Thomaston, Georgia: May 29 Emancipation Day Celebration

May 2011 will witness the 146th annual organized celebration of Emancipation in Upson County, Georgia.  Each year beginning May 29, 1866, people of Upson and surrounding counties have converged on the town of Thomaston to celebrate the Emancipation of the slaves.  This is the oldest, continuously-observed annual emancipation event in the USA; yet the reasons that the first organizers selected May 29 are now obscure.

On June 5, 1903, the Thomaston Times commented that “the 29th of May is a great day for the negroes of Thomaston and all the surrounding communities for about forty miles square. . . .  For some reason known only to the negroes, and perhaps by a very small portion of them.”  The editor did not bother to consult any ex-slaves, not even William Guilford, the leading organizer of the first annual Emancipation Celebration held on May 29, 1866, who still lived in Thomaston until his death in 1909.  Through the years writers in the Times discussed their theories, but none of them satisfactorily answer the question—why May 29th?

May 29th must have had distinct significance to the freedpeople of Upson.  The date of the first organized anniversary celebration, May 29, 1866, was a Tuesday—not on a weekend—so working people disrupted the rhythm of their workweek to attend this celebration.   Local lawyer James W. Greene reported the very first annual commemoration of Emancipation in a letter to General Davis Tillson, Georgia’s Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, on May 30, 1866: “[The] freedmen had a brilliant Celebration at this place on yesterday.”  Clearly this date was special.

Although May 29 was not the anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), the date fell in summertime time, 1865, when a victorious Union army in Georgia finally made the promise of the Proclamation a reality for Upson County’s slaves.  General James H. Wilson’s Union cavalry raid swarmed through Upson County April 19-20 (ten days after General R. E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox), and on May 10, U. S. president Andrew Johnson declared hostilities at an end.  Within days General Q. A. Gilmore, commanding the U.S. military department that included Georgia, announced that “the people of the black race are free citizens of the United States.”  Gilmore’s order was printed in the Athens Southern Watchman, May 31, 1865, and reprinted by other newspapers.  Public speakers throughout the state in late May and early June declared slavery “a dead issue,” although in the minds of some slave owners slavery still lived.  Some slaveholders clung to the fantasy that perhaps the victorious United States would reverse its policy and allow the South to keep its slaves as if the war had never happened—or if owners just acted in the old way the slaves would just keep on working as before.  On July 13 Georgia’s Provisional Governor, James Johnson, felt compelled to remind his fellow-citizens that “slavery is extinct, and involuntary servitude no longer exists.” Although talk of freedom and the end of slavery was in the air throughout the summer of 1865, this does not explain why people of Upson County celebrate May 29th.

In its June 1, 1906, issue the Thomaston Times returned to the topic of the origins of “the 29th of May.”  The editor consulted Judge J. E. F. Matthews who speculated that the date did not commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, but instead marked what he called President Johnson’s “Proclamation of Peace on the 29th of May, 1865, and . . . the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United states, which provided for the prohibition of slavery forever in all the States.”  Judge Matthews’ theory does not stand up to scrutiny.  First of all, the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted on December 6, 1865—not even close to May 29.  Second, President Johnson did indeed issue a proclamation on that date, but its title was not the “Proclamation of Peace”; rather, its title was “Proclamation 134 – Granting Amnesty to Participants in the Rebellion, with Certain Exceptions.”  Although Judge Matthews’ theory was wrong, he was probably closer than he realized.  President Johnson’s May 29th proclamation may be the key to understanding our Upson Emancipation Proclamation Celebration, not because of anything Johnson said about “peace,” but because of what he said about slavery.

Johnson’s proclamation did indeed intend “that peace, order, and freedom may be established,” but his main purpose was to define terms of amnesty for former Confederates.  The president offered “to all persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion . . . amnesty and pardon, with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves.”  To claim amnesty, ex-Confederates had to swear an oath to “faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves. So help me God.”  President Johnson’s proclamation, in effect, required Upson County’s slaveholders to “faithfully support” the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln had issued over two years earlier.

