Thursday, February 7, 2008


(1824 map of Northwestern Alabama at Mississippi border showing location of my ancestors' land grants)

From the time of the American Revolution until 1818, what was known as the Mississippi Territory (today's states of Mississippi and Alabama) was variously controlled by France, Spain, Great Britain and several Indian nations, particularly Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Cherokee. To travel beyond Georgia, U.S. citizens had to obtain a passport from whichever nation held the territory they were crossing.

However, the U.S. relentlessly used every means at its disposal to make this territory their own, and by 1820, both Mississippi and Alabama had been largely stolen from its Native peoples and was being opened to white expansion. My Armstrong, Randolph, Ussery and Fuller ancestors from the Scots enclaves around Montgomery Co., North Carolina relocated westward, first going to Monroe County, Mississippi (on the border with northwestern Alabama), then obtaining land grants in the watershed of Bear Creek, Chickasaw Nation, what is now Franklin and Marion Counties, Alabama.

They were the first white people to live on the lands they received. As best I can determine, the people they displaced were Chickasaw, who had attempted to adopt European agriculture and treat peacefully with the U.S. -- fat lot of good it did them, not with Andrew Jackson in the White House. My Scots forebears hated governmental interference except when it stole other people's land and gave it to them.

My ancestors, like most of the whites pouring in, were fleeing soil they had exhausted by the over-cultivation of cotton. They obtained rich land of the Black Belt and Tennessee Valley. With them they brought slave labor and the plantation system, though on a smaller scale than the Delta region. During the first half of the 1800s, a steady demand for cotton made this the U.S.'s leading export.

I cannot find a record of my direct ancestors owning slaves in Mississippi or Alabama. They were cotton farmers, but also seemed to raise horses for income. By 1860, my main lines migrated northwest to Sharp County, Arkansas, where they did not own slaves, either. This is where they were at the time of the Civil War and where every male between the age of 14 and 55 served in the CSA.

I'm currently working on an intensively researched essay about my Confederate ancestry, trying to puzzle out where my family's CSA service is typical or unusual and how that might have handed down current family values. In the meantime, I turned to this one branch of interrelated families today because I've been writing a section of my novel Ginny Bates that has to do with the ancestry of Allie Billups, an African-American lesbian character whom I located as having grown up in the Franklin/Marion County, Alabama region. I'm looting my own family background (where it applies across racial lines) and knowledge of the area to create a back-story for Allie.

Last night, Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a pre-eminent African-American historian and genealogist) aired the second installment of his African-American Lives epic on PBS. I was riveted, again, and realized the history of the Great Migration needed to be in Allie's story as well.

At the taking of the U.S. Census in 1860, Franklin County, Alabama was 45% African-American (of which all but 13 were slaves) and 55% European-American. Currently, however, Franklin County is about 90% white, 4% black, and 5% Latino. The average for Alabama is 71% white, 26% black, which means Franklin County is off skew.

(Slave quarter from Belmont Plantation, Colbert Co. AL which was formed from Franklin Co. AL, 1936, taken by Alex Bush; from Back of the Big House: Cultural Landscape of the Plantation)

One African-American genealogy site states "Subject to the effect of the formation of Colbert County from the northern part of Franklin in 1869, by the 1870 census, the white population of Franklin County had decreased almost 34% to 6,693, while the "colored" population decreased over 84% to 1,313. (As a side note, by 1960, 100 years later, the County was listed as having 20,756 whites, about twice as many, but the 1960 total of 1,231 "Negroes"was only about one seventh of what the colored population had been 100 years before.) Where did all the freed slaves go, that were not in Franklin or Colbert County in 1870? Dallas, Montgomery and Mobile counties in Alabama all saw increases in the colored population between 1860 and 1870, so that could be where some of these freed slaves went. Between 1860 and 1870, the Alabama colored population increased by 37,000, to 475,000, a 17% increase. Between 1860 and 1870, the Alabama colored population increased by 37,000, to 475,000, a 17% increase. Where did freed slaves go if they did not stay in Alabama? States that saw significant increases in colored population during that time, and were therefore more likely possible places of relocation for colored persons from Franklin County, included the following: Georgia, up 80,000 to 545,000 (17%); Texas, up 70,000 (38%); North Carolina, up 31,000 (8%); Florida, up 27,000 (41%); Ohio, up 26,000 (70%); Indiana, up 25,000 (127%); and Kansas up from 265 to 17,000 (6,400%)."

I haven't yet done the research to trace this demographic, or to discover the particular effects of the Great Migration on Franklin County during 1900-1930, when blacks fled the South for Northern cities in the largest movement of people this country has seen. However, I am keeping in mind the bigger idea, which is that if black people chose to abandon Franklin County in huge numbers as soon as they were emancipated, their living conditions there were worse than other counties in the South. As Gates' program indicated, with no money, no skills except farming, and no region seeking them, newly-freed slaves were overwhelmingly sucked back into the near-slavery of sharecropping by the time Reconstruction had been betrayed by the Republican Party. Yet Franklin County blacks, in particular, opted to share-crop elsewhere no matter the rigors of relocating.

