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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Resources for Researching African American Roots in Williamson County

UPDATE:  I've created a new Prezi presentation about getting started with your search.  Hope it helps!  

On Friday and Saturday January 5th and 6th, 2018 from 10 am - 12 noon I will be participating in a free genealogy workshop at the McLemore House Museum of the African American Heritage Society.  If you need help getting started with your search for your ancestors or are trying to break through a brick wall, come see us.  We look forward to helping you!


On Saturday, April 29th members of the African American Heritage Society will be participating in Family History Discovery Day sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Franklin. Activities will include FREE classes and interactive exhibits about genealogy research. There will be resources to help guests build an online family tree, as well as a computer lab with free Wi-Fi so guests can access the vast store of free genealogical records maintained by the LDS church. Tina Jones, co-chair of the Historical Committee of the AAHS, will be teaching three free classes about researching African American family roots in Williamson County - (1) 10:30 am class 1 for beginners just getting started, (2) 11:30 am class 2 to help those who need help digging deeper and (3) 12:45 pm class 3 about using military records to research your ancestors. Come for one or stay for all!

The event will be from 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday April 29th at the Franklin LDS Church at 1100 Gray Fox Lane (which is right near BGA off of Mack Hatcher). To sign up, visit and select “click here to find an event” then enter “Franklin, Tennessee” for the location. Select event #1 (Franklin 2nd & 3rd Wards) - click on "Register Here"

There will be ample parking and refreshments provided. The event is free and all ages are welcome.

Here is a link to my PowerPoint presentations that I gave -- they are one all in the same file, one after the other. 


Sometimes people ask me for help in researching their family histories - and when I can, I'm happy to assist. But its easier than you might think to do it yourself  - and often free and always fun. Besides usually YOU are going to be the best person for the job - because no one knows more about your family than you do! 

To download a Word document that you can easily print with some of these hints, click here

Before you begin I encourage you to spend a little time learning about Tennessee and Williamson County’s history - particularly its African American history.  This blog post can guide you to some reading material and other sources.  

It will be a big help to you if you understand a basic timeline of what was going on in your ancestor’s lives during the period of time when you are researching them. And of course, this blog - and this post in particular - will be a resource.  I am focusing in this post specifically on Williamson County resources.  You may find that as you go further back in time that you discover that your enslaved ancestor was brought to Williamson County from another area - such as Virginia or North Carolina - so your research will have to expand to those areas.  And you may also find that your ancestors who were enslaved here or born free after the Civil War may have had relatives who left this area for other places.  It was very common for African Americans to head to northern cities such as St. Louis and Chicago or to go west to Kansas and Oklahoma; again your research will need to expand to those places.  This post will help you dig deeply into their ties to Williamson County and hopefully get you well on your way!

Here are some important dates regarding local history to keep in mind as you get started 
with your research:

  • Franklin and Williamson County were both officially established on October 26, 1799
  • The earliest settlers brought enslaved people with them 
  • As early as the 1820 Census free people of color were identified in Williamson County, and some were identified as free in court records around 1815 
  • Between 1830-1860 Recolonization of about 700 African Americans happened from Tennessee to Liberia 
  • 1860 Census identified 12,000+ enslaved individuals in Williamson County 
  • The Civil War raged in this area from 1861-1865 
    • 300+ African Americans from Williamson County served in the US Army and the US Navy
    • January 1, 1864 Emancipation Proclamation went into effect (but the provisions freeing the slaves didn't apply to Tennessee)
  • In 1865 newly freed people began to obtain marriage licenses at the Williamson County Courthouse, enter into labor contracts, establish schools, churches and social organizations, and claim freedoms previously denied to them
  • 1866 Freedmen’s Bureau established Labor Contracts 
  • 1865-1877 Reconstruction Period 
    • The Reconstruction Amendments were adopted between 1865 and 1870 
      • the 13th Amendment – abolished slavery 
      • the 14th Amendment – gave former slaves citizenship, due process and equal protection 
      • the 15th Amendment - granted right to vote 
      • July 1867 a "Race Riot" occurs in Franklin - instigated by tension over the right to vote granted to African American men but denied to former Confederates
  • The first census in which newly freed African Americans were named as individuals was in 1870
  •  Late1870s Exoduster Movement Begins in earnest 
  • 20 Jim Crow laws enacted in Tennessee between1866 and 1955 
    • Violence from vigilante groups (KKK) 
  • Civil Rights begin to roll back significantly in 1880s
You might also check out this blog post for some driving tours and videos about local historical sites relevant to Williamson County's African American history.  This brochure will help you understand a bit about the Reconstruction Era in Tennessee.

First Step: 
Create a pen-and-paper family tree! Include as many details as you can think of – where people were born, who their parents and siblings were, when and where they lived, married, worked, died and are buried. Ask your parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents and other relatives for help – you may be surprised at what you learn. Think of this as building a quilt - each person or square you add contributes detail, texture and beauty to your family's overall story.  There are lots of different templates and charts available for free online to get you started.  Check out the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Nashville which provides many great resources for  your search!

Next StepStart Searching on or FamilySearch.Org
  • is a free search engine with lots of resources relevant to African American families. This page on Family Search provides an overview of their records related to Williamson County genealogy in general.  And this page gives a summary of their African American genealogical resources for Tennessee.  
  • requires a fee, but it is free if you sign on from the Williamson County library. It has also created this guide to researching genealogy for African-American families. The public library's Special Collections staff in Franklin offer free, monthly classes on how to use Ancestry and their staff can help you use the computers as well.
Once you decide which program to use (I use both), start from the most recent family members - such as your yourself, parents and siblings - and work your way back in time to grandparents, aunts and uncles, great-grandparents, etc.

