Monday, January 3, 2011

Madness Monday – The 1870 Brick Wall

Depending on your age, most African-American researchers arrive at that towering and almost impenetrable 1870 Brick Wall rather quickly. For me, depending on the line, it took only 3 generations (parents, grandparents, great grandparents). Think about that for a minute. When I started out hoping to duplicate what Alex Haley did, hitting that wall was one of the most disheartening things imaginable. I knew it was there but somehow I still wasn’t ready when I ran up against it.

When I was younger (20s and early 30s), emotionally, I couldn’t handle the WALL. I think I shed a tear for each nameless individual listed on the 1860 Slave Schedule. Along with life taking over, I think it’s why I had to step away from my research for awhile.

These days, from an emotional stand point, I can handle the Wall, although I still find myself shedding a tear now and again.

I don’t think about the Wall everyday but it’s there and yet, if I bring it down, what do I find on the other side? Just how much further can I go if I bring it down? I know DNA can take me back to Africa but it’s a hollow victory without the names of those that resulted in my being.

The Wall stares at me, mocks me, frustrates me, and yet I refuse to give in to it. To do so would be devaluing the lives of my enslaved ancestors. They didn’t give up, so why should I?

So, I will continue to plan trips to courthouses hoping to find some shred of evidence in an old master’s will or the mention of a name in a tax record. I’ll continue to write descendants of possible slave owners hoping for something recorded in an old family bible. I’ll also contact churches, cemeteries, and funeral homes hoping their records chart a course. And I’ll continue to review what documentation I already have searching for that minute piece of information that I might have missed previously. And maybe, just maybe, even if I don’t bring it down, by the end of 2011, I’ll at least have made a hole in one if not all of my current 1870 Brick Walls.

The 1870 Brick Wall on the maternal side of my family that I began working on in 2010 and will continue to work on in 2011 is that of my 2nd great grandparents, Jasper and Jane Pierce.


  1. Mavis,

    I found myself nodding in agreement about 1/3 of the way down all the way to the end. Difference being that I only started @ 8 1/2 years ago.

    You didn't say if you have found your ancestors' slaveowners. Of my eight great grandparents, I have no indication yet that any of them were FPOC. Yet I have only found what I believe to be the slaveowner of one of them. In the last year and a half, searching records for that slaveowner's family has also been challenging. Couple things that have helped, although no concrete information for me. DAR records and antebellum records. I am of course, continuing to look for probate, deeds and of course family histories.

    So, of course, if you haven't found the slaveowner, that's the next step.
    Chin up girl, you will find them.

    btw, the DAR records I speak of are in Alabama. I haven't yet found where Georgia has significant DAR holdings.

  2. Mavis,

    For clarification, I take that back. Two of my great grandmothers were born free after 1865.

  3. Thanks Darlene. I've identified possible slave owner for my Pierce line but all avenues I attempted last year to confirm didn't pan out, so it's time to regroup and back to the drawing board.

  4. It must seem an overwhelming obstacle at times. I'm all admiration for your persistence.

  5. Prepare yourself for the exhilaration when you knocked down those 1870 Walls! :) Also, keep more tissue handy.

  6. I can't even imagine how frustrating that must be. I know very little about this type of research, but it has to be very difficult. Don't give up!! You will be so glad that you stuck with it.!
    I have been trying to transcribe records from wills/estate inventories that I have of ancestors who were slave owners and to post them online in hopes that someday, someone will be able to find their family amongst them.


  7. Mavis,

    I feel your frustration. Keep hanging in there. You'll get that breakthrough, and it will probably come totally by accident. You'll need the tissue; the joy and pain of seeing an ancestor named in a slave holders will or other papers is overwhelming.

    Good luck in your quest!


  8. I know how you feel each time I pick up the Hill family file. Where did they exist before 1870? I know you and I will both find the answers we just have to keep asking questions.

  9. Mavis,
    I have been able to go back to the 1775 - 1817 in each of my branches. Although one branch is a free colored and a bit easier, the other's were all revealed either in 1)emancipation deeds or 2)war records. Be sure to check a) Provost Marshall records, b) civil war pension records, and c)land records. Those are my top 3 recommendations for cracking African American research. I will write a blog on the provost marshal records. These are forgotten civil war era records. Of course the slaveowner records (if applicable) is a Genealogist's dream, but discerning the slave owner can be tricky, but again...very do-able. Good luck.

  10. Kathleen, thanks for the additional tips. I don't think I've heard of the Provost Marshall records until now.

  11. Mavis, I have complete faith that it will crumble...hopefully sooner than later :).

  12. You hit the nail on the head! I have only been researching and documenting for a short time and I've already hit the wall on my mother's side. I am so thankful that I have some older relatives and my paternal uncle's research & obituary collection to fill in the gaps.

    Thanks for your honest reflection and the research tips!


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