Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Slave Named Alexander

A few months ago I was at my local Family History Center looking through several reels of microfilm I had ordered. I was searching for additional documentation for several marriages in Bedford County, Virginia, and one death in Amherst County, Virginia. I was hoping the death registration information would include the parents' names of my great great grandfather, Powhatan Perrow Jennings, adding yet another piece of proof to my Daughters of the American Revolution application. That column was blank on the entry in the register of his death. So I might have walked away with nothing had I had not looked at every page on the reel.

There in the early section of the register for the year 1857, I found this entry:

page 68

Name in full: Alexander
Colored / free:
Colored / slave: 28*
Name of the owner of slave: P. P. Jennings
Sex / male: 14**
Sex / female:
Date of death: October 23
Place of death: Amherst
Name of disease or cause of death: Typhoid fever
Age / years: 12
Age / months:
Age / days:

* This column was a cumulative count by race for the year.
** This column was a cumulative count by sex for the year.

Of the tenth deaths recorded on 23 October 1857, four died of typhoid fever -- all slaves.

Amherst County Register of Death entry for Alexander, the 12-year-old slave
owned by Powhatan Perrow Jennings; image courtesy of the Family History

I was not surprised to learn Powhatan owned at least one slave as he owned and farmed a 200-acre piece of property and 15 acres were in tobacco in 1850. Tobacco was a very labor-intensive crop to grow and harvest; it was the cash crop in Virginia at the time and for years before and after.

No, what surprised me was seeing slave names on the same register page as their owners. The few of us in the Family History Center that morning puzzled over this for quite some time. If slaves were property, why were their deaths treated in such a fashion, especially as the right to own slaves was hardening in the South at that very time? We all thought if any record of a slave death was made, it was done in the owner's property records.

The FamilySearch catalog provided the answer:

"Register gives full name of the deceased, race, sex, death date, place of death, cause of death, age, parents' names, birthplace, occupation, name of spouse, and sources of occupation. Between 1853 and 1863, the name of the slave owner was also given. Information is not always complete."

And so, I am releasing the name of Alexander, a 12-year-old slave owned by Powhatan Perrow Jennings, who died of typhoid fever on 23 October 1857. In another eight years he would have been a free 20-year-old man with nearly his entire life in front of him.

Slave Name Roll Project

If you have ancestors who died in Virginia between 1853 and 1863, I encourage you to request the microfilm from the Family Search Library and look at the source document. You may have an opportunity to add too the Slave Name Roll Project and that would be a wonderful way to collaborate and share your research...Just a thought.

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