President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation was printed in southern newspapers within days and was widely known in Georgia by early June 1865. Johnson’s proclamation caused each ex-Confederate to face the fact that in order to re-claim U.S. citizenship he or she had to swear an oath acknowledging that the slaves were free.  Although a US  Army officer would not arrive in Thomaston to take oaths until August 28, most slave owners in Upson County did not wait so long to act on the new reality.  (The slaves, of course, had always known that the war would decide their status, but many would wait to see what their former owners would do about it.)  Sallie Blakely, formerly enslaved in Thomaston by William A. Cobb, told to an interviewer in 1937, “When freedom was declared, Mr. Cobb called his slaves together and read the papers to them telling them that they were free.”

We know for a fact that President Johnson’s proclamation prompted a nearby slave owner, James C. Freeman, to tell his slaves they were free.  Freeman, who lived at nearby Flat Shoals, Meriwether County, owned a man named Houston Hartsfield Holloway, born in Upson County, who later recorded his experience of emancipation.  Monday morning, June 5, 1865, Holloway tells us, was “the greatest day that I had ever known.”  Slave owner Freeman visited each of his three plantations and “Cald all of the Slaves up and set them free.”

What had prompted James C. Freeman to free his slaves June 5, 1865?  Freeman testified before the Southern Claims Commission in Washington, D.C, ten years later:

Q:  How many negroes did you own?  A:  I had 137 about.

Q:  Did you set your negroes free at any time, or how was it?  A:  I set them free after the proclamation.

Q:  How long after?  A:  Just as soon as it came out.

Q:  What did you do to set them free?  A:  I just called them up and told them they were free by the laws of the country—the proclamation.

The only proclamation that could have prompted Freeman to free his slaves “just as soon as it came out” was President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation of May 29, 1865.

Why is Emancipation celebrated in Upson County on May 29?  We have only indirect clues, but until some yet-undiscovered document gives us a better answer, it may be that President Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation forced Upson County slaveholders to acknowledge what the slaves had known ever since January 1, 1863.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, while it had freed only a few thousand slaves on the day it was issued, had made emancipation of the South’s slaves United States military policy, and therefore also the nation’s policy.  Furthermore, by opening the door to recruitment of black soldiers, Lincoln’s Proclamation had made black citizenship in the United States an implied pledge that could not later be denied.  On May 29, 1865, Lincoln was dead, but a new president’s proclamation seemed to confirm those past promises to an oppressed people.

Field Trip, days 2-5: Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting

The Southern Historical Association meeting was fun for me; although as usual many interesting panel presentations were scheduled simultaneously.  For instance, Andrew Slap of East Tennessee State University gave a talk entitled “Reconstructing Lost Lives: African American Veterans During Reconstruction” that I did not get to hear because it was scheduled at the same time as another talk I was attending (I hate how they do that!).

Ed Baptist from Cornell gave an interesting talk, “A New Census of One Segment of the Internal Slave Trade: Natchez, 1825-1829.”  He used New Orleans notarial records, and a set of Natchez, Mississippi, notarial records that are privately owned.  The value of Louisiana notarial records to document slave sales is not news to historians or genealogists (see for example Walter Johnson’s 1999 book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market), but the data set Baptist uses involves 1500 slaves transported in the interstate trade, and includes not just who the slaves were sold to in Louisiana and Mississippi, but also who the traders bought them from in the eastern states, mainly Virginia and Maryland.  This unusual information is due to state laws that required certificates of good character from the slaves’ old neighborhood.

I was pleased when Baptist mentioned that such records were important to link the identities of slaves from one place to another so that some biographical fragments could be assembled for individuals.  Historians seldom acknowledge that reconstructing individual slaves’ lives is an important project.  Baptist says he is trying to publish his data set online, but he is finding it “harder than it would seem.”

I was pleased to see the National Archives, Altanta Branch, presenting an exhibit among the booksellers in the grand ballroom at the meeting.   I picked up free copies (your tax dollars at work!) of three reference booklets or pamphlets I had not seen before:

(1)  Military Service records at the National Archives (Reference Information Paper 109).  This glossy, well-illustrated, 130-page booklet covers the myriad of record groups that could be useful to find former US (and Confederate) service members, including records that we usually don’t think of as service records, for example: Navy ships’ deck logs.

(2)  The African Slave Trade.  This 12-page publication of the National Archives, Southeast Region, lists and describes over a hundred case files from the records of US District Courts in the states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  All the cases deal with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, mainly ships captured by federal authorities after the international ban on the African Slave Trade.  Some are cases involving other legal issues where the mention of slaves was incidental.  Curiously, the records from US District Court, Charleston, include four case files dating to 1717-1719–obviously predating the US court system.

