One of the underlying motivators that compels many of us who research our family trees is a desire to know more – to know more about the lives of the ancestors that came before us, to know more about the experiences they had, to know more about the people with whom they interacted. This quest is never-ending and there are numerous ways to seek out details needed to weave the complex tapestry of their lives.
One such complex life in my own family tree relates to my 3rd great-grandfather, Prince Walker. He was the father of my beloved great grandmother, Martha Walker McNair, shown in the photo above with her children Alonzo and Martha.
Prince was born enslaved around 1812 in North Carolina. As illustrated on the 1870 United States Census, he was residing in the town of Plymouth, was married to Lovey Boston and they had 8 known children – Providence, James, Adaline, Anthony, Clarasa, Lovey Ann, Jennie, and Prince Jr.
Prince’s life during enslavement was certainly a strenuous one. Our oral family history holds that during enslavement, he held responsibilities for overseeing plantation operations for his slaveholders.
As I read his obituary in the local paper from 1899, the description painted of Prince is in parallel with what his responsibilities were to the family. You see, he is described as at “good ole ‘for da war’ darky” – which, tells me that he followed the expected social conventions of the local white populace.
Yet, contrast this with what Prince was doing in his own family unit. He, of course knew that a life of enslavement was not all that could be. When his 15-year-old son Prince Jr. was sold to a neighboring plantation and subject to very cruel behaviors by the new slaveholder, he helped his son successfully escape enslavement. Prince Jr. made it up to Rhode Island, served in the United States Colored Troops, and would eventually settle to raise his own family in Providence, Rhode Island. I continually wonder if he chose Providence because it was also the name of one of his brothers.
Soon after Prince Sr. helped his son escape North, slavery was abolished. I cannot imagine how Prince Sr. and the rest of the family must have felt. Though, I’m sure, like so many others, they found themselves still trapped in the same establishment infrastructure that held them in bondage.
This time period just after emancipation, must have been a period filled with uncertainty for my formerly enslaved ancestors. I am grateful for the opportunities to seek out details about their lived experiences through records such as the bountiful ones available from the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedman’s Saving and Trust Company.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, known formally as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was established in 1865 to aid with the necessary transition to citizenship for more than 4 million individuals, most of whom had been previously enslaved. The Bureau, via a network of field offices located in throughout the South, provided help with food, housing, education, medical care, financial and legal assistance, labor contractual arrangements, and more. The records consist of the names of more than 1.8 million men, women and children. Thanks to the efforts of FamilySearch, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the California African American Museum, and the steadfast dedication of thousands of altruistic crowd-sourced indexing volunteers, these Bureau records are publicly and freely accessible online.
An exploration of these records may indeed turn up some interesting discoveries. I found several documents related to my own family. For one ancestor, I discovered a labor contract between him and his former slaveholder signed in the first year of emancipation that outlines payment to be received for my ancestor’s labor on the family farm. In detail, it provides an understanding of the work needed to run the farm. I even found documents related to Prince Walker, Sr.
Through bank records, I learned the names of Prince’s parents – individuals born in the late 1700s! And, he may have even been involved in a criminal event? So much more to investigate there. So many more discoveries to possibly unveil.
Have you used the Freedmen’s Bureau records? What details are waiting for you to learn about your family members or the members of their communities? What quests can you make progress on through this incredible record set?
If you have enslaved ancestors in your family tree, I enthusiastically suggest you leverage this powerful resource.