(Laura Clark, former slave from Sumter County, Alabama, photograph possibly by Ruby Pickens Tartt, ca. 1938, from Back of the Big House: Cultural Landscape of the Plantation)

In 1985, I went to Franklin and Marion Counties as part of a general genealogy research trip across the South. Of all the places I visited, it was the one place where I felt frightened for my safety as a lesbian and as a woman traveling with other women (not necessarily the same thing). There was no friendliness to strangers to be found by me and my companions, despite my accent and our serious attempts at charm. The poverty was strong, but other equally poor places still had people who would talk to us. I located the land where my ancestors had farmed -- a neighboring tract even had a still-standing dog-run log cabin from the early 1800s on it -- and when I walked the clay soil, what came to me was not my people reaching out over time (which often happened to me on these trips) but desolation.

(Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan)

We arrived there after having the day before visited Ivy Green, the home of Helen Keller, now a museum filled with photos of her life with Annie Sullivan. In the back yard was the famous well and pump. I had been overjoyed to see it, to claim a woman-loving connection with this extraordinary leader. From there, we'd gone to the Coon Dog Memorial Cemetery near Tuscumbia, Alabama, another place which had moved us deeply with its headstones, often primitive, extolling the love of men for their dogs. Thus, I was taken off utterly off guard by the depression I felt in Franklin County.

(The pump at Ivy Green where Helen Keller learned the word for water)

Something is there to be uncovered. Since my ancestors were on the white side of that equation, I want to know why. I'll keep you informed.

In the meantime, do whatever you can to catch your PBS station's viewing of African-American Lives. Family histories this time include those of Tina Turner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Don Cheadle, Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, and six others. It's better than the first go round in 2006. There'll be an additional two hours' shown next week as well. The website has an incredible timeline and set of sources. Gates' is permanently affecting the lives of those folks whose ancestry he traces (he made Chris Rock weep with one discovery) but also rewriting American history in a manner we've ardently needed. Watch it.

Genealogy for Franklin Co., AL
African-American genealogy for Franklin Co., AL
Native American genealogy for Franklin Co., AL


kat said...

I watched program last night, as well. We had 2 one-hour episodes. What surprised me the most was that the Chickasaw nation owned black slaves. And that they kept them after the civil war ended.

My family history on my mom's side is really well documented (mom's father was Mormon, from a well-known family. The mormons, they likes the geneology). On my dad's, however, it's really murky. I've been meaning to start researching, because we really don't know much. Dad's grandparents left Africa (by some accounts Madagascar, by others Ivory Coast) and went to England. How they ended up in the ass-end of Leicestershire, no one knows. WHY they ended up there is another good question, but I don't predict finding the answer....There was nothing in that whole county for years....

Anyway, the African American Lives 2 program was really interesting. I came away very touched by the stories and lives that were shared.

Maggie Jochild said...

Kat, if you need recos for the genealogy research, I'm actually an expert, and I gained almost all my chops in the Bay Area. There's a National Archives in San Bruno, the Mormon temple in Oakland, and the fabulous Sutro Library in San Francisco (out by SF State).

Not only did members of the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole) own slaves, they had Confederate units during the Civil War. Also Union units. I'm working on a piece, different from the one I mentioned earlier, about my g-g-granddfather Davis and his sibs who fought at the Battle of Honey Creek, where a small but intense encounter between units that had whites, blacks, and various Native American soldiers on both sides resulted in 164 dead, including a buttload of my ancestors, plus many captures. It irrecovably altered my family history, not just the deaths but also the emotional aftermath: The Confederates were wiped out because they misinterpreted the actions of the Union Native and black troops, through racism, pure and simple. Those who survived came back to Limestone County, Texas and became Klan members. But their children, my great-grandparents, left the family and community permanently in order to raise their children (my mother's line) away from the hate. I am the product of that unprecedented decision.

It's a hard story to tell in detail. But I'm working on it.

And finding out stuff like the above (which nobody knew until I unearthed it) is why I do this research. Like Faulkner said, the past is not dead, it is not even the past.

kat said...

Because of the whole "baptising the dead" thing, the mormon archives are global and really complete, as far as I know. One of my mormon cousins did a whole family history, but it was only of our moms' line.
The complication is in finding info for rural England in the first 3rd of the 20thC. I doubt that a lot of that has even been digitized. If it has, though, my guess is the Mormons are the place to start.....

Wow, that's quite a history to have.

Maggie Jochild said...

Kat, the UK conducted a complete census every ten years, just like the US, and they're really useful for tracking folks. (And yes, online for a fee at In addition, local records in England tend to be far superior to those here for the 1800s. And so much of THAT is online now, again thanks to the Mormons' religious practices combined with their understanding of the math of human connection: Every single person on earth is related to each other at the level of 30th cousin or closer.

kat said...

wow, cool. I'll definitely look into those resources. I have a week off from work on the 18th, so maybe that will be my daytime project.


and, by the way, you're super cool, you know.

kat said...

Did you read the post at BitchPhD (by ding) about this?

It's not super detailed, but really nicely written.

Maggie Jochild said...

Ironically, I'm in the middle of writing a post right now linking to hers -- it's a great piece, deserves to be read widely.