An Adams County, Mississippi Record Book
The Record Book
On August 16th 1999 in Mississippi, an article appeared in the Natchez Democrat entitled “Rare slave records found in courthouse”. It went on to say, “The records are chilling. Written in precise script on yellowing pages, they document the vital statistics of slaves brought from Kentucky to Mississippi just before the Civil War.”
Bill Hanna and members of Mississippi’s Local Government Records Office of the Department of Archives and History had been working in one of the basement storage areas of the Adams County Courthouse in Natchez as part of a program to document the contents of local court records. Mr. Hana recalls that they came upon a fairly modern bound book labeled simply ‘Record Book’. They began reading through it to make notes on it’s contents. It quickly dawned on them that it was not full of records from the 1950s as the binding suggested but contained strangely named “Certificates of Slaves” from the 1850s and 1860s.
At that time Mississippi State law required that “In all cases where any slave shall be introduced or imported into this State as merchandise or for sale, the person so introducing or importing, shall…exhibit to the clerk of the probate court of the county where such slave may be introduced…that he has not been guilty of any felony or other crime, and that the person so offering him for sale, came lawfully into the possession thereof…”. These documents then became known as “Certificates of Slaves”.
Mr. Hanna and the others were excited when they realized the rarity of the find. He remembers being “…most impressed that there were so many first and last names. I know I spent some time in the basement going over each page and reading each list of names!” In fact nearly 30 percent of the ‘Record Book’ contains both the first and last names of enslaved people bought in the Upper South and sold on the Natchez Slave Markets between 1858 and 1861. Those listed as the slaveowners and witnesses have nearly all been identified as slave traders.
Tommy O’Beirne, the Chancery Clerk in Natchez who was also working on the records program, immediately authorized Mr. Hana and his department to take the ‘Record Book’ to Jackson to be microfilmed. It was then returned to Natchez and the microfilm was made available to researchers. Roberta Raworth of Natchez went to the courthouse and made copies of the 136 legal sized pages. Gloria McCallum, Georgia Wise and Bill Mudd used the copies to transcribe the handwritten entries into a searchable database.
The first entry in the Record Book is a ‘certificate’ drawn up in Louisville, Kentucky on September 7th 1858 just as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were debating the issues of slavery in neighboring Illinois. The last entry in the record book was made on January 23, 1861 eleven days after Mississippi became the 2nd state to secede from the Union. By the end of the month all six of the Deep South states had seceded and less than two and a half months later the Confederate Army fired on Ft. Sumter.
The life style of free citizens of the United States by the 1850s in both the North and South depended on the affordable goods and services largely made possible by a system of slave labor where a person and all their descendants remained in servitude in perpetuity and were legally defined as property who could be bought and sold. When the TransAtlantic slave trade was officially abolished in 1808 by the United States Congress, the domestic slave trade began to flourish as the need for slave labor in the Deep South increased.
The market for the cash crops of the Upper South like tobacco and hemp had dwindled and most of it’s arable land had been cleared so the advantages of slave labor had begun to disappear. Cotton rose to become 60 percent of the United States economy by the 1850s and was known as “King Cotton”. The world markets’ insatiable demand for inexpensive cotton created a huge ongoing need for slave labor on the plantations of the Lower South where the cotton was grown. The state of Kentucky repealed its Non-Importation Act in 1849 and began participating in the highly profitable slave trade by annually exporting between 2,500 and 4,000 of its enslaved people. The city of Lexington in Fayette County, Kentucky capitalized on the situation and transformed itself into the largest and most active slave market in the Upper South. Although those listed in the ‘Record Book’ came from 20 counties in 4 different states nearly half of them came from Fayette County, Kentucky.
The greatest nightmare and heartbreak of all the sufferings endured by an enslaved person was to be separated from their family and loved ones. A few of those listed in the ‘Record Book’ are noted as being related and perhaps were able to remain together but certainly the rest had been taken away from their families. And the separations were almost always permanent. It was so common for slave traders, with the complicity of slaveowners, to break up marriages and families that in Lexington where slaves made up half the population, London Ferrill, minister of the First African Baptist Church and the largest church in Lexington at the time, always included “until death or distance do us part” as part of the vows during wedding ceremonies.