There is a bizarre statement by the anonymous author of the Introduction to this leaflet on page 3:  “It is estimated that the total number of slaves brought into the U.S. illegally during the first half of the 19th century was approximately 1.2 million.”  No source is cited for this absurdly impossible number.  Actual illegal imports after 1808 can be estimated in the hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand at the most.   See my discussion of this topic using the census as an estimating tool:

(3) Description of Records Available [at the Altanta Branch] for Researching the Civil War.  This pamphlet is 36 pages, describing each record Group available at the Altanta Branch of the National Archives.

Field trip, day 1: NC Archives at Raleigh

My vacation this year was to North Carolina.  Enroute to the Southern Historical Association annual meeting in Charlotte last week I detoured to Raleigh to dig in the North Carolina State Archives.  I was very favorably impressed by the facility and staff.  There is a genealogy room on the mezzanine, but I did not go in there because I had some specific searches in mind among state and county records on the second floor.  The archives room has a wall of books of genealogical extracts and county histories related to NC counties and a law library; there are many large reading tables, and a microfilm room with a row of reader-printers.

Archives website:

Perhaps I was there on a good day (Thursday), but I was almost the only person in the archives room until lunch time.  The staff was attentive, and the records did not take long to arrive after I filled out a call slip.  Even in the afternoon only about half the microfilm machines were in use at any time.  Among other treasures, the archives has original county records that have been transferred to the state, and has the state supreme court case files.  The staff will make copies for you for 10 cents per page — when was the last time you paid so little?  My only criticism is that the copy machine needed to be serviced because my copies have lines on them.

If you are researching a supreme court case, in whatever state, the printed report is a good start, but try to see the original case files.  I was looking for a supreme court case in equity related to Isaac Weatherly, a slave trader.  First I read the minimally-informative 6 page summary of the case in the NC court reporter (5 Jones Eq. 46, December 1859), then I ordered the case file of original pleadings, testimony and exhibits.  What a difference!  After excluding duplicate documents and sheriff’s summons, I had 58 pages of hand-written information about Isaac Weatherly’s will, business agreements, finances, slave trading operations, and business associates.  There was even one slave bill of sale pertaining to a specific mother and her children who were the subject of legal dispute by Weatherly’s heirs.  (Weatherly wanted the mother and her mulatto children to be emancipated and given land and $200–the heirs wanted to keep them enslaved and to deny them the land and money.  The heirs won.)

Court records are our best sources for slave data

Last Friday I telephoned the Thomaston-Upson County Archives in Georgia to say “hello” and to catch up with news of recent accessions.  Bonnie, the archivist’s assistant and chief collection arranger, described to me an exciting recent donation from the attic of a matriarch of a long-time resident family: forty cubic feet of material, some of it dating well back into the nineteenth century!  Among the papers, Bonnie has found four slave bills of sale.  Of course, I am itching to explore the treasures of that collection, especially looking for documents from the slavery and Reconstruction periods.  But on reflection, my excitement over four bills of sale reminds me how rare are these “plantation records” or slave owners’ private papers, whether in archival collections or still hidden in private possession.  So much of success in slavery research depends on serendipity that if we relied on these randomly-saved records alone we could be easily discouraged.  On the other hand, Upson County court records publicly preserve, in a methodical way, personal information about 6,000 named slaves.  As important as slave owners’ private papers may be (if preserved), our most fruitful sources remain the public records.

Trons and Paper

I’m an old-fashioned, conservative sort of guy; I cannot see the day when electronic files and the internet will render books and papers documents entirely obsolete.  I spent many hours of my boyhood in a library containing books whose pages were as crisp, bright, and legible (if you read Latin!) as the day they were printed 500 years ago; on the other hand, I have seen documents composed on electronic media within the last thirty years go to the dumpster because the computer devices that played them are broken and unfixable, or the programs that previously read them are obsolete and incompatible with today’s programs.  With the increasing popularity of “cloud computing” where you let some else’s server store your documents for access over the internet, you rely on the continued corporate existence of the businesses that own those servers, and on the physical integrity of the servers — but even the water vapors of clouds have more tangible existence than the stored electro-magentic arrangements we rely on to preserve our work!

