In theory, we can learn enough factual information about an historical era or event to allow us to believe that we understand the lives of the people involved. But while we may know their actions, their clothing and what foods they ate, their thoughts and feelings are a whole other animal.
One prime example of this is slavery. We can watch movies and documentaries or read books, but the general public is not often exposed to primary source material that allows us a more visceral understanding of the systemic cruelty of slavery.
Among other atrocities, slavery in 19th-century America involved the sale of human beings. Because slaves were property, they could be sold at any time for any reason. Since by its very nature, “property” couldn’t have family, many slave owners had absolutely no problem selling slaves away from their blood relations. Yes, children, even very young children, were permanently separated from their parents and siblings by these sales.
One of the fascinating things about history is that human nature is what it is. People have always been people, flawed and human. In light of that, some slave owners were comparatively humane, while others were vile, power-hungry trolls.
After the end of the Civil War and Emancipation, freed slaves almost immediately began placing ads in newspapers trying to find family and friends. This actually continued through the beginning of the 20th century, meaning that this forced family separation affected people for the rest of their lives.
The best place to read some of these personal ads in their original form is at The Historic New Orleans Collection page for Lost Friends. I’ll share the contents of a couple of the ads here, but please take the time to check out the original Lost Friends ads and to see others shown in the articles included below. Please note that a slave’s name could be changed at the whim of the owner, making it that much more difficult to find a loved one.
From the Colored Tennessean in 1865, less than 6 months after the end of the Civil War:
Information is wanted of my mother, whom I left in Fauquier county, Va., in 1844, and I was sold in Richmond, Va., to Saml. Copeland. I formerly belonged to Robert Rogers. I am very anxious to hear from my mother, and any information in relation to her whereabouts will be thankfully received. My mother’s name was Betty, and was sold by Col. Briggs to James French. Any information by letter, addressed to the Colored Tennessean, Box 1150, will be thankfully received.
From The Atlanta Constitution in 1892:
“Trying to Find His Mother.
Huntsville, Ala., October 22 – Editor Constitution: My mother was a full-blooded African and was owned by old Billy Fain, of DeKalb county, Georgia, and fell heir to Robert Fain and was sold to George Garrison, of Polk county, Georgia, near Cedartown, with three children, named Rachel, Sherman and Robert. My mother was sold to a Mississippian named Buck or Buchanan it seems to me about 1856. Any information from Tom, Garrison or Buck, from Mississippi, will be appreciated by a man who has not seen his mother in thirty-seven years.
For More Information:
“The Hopeful, Heartbreaking Ads Placed by Formerly Enslaved People in Search of Lost Family” by Rebecca Onion on Slate’s blog, The Vault: Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights
“Slaves Search For Their Families in Newspapers” by msualumni on the blog Reclaiming Kin: Taking Back What Was Once Lost
“How Slavery Affected African American Families” by Heather Andrea Williams for the National Humanities Center
Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams Amazon
Wondering, hoping, to find someone who can speak (Zoom, Skype, other) to the Michigan State University Community Club genealogy group about “Lost Friends” and the challenge of Black Americans to find their formerly enslaved ancestors.