The ‘Record Book’ mentions slave merchants like T.& J. Arterburn, Lewis Robards and Silas Marshall who advertised cash for slaves in local Fayette County newspapers. Once they bought the slaves from local slaveowners, they’d put the men, women and children into iron-barred pens called “jails”. There they waited either to be loaded onto one of the more than one hundred and twenty steamboats then operating on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers or to be chained hand and foot in a column of twos forming a caravan called a “coffle” and marched 25-30 miles a day down a series of trails known as the Natchez Trace into the Deep South. For the enslaved who were to be transported by steamboat, as the cargo of cotton and sugar was being off loaded, they were chained up and from the slave pens in the heart of the city were paraded down main street to the river docks and put on board for the trip south.
Some died from shock or disease during the trip. William Wells Brown, abolitionist, author, and historian was born into slavery in Fayette County, Kentucky. He describes in his famous slave narrative what he witnessed, “A drove of slaves on a southern steamboat, bound for the cotton or sugar regions, is an occurrence so common, that no one, not even the passengers, appear to notice it, though they clank their chains at every step…There was on the boat a large room on the lower deck, in which the slaves were kept, men and women,…all chained two and two,…we lost one woman who had been taken from her husband and children, and having no desire to live without them, in the agony of her soul jumped overboard, and drowned herself…On landing at Natchez, the slaves were all carried to the slave-pen…where those who wished to purchase could call and examine them.”
In 1860, William M. Pratt, minister of the First Baptist Church of Lexington was asked to help in the desperate situation of a member of their associated church the First African Baptist Church. Nancy Lee, a slave, had two daughters about to be sent to the slave traders auction block and sold south. Her husband Tony Lee, a free black, had succeeded in purchasing their two daughters’ freedom and had turned the papers over to her just before his death. Slave traders seeing great profit to be made in selling her two daughters had visited Nancy and tricked her into handing over the manumission papers which they then destroyed. Pratt agreed to help. Nancy’s daughters went to the auction block at the Cheapside Slave Market near the court house on “County Court Day”, February 13, 1860. Pratt began bidding on Nancy’s first daughter but the price quickly reached one thousand dollars. He jumped up on the auction block and explained the situation to the crowd and begged them to withdraw from any more bidding. But the slave traders resumed the bidding and the crowd ignored Pratt and ran the price up to $1,700, an amount he and his church members could not afford. She was sold to a slave trading firm run by Silas Marshall, mentioned often in the ‘Record Book’, who operated with his brother out of an office on Main Street opposite the Phoenix Hotel in downtown Lexington. Nancy’s second daughter was sold in the same way for $1600. While there are several Lees listed in the ‘Record Book’, we have not been able to verify if any of them are the daughters of Nancy Lee who lost her children to the slave trade.
Between 1820 and 1861 more than 60 percent of the Upper South’s enslaved population was “sold South” in this manner. Mississippi’s enslaved population increased by more than 225 percent. The destination of the enslaved people listed in the ‘Record Book’ were the slave markets at Natchez. The Natchez Trace led directly to one of the two largest and busiest slave markets in the entire Deep South. It was called “Forks of the Road” and was located at the intersection of Washington Road (now St. Catherine Street) and Liberty Road about a mile east of downtown Natchez. Slaves were also sold at the Adams County Courthouse itself, at Natchez Under-the-Hill and in various auction houses around town. But it’s almost certain it was at “Forks of the Road” slave market where the enslaved men, women and children mentioned in the ‘Record Book’ were brought.
They were sold to the owners of hundreds of small farms and large plantations in western Mississippi and the rich eastern Louisiana lowlands across the river. It was all part of a broader area of the Lower South called the Black Belt or Cotton Belt. The rich fertile soil of this belt stretched across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The farms and plantations in it grew 80 percent of the nation’s cash crops of cotton, sugar and rice. And the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was the heart of all King Cotton.
Nearly all of the enslaved people who had been taken from their families in the Upper South and sold on the Natchez Slave Markets wound up as field hands working nonstop from sunrise to sunset under the most brutal conditions. Mary Reynolds of Dallas Texas was interviewed in the 1930s by people recording slave narratives for “Life Histories”, a WPA Federal Writers’ Project. She had been a slave in the same region as those listed in the ‘Record Book’. She recalls, “The conch shell blowed afore daylight and all hands better git out for roll call or Solomon bust the door down and get them out…Slavery was the worst days was ever seed in the world. They was things past tellin’, but I got the scars on my old body to show to this day…It was work hard, git beatin’s and half fed. They brung the victuals and water to the fields on a slide pulled by a old mule. Plenty times they was only a half barrel water and it stale and hot…”
The conflicts within this nation that resulted in a war between the northern and southern states was about differences in culture, economy and political power as well as a crisis in the collective conscience of its free citizens. An increasingly influential and vocal minority throughout the Union did not want to continue with the “peculiar institution” of slavery and vowed to end it. But King Cotton gave southern states great economic and political power. Many now famous congressional debates ensued resulting in compromises that failed to resolve the conflicts. The states in the South began seceding from the Union and in April of 1861 skirmishes broke out in border states and war was declared.
