Friday, February 1, 2008

Genealogy's Brick Wall

I forget sometimes that not everyone knows about the brick walls Black Americans run into while researching their family tree. I've been doing this for so long that I assume that it is common knowledge that the 1870 census is the first census that list Black Americans by name. Before then, if Black citizens were not free, they were just a number, an age and a gender on the census.

Another brick wall we face is the surname. After emancipation, Black Americans could pick the surname they wanted. Statistically, only 15% kept the name of the slave owner. The other 85% selected names for various reasons. Sometimes names were tried on to see if they fit and then were discarded willy nilly.

Right now I am trying to figure out why my great-great grandfather Napoleon chose the surname Cotten. On the 1870 Mississippi census his family's surname was Anderson. I can't even find him on the 1880 census. On the 1900 census he is now a Cotten. His oldest son is living next door to a White Cotten. They both list their occupation as merchants which I thought had to be more that a coincidence. However, I haven't been able to discern what the importance of them being neighbors is. To make things more curious, Napoleon's brother is using the surname Cain on the 1900 census. Just another mystery to unravel.

I wrote to Sandra Craighead, a Mississippi plantation expert, after a disappointing trip to the Mississippi State Archives. At that time I still thought my ancestors were slaves from a Cotten plantation. Craighead dispelled that notion. With very little oral history to go on, I don't know which documents to look for to tell me what I need to know.

Hitting your head against these brick walls produce lots of frustration and headaches.


maggie moran said...

I have the same problem, but in another arena. I'm trying to help the black community find their ancestors and keep hitting the same, dang, brick wall. I wrote about it here -

Sometimes the answer to a last name is simple. The brother may have been teasing your great-great grandfather b/c he chose Cotten as a last name, as in "you chose Cotten b/c that's what you raise, then I'm raising Cain." Or not, just a thought...

I'm sure you have run across the surnames of Freeman, Freemon, Freedman, Freedmon, Freadmon, Redmon, Redman, Readmon. The census are full of misspelling and Cotten is probably the same as cotton. One of my realives from marriage changed their name to Friedman (pronounced Freed man) when they moved to the South. They were shucking their Jewish heritage or making a statement with the new place, new name; who knows.

Don't give up whatever you do. These searches are important and lead to great books such as Roots, Confederates in the Family, and Cane River. And, I beg you, when you get done with your Mississippi collection, please make copies and give to a local Mississippi library and the Mississippi archives. :)

Jennifer said...

Thanks Maggie for the encouragement and the helpful tips. In my case, I have found a connection between Cain and Cotten which I plan on writing about this week. And I checked with a Mississippi plantation expert who said my ancestors were not on the Cotten's plantation, at least not the Cotten's I was looking at. Hopefully this year I can go to the Amite court house and do a little sleuthing on my home.

I never thought about giving my findings to the archives. Thank you so much for pointing that out

maggie moran said...

I look forward to reading more. Have fun in Amite. :)

Renate Yarborough Sanders said...

Hi. Just wanted to let you know that visiting your blog has inspired me to (finally) start my own. Thanks for sharing, and perhaps in the future we can share our thoughts and experiences on doing AA research. Be blessed!

Anonymous said...

Your tips were extremely helpful and answered one of the most puzzling aspects of my geneology search: why my relatives do not appear before the 1870 census. And, like you, the name spellings are so inconsistent: I often find my Cain relatives listed as Kane or other variations. Also, in cases where the slave bore children by the slave owner, I find the mother listed as the head, which makes it difficult to link to the actual slaveowner.

Thank you for these exceedingly helpful tips!