry.com. Now, she’s done it again. Monique found another one of our cousins, again on ancestry.com. (I think that internet genealogy site is going to have to start paying her soon – she’s a walking commercial for their services!)
Meet cousin Sylvia Smith Isabel. She lives a short bus or train ride away in New York and is as passionate about uncovering our family’s history as Monique and I.
Keeping track of all these cousins can be confusing so here is how we’re all related:
The ancestors that all three of us have in common are Tempy Burton and Col. W.R. Stuart, aka The Colonel. Tempy was a slave in Elizabeth McCauley’s family. When Elizabeth married the Colonel, Tempy was given to the couple as a wedding gift. Elizabeth couldn’t have any children but Tempy could and did have seven, probably all with The Colonel. But two of her children were definitely The Colonel’s, documented through their death certificates. They were Alfred Burton Stuart, Tempy and The Colonel’s oldest child and Josephine Burton Ford, their youngest child. Alfred was Monique’s great, great-grandfather and Sylvia’s great-grandfather. Josephine Burton Ford was my great-grandmother. Using the cousin calculator that makes Sylvia and Monique first cousins, once removed, Monique and I third cousins, once removed and Sylvia and I plain ole third cousins.
Two days after Thanksgiving, Monique and her family came over to our house and we had a few good hours of laughs over all the things we’ve found this past year and we were feeling pretty thankful, like we’d reached the peak of our genealogy mountain and could just take in the view. Then, two days later, with the discovery of Sylvia, we had even more to be thankful for, and more history to uncover (her dad grew up on Alfred’s farm and told her stories of Alf working as an unofficial town vet – news to us!). It feels like we’re at the beginning of another journey.
Check out the other cousin we found earlier this year, Renee Smith.
Panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt which includes a display for my brother-in-law, Gordon Kurtti, (b.1960-d.1987)
Gordon Kurtti was my husband’s younger brother. He died in 1987 at age 27 from AIDS. Although we never met, I always feel as if we did. I pass a picture of him putting pearls around his sister’s neck on her wedding day whenever I go up or down my stairs. The painting he drew of two muscular legs in third position are a focal point of our living room. At family get-togethers, there is always some funny Gordon story to tell. I feel as if I know his tastes and understand his sensibility from all the times I’ve heard my husband say, “Gordon would have liked that” while we’re watching a movie or visiting a museum or “Gordon would have liked you” when my daughters draw something particularly outstanding or tell silly jokes. By all accounts, Gordon was talented and funny and I can attest to the fact that he is not forgotten, but is sorely missed. I remember him and miss him and I never even met him.
View from the Slave Burial Ground, Sweet Briar College, Amherst, VA.
While at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve had the chance to visit the slave burial grounds at nearby Sweet Briar College. Over the years that I’ve been coming to the VCCA to write, I became aware of the grounds and was happy to learn that they were being preserved. Sweet Briar College was once a plantation and dozens of enslaved people are buried there. Thanks to the work of a team of preservationists headed by Dr. Lynn Rainville, these grounds are safe from disappearing and another descendant is closer to finding their ancestor.
Rainville, a research anthropologist and historian at Sweet Briar College, received a grant earlier this year from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop the African American Family Database. The project is a model for researching African-American families from antebellum to post-bellum times and when completed will help descendants find their enslaved ancestors.
Flanny was kind enough to take photos of me with the portraits of my second great uncle, Alexander Stuart, his wife, Matilda (who was sporting an amazing ermine robe), my third great uncle, Andrew Stuart, and my third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart pictured above. See any family resemblance?
I found the above will in the Lewis Stirling Family Papers, archived at the Louisiana State University. The Stirling family, wealthy Louisiana planters, owned my third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton. I’ve been scrolling through the microfilmed documents hoping that they will include some information about her. The Stirlings kept receipts for everything from purchases at their favorite New Orleans clothing store to ferry trips across the bayou. So far, Eliza hasn’t turned up in their voluminous records but scores of other enslaved people have. Here are slave names included in Alexander Stirling’s 1808 will:
Betsy, mulatto child of my negro woman Sarah
Lucy and Nan were to be left to Alexander’s daughter, Anne. Old Kitty was to be freed upon Alexander’s death and Hercules and Tennance would be freed when Alexander’s son, John turned 21. For “(his) own reasons,” Alexander puts the mulatto child, Betsy and her mother, Sarah under his son, Henry’s care. (Sarah could also be under her son John’s care if she wants, but her daughter, Betsey will have to be under John’s will). I can’t help but wonder what that’s all about. But more importantly, I can’t help but hope that this information can be helfpful to someone searching for their ancestors.
I’ll keep posting any slave names I come across as I go.
This morning, I woke up feeling really blue and not just because of the weather. I spent several hours in the library yesterday with my cousin, Monique pouring through the Stirling Family Papers. The Stirlings owned my third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton and I hope to find some information about her and other ancestors among the vast collection of the Louisiana based family that owned her. But wading through these reams of documents about the Stirling’s endless acres of land, the hundreds if not thousands of slaves they held in bondage to work their land, and a free person of color who sold other blacks to the Stirlings is really bringing me down. This morning I was feeling like why bother researching this stuff when it’s so depressing.
“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: `I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.'” – Maya Angelou
I can’t do anything about the degradations of the past, but I can help protect that history and honor it by telling my family’s part in it. Thanks Maya Angelou for donating your work so that future generations can learn from it and also for helping me today to keep on keeping on!