On Tuesday May 12th 1862 the Port of Natchez on the Mississippi was occupied by Federal naval forces under Flag Officer Daniel Farragut. The following year on July 13, 1863 the city itself was occupied by Maj.Gen. John A. Logan’s Union cavalry and other expeditionary forces and all enslaved people were freed. The former “Forks of the Road” slave market became a temporary relocation center for displaced former slaves where in large numbers they signed up with the Union Army to join in the fight against the Confederacy. In the end over 200,000 newly freed slaves in the South served as soldiers and sailors for the Union and at least 20 of them received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
When the Civil War ended in April of 1865, the desire of a freed slave who had been sold south to return to the Upper South in search of their husbands, wives, children or parents can only be imagined. Tragically this proved extremely difficult if not impossible. Newly freed slaves were called freedmen and easily composed the majority of the population in Mississippi after the war. They should have enjoyed all the rights of a United States citizen but the recently amended United States Constitution and all accompanying Federal Laws were ignored in Mississippi.
Instead so called “Black Codes” were passed which were little different than the old slave codes and greatly restricted the movement of newly freed slaves as well as effectively reinstalling the old plantation system with a scheme called “Sharecropping”. The minority white population maintained political power by stuffing ballot boxes and the frequent use of perjury, fraud and violence. The Freedmen’s Bureau and other well intentioned efforts to mitigate or stop the tactics to disenfranchise and deprive freed slaves of their rights as United States citizens ultimately failed. So life in post-Civil War Mississippi for a freed slave was little different than it had been before the war. And there were to be few significant improvements in the civil, social or economic rights of formerly enslaved people or their descendants for the next one hundred years.
For 45 years after the Civil War, records reflect a slow but steady migration of African Americans from rural areas to the cities of Mississippi as the futility and injustice of the sharecropping system began taking its toll. Yet the overwhelming majority stayed within the state either by choice or by necessity rather than to move up North. Freed slaves and their descendants continued to regularly suffer prejudice such as the Jim Crow Laws and violence from white vigilante groups like the Klu Klux Klan whether they lived in rural areas or in the cities. This along with floods, cholera epidemics and Boll Weevil finally began a mass migration to northern states beginning around 1910. The migration peaked in the years 1915-1918 as tens of thousands of jobs opened up in the northern factories supplying goods to European Countries involved in World War I.
As difficult as it would have been for a former slave in Mississippi to return to the Upper South after the Civil War, it would still be worth the family history researcher’s time and efforts to check census and other records from 1870 and later in the state and county of the ancestor’s origin as indicated in the ‘Record Book’.
But the most likely place to begin the search for any of the people listed in the ‘Record Book’ would be in the Mississippi counties and Louisiana parishes surrounding Adams Co. as well as counties within the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta region. Together these counties had the highest concentrations of African Americans in post-Civil War Mississippi.
The Mississippi counties surrounding Adams are Wilkinson, Amite, Franklin and Jefferson. The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta counties to search are DeSoto, Tunica, Coahoma, Sunflower, Quitman, Tallahatchie, Leflore, Humphreys, Holmes, and Yazoo. Among Louisiana Parishes search Concordia, Avoyelles, Catahoula, Madison, East Carrol and Tensus. And as mentioned there was a slow migration to the larger cities so you might also search in Warren Co.(Vicksburg),MS and Hinds Co. (Jackson),MS.
Some suggestions on the kinds of records to search for are slave records, death records, cemetery records, bible records, slaveholder wills, inventory list, draft records, census and Freedmen Bureau records. Interviewing family members is an excellent source as well.
We hope this introduction to the ‘Record Book’ has made it more interesting and helpful for anyone who finds an ancestor listed in it. We wish you all possible success in your search to trace their lives.
Gloria McCallum, Georgia Wise and Bill Mudd.