David E. Paterson, AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum Manager, was born in Scotland, UK, grew up in Seattle, WA, and earned a BA in History from University of Oregon before joining the U.S. Navy in 1975. Although an avid reader as a child, David became so busy with his seagoing career that he did not read a complete book for fifteen years. His passion for history reawakened in 1988 while he explored the antebellum records in the basement of the Upson County courthouse. Now David’s idea of fun and relaxation is reading a book or spending 12-hour days researching at the National Archives.
When he isn’t hanging out at AfriGeneas or foraging in dusty courthouse basements, David now works as a Navy civilian employee in Norfolk, VA, where he lives with his charming wife, the former Judy L. Moody of Memphis, TN. This summer David finally completed his MA in Public History from University of West Florida, with a concentration on the American Old South and Reconstruction.
David’s Upson County Project examines life in an upcountry Georgia county through slavery and Reconstruction. Begun in 1994 because David was peeved at the anonymity of the 1850 and 1860 Census Schedules 2 (Slave Inhabitants), his project, at first, was simply intended to demonstrate that abundant records existed to serve as a partial surrogate for the censuses, and to explore the extent to which these local records could reveal the name of every slave who had ever lived in Upson County. It was quite frustrating to hear local genealogists and historians, who did not understand the records of slavery, plead that the enslaved were unfortunately unknowable, just because they were not enumerated in Schedule 1 (Free Inhabitants). David’s study of the 1850 and 1860 censuses is in the AfriGeneas Library.
David’s research method is simply to read every page of every available Antebellum and Reconstruction record, making a summary extracts of every mention of every slave and slave master, and all other interesting tidbits about Upson County. He describes the legal records he has used in an AfriGeneas Library article, but court records are only part of the picture. Evidence from private and archival sources includes: family papers, family Bibles, church minutes, business records, and newspapers. Finally, David merges data from federal archival sources, including the Southern Claims Commission, Freedmen’s Bureau, and USCT pension applications.
As David accumulated extracts of records, individual mini-biographies began to emerge. “I was not looking for these particular people,” David explains, “Had I been looking for them, I doubt I would have found them; instead, as I collected all the bits and pieces of evidence, certain life stories just came together and demanded to be written.” Two of these mini-biographies will appear in Dr. Louis Gates’ forthcoming African-American National Biography. Another example of a biography that emerged from the records and demanded to be told appears in the AfriGeneas Library.
Frustrated by most historians’ inability to cope with slaves’ names in book indexes (which effectively perpetuates the anonymity of even those slaves whose names we know), David published his proposed solution in a professional journal, The American Archivist.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the Upson County Project is the linkage of records about the enslaved across Emancipation to those same persons in the Reconstruction period; “We can write life stories of the folk who lived in those times without having to stop at 1865,” says David.
The culmination of David’s life work will be the history of Upson County, GA, which he has recently (finally!) begun to write. The target audiences will include anyone interested in exploring the histories of people who lived in Upson County, Georgia, during that county’s first half century, and historians who might be interested in an up-country county in the cotton belt, as counter-poise to the numerous studies of low country counties. This study offers an opportunity to employ a powerful historical magnifying glass on a local part of the Old South, under which readers will be able to explore the lives of individual southerners from all ranks in life.