Certainly being written on paper (or papyrus) is no guarantee of survival — think of the Royal Library of Alexandria.  When I write something that I hope will have lasting value, even if I initially publish on a webpage, I ensure that it exists on paper with enogh copies to, at least, promote its chances of survival over the next few millennia.

Review: Michael Hait, Delaware Slave Claims Commission

Michael Hait, transcriber, Slave Claims Commission, 1864-1867, Volume One, Register of Claims of Delware Commission as kept by the Commission, Recd. A. G. C. May 24, 1865 (Hait Family History Research Services,, 2010).  Pp [iii] 32.  Paper $9.99, e-book download $6.99.

Michael Hait has published what promises to be the first of fourteen interesting volumes of transcripts from records of claims by slave owners in Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia.  These slavemasters claimed compensation for slaves they alleged to have owned who joined the U.S. Army during the Civil War.   War Department General Order 329, issued October 3, 1863, authorized any loyal owner in Federal-controlled states whose slave joined the military service to be compensated up to $300 “for the service or labor of said slave.”  To qualify for compensation slave owners had to apply to a special state commission and present proof of personal loyalty, proof of ownership of the claimed slave, proof that the slave had enlisted in the military, and a deed of manumission freeing the slave.

In his handsome 40-page booklet, Hait transcribes the entire “Register of Claims” documenting the 114 claims submitted in Delaware.  He includes a well-written and informative introduction that describes the history of the Delaware Slave Claims Commission, its records, and the process for submitting claims.  Hait includes two name indexes, one for “claimants” and one for “slaves.”   The latter index is more accurately an index of “claimed slaves” since it does not index every slave named in the register; for example John H. Twiford’s claim for slave Joseph Smith is annotated, “Claim postponed for want of proof of descent from Henrietta the slave mentioned in the Bill of Sale” — but Henrietta is not indexed.

There are actually at most 106 owner-slave pairings among the 114 petitions, but some of the other eight petitions hint at intriguing stories.  Two scoundrels tried to claim government compensation for men who were not slaves but were actually free apprentices (claims 27 and 103).  Three other men claimed compensation for enlistees who were “not a slave or convict servant” – the term “convict servant” is new to me, but may refer to a practice of selling free persons of color, after conviction for crime, into servitude for a term of years.  One claim was resubmitted with corrected information (claims 1 and 104), another was rejected because the claimant was not the legal owner and was disloyal (claim 102).  Reasons that the commissioners denied claims included disloyalty, lack of documentation, death of claimants–and even the stubborn refusal by at least one claimant (claim 107) to execute manumission papers as late as March 1865!

By transcribing and publishing these little-known records, Hait significantly expands our reference library of the records of American slavery and the lives of slaves on the cusp of emancipation.  Their historical and genealogical significance must be evaluated in a context much greater than the two hundred or so people named therein.  For instance, by pairing last slave owners’ names with slaves’ names, this book offers yet another set of data into our ongoing exploration of how ex-slaves selected surnames and what names they chose.  Thirty-two (30%) of these Delaware soon-to-be-ex-slaves shared a surname with their soon-to-be-ex-slave-owners; seventy-five (70%) did not.  I have argued elsewhere that patterns of surname selection varied by region, with the northern-most slave states more likely to show mismatches between surnames of ex-slaves and surnames of last-ex-slave owners than states in the Deep South, and Delaware was certainly among the most unusual of antebellum U.S. slave states.   Claim no. 75 raises the interesting problem of a slave who apparently enlisted under a different name (George H. Biddle) from the name by which his owner called him (George W. Davis) in his claim.  Cases like this remind us that as early as 1865 freedpeople were choosing new identities different from the ones by which they had been known in slavery; such examples urge us to remain open-minded to very dynamic and varied possibilities when tracing freedpeople’s histories by researching surnames.

Probate Records: have you looked at the vouchers?

Most researchers who have used probate records know about the value of inventories and appraisements, annual returns, sales and distributions — all of which may provide lists of the enslaved, along with details of crucial events in their lives.   Often overlooked are the vouchers.  Where these have been preserved or recorded, they often provide more details about slaves and slavery.  Vouchers were the detailed accounts and receipts for expenses by the estate.  The annual returns will list these expenses, but the vouchers break down each expense; for instance, a return may list money paid to a merchant, but the supporting voucher will itemize each item bought from the merchant.  Sometimes the enslaved are named as the purchasers (either running errands for masters, or charging items for themselves).  Other vouchers preserve medical treatment for the enslaved (usually by name), rewards paid for recovering runaways, and sometimes money paid to the enslaved as midwives or as vendors.

For example, vouchers are among the court records for the estate of Thomas W. Riviere in Upson County, Georgia, probated in 1859.  The estate inventory, dated November 15, 1859, listed sixty slaves, among whom were a man, Ben, appraised at $1,000, and Lyddy and three children appraised at $1,900.   Lyddy’s children identified by name in the probate records include Ellick, Frances, Smart, Make, and Silva.  Vouchers include doctors’ bill dating back as 1853, documenting medical treatment for Ben, Lyddy (variously spelled Lydia and Lidda)  and Ellick, including two bills for attending Lyddy in childbirth:  “visiting Lidda [$]2.00 attention on Parturition [$]10.00″ billed by Doctors Drake and Flewellen on March 31, 1853; and “visiting Lydia at night [$]2.00 attention & Delivering Foetus [$]10.00″  billed by Drake & Flewellen on February 23, 1855.  I had previously tentatively identified these two births as Ellick and Frances.  Medical bills are wonderful documents for genealogists to approximate the birthdates of enslaved children.

I recently completed extracting slavery information from four volumes of recorded vouchers covering the last 15 years of Upson County slavery — there were many gems among the dross.  Vouchers are well worth the attention of researchers while they are examining probate records.

Historian ponders effect of AA genealogy on historical understanding

The latest Journal of Southern History (Vol 75, no. 3, August 2009)  includes an article by Professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage (pages 751-766) discussing how historians study memory and the role of memory in shaping how we think of the past.   Memory is constantly changing as we each experience new things, as older generations pass away and new generations compile their own cultural “memories.”  Our idea of our history comes not just from our own experience, but also from vicarious experiences we learn in school, read in books, and hear from our elders, mentors and peers.  What has this to do with genealogy?  Professor Brundage includes this interesting paragraph on page 760:

[M]any commentators have noted that Alex Haley’s work Roots (New York, 1976) was a catalyst for interest in genealogy among African Americans.  Even a cursory visit to any of the major genealogy research websites will demonstrate that African American genealogy has been mainstreamed.  All of the federal slave censuses, for example, are online.   But I am unaware of any scholarly accounts that historicize this recent African American genealogical impulse or ponder its implications.  For example, how has genealogical research affected understandings of slavery among African Americans?  What are the consequences of knowing who owned one’s ancestors, where one’s ancestors were enslaved, and who made up the slave community in which one’s ancestors lived?  Historians have understandably told us a great deal about how fellow scholars have revised the history of slavery that is presented in monographs and textbooks.  But by historicizing black genealogy we may be able to understand more fully how African Americans make sense of their own slave and non-slave heritage.

It is stimulating and inspiring, I think, to ponder how our individual researches, and how we interpret and present our results, shapes not just our own family history, but connects to the collective history — the national memory — of  the past for all of us.

Finding Academic Sources

In previous posts, I described examples of the kinds of information available in academic journals. The traditional way to access these resources would be to go to library shelves and start reading indexes. A far more effective way to reach many more sources is to use text-searchable collections of periodicals online. Because of the massive cost of compiling such electronic libraries, the best of them are subscription-only. Subscriptions are expensive and available only to institutions. Most public universities allow the general public to use their libraries, including access to electronic resources using their computers (you usually won’t be able to access from home without a valid student id and password). Below I describe two of the best resources.

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Useful Articles from Academic Journals (IV)

Some articles in academic journals can be very helpful for biographical information about specific un-famous people, as shown by the following biographies of three antebellum enslaved people and the reminiscences of one woman raised in a slave-owning family:



John Hebron Moore, “Simon Gray, Riverman: A Slave Who Was Almost Free,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (December 1962), pages 472-484.

This article tells the story of Simon Gray, enslaved to Andrew Donnan in Natchez, Mississippi, who was hired out to Andrew Brown to run flat boats of lumber down the Mississippi River. Gray’s work was highly unusual for a U.S. slave; he was literate, lived privately with his family, supervised white employees in his boat crew as well as other slaves, was paid a wage, negotiated sales for his employer, and owned firearms. Based on the business ledgers and correspondence of Andrew Brown & Co., the author tells of Simon Gray’s activities for the company from 1845 to 1863, and names some of the other slaves Gray supervised.

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