Keep a pen and paper handy to write down notes. Pay attention to street addresses, occupations, numbers of children born, and neighbors, and any other details - they can be important clues! Then add them into your on-line family tree (if you are using one)  or pen and paper tree.  Try to find a system that works for you that will help you be organized.  I like to include these details in my on-line family tree - that way I only have to write it down once and its easy to retrieve.

A note about using online programs such as Ancestry and FamilySearch.  These systems allow you to create a family tree for your ancestors and lets you look at others' research - sometimes into your own ancestors if they are related to you (of if they think they are). I implore you not to rely on others' family trees when conducting your search. I cannot tell you how often the work I see is inaccurate, sloppy and just careless.  People tend to see a similar name in the same location and just assume it must be their family member.  Don't jump to conclusions.  This can easily lead you down a wrong path.  Be cautious and skeptical - the payoffs will be worth it when you can be proud of and certain of the accuracy of your work!  Your ancestors will thank you.

Using Federal Census Records to Research

After you have the basic outline of your family tree created based on personal and family information, start retrieving and researching Census Records.  In Williamson County we only have Federal Census Records available - other locations may have state or even municipal (city) census records.  

As you start to retrieve Census records, these are some tips and details to look for:
  • The 1940 Census is the most recent census currently available for research.  Start here and work backwards.   As you look at the census records, pay attention to who is living near your ancestors, where they were living, and all other information that is provided about them – these are all clues. For example, the 1940 Census tells you where the person was living in 1935 which can be a great hint.  It will also tell you their occupation and number of weeks worked in the preceding year as well as their income for 1939. Two people on each page were selected to answer additional questions such as veteran status and, for women, marital status and number of children.
  • The 1930 Census provides some details that can help you fill in some texture about your ancestors - such as whether they owned a radio! It will also tell you whether their home was owned or rented and its value. It will also tell you whether they were living on a farm and whether the person had attended college and for how many years.
  • The 1920 Census provides information about whether someone attended school during the year and could read or write.  It also gives information about the mother and father's place of birth which can be a good clue.  And this census tells whether the person is working on their own account (OA) or is an employee - these are clues as to whether they may have been farm laborers or sharecroppers.  Another clue resides in the number of the farm schedule (or "Non Population Schedule") that might be indicated.  Most of the actual farm schedules have been destroyed - but those for Wilson County, Tennessee do exist - so those might be useful for local researchers.
  • The 1910 Census offered great details about the women - such as the numbers of children they had given birth to, and how many of those were still living. It will also tell if your ancestors owned their home "free" or had a mortgage, and whether they lived on a farm or in a house.  It can also tell if they were a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy, and whether they were blind or deaf. 
  • The 1900 census (column 7) indicates the person's month and year of birth which can be wonderful to know.  It will also tell you the number of years a couple has been married which can help you determine if its a first marriage and if certain children belong to the couple; it will also tell you the total number of children born of the mother and the number of those children living. Again, we learn about literacy, home mortgages and occupations.
  •  The 1890 Census is missing due to a fire in Washington, DC that destroyed the records.  
    • 1890 Veterans' Census.  However, if your ancestor fought on the US side in the Civil War, he - or his widow or dependents - may appear on a special supplement to the 1890 Census that survived the fire. Be aware that from my experience this census was very incomplete however.
    • 1891 Enumeration of Adult Men Another way to get some information from the 1890 time period is through the “enumeration of male inhabitants of twenty-one years of age and upward, citizens of Tennessee taken on 1 January 1891.” These lists are available on in searchable form or you can read the documents beginning here. They could be a good way to find out if your male, adult ancestor was living in Williamson County at that time, and in which districts. Generally they listed the white men first, and then the "colored." Assuming you are looking for your African American ancestor, be sure to look for your family member at the end of the list with a check mark under the "colored" column - this will help you confirm that this really is the person you are looking for!
  •  1880 Census is the last census in which family relationships were recorded - when going backwards through time.  This census will tell you the person's parent's birthplace which can be very useful in determining where an enslaved person's parents were born.  It also identifies whether they attended school during the year and whether they are able to read or write if over age 10.  
  • 1870 Census. The oldest Census when we would expect to find most African-American ancestors is in the 1870 Census; this was the first census after the Civil War so it is a very important one for African American genealogists. This census did not include information about family relationships (such as father/mother/daughter/son) – so you have to guess. Generally, the male head of the family was listed first, followed by the wife and then children. I have found that in this census you often find a white farmer’s family listed, followed by several black farmers’ families – I have assumed that these following farmers are sharecropping or working his land for him – and some may have been his former slaves based upon the shared last name. Here is a link to the non population agricultural census for 1870 on which may show their farmsteads.  
Free People of Color.  When researching, remember that some of your ancestors may have been free black citizens – so do not assume that they would not have been counted in earlier census documents and automatically stop at 1870. It is possible that you descend from free people of color. Free people of color appear in every Williamson County census dating back to 1820. Here is a post that may be useful. 

Census records for enslaved people. The enslaved often - but not always - took their enslaver’s last names so you can find a slave census (called a schedule) for white slave owners. It is worthwhile to at least look for enslavers with the same last name of your oldest identified ancestors. The people they held in bondage were counted in the federal Censuses through 1860.  Below is an example of the 1860 slave census of the people enslaved by Eli A. Waters in Williamson County.  The first column shows the number (almost always a 1), then the age, the sex (either male or female) and then the color (either black or mulatto - i.e., biracial).  The small number 2 at the bottom right denotes that he provided two dwellings for the nine people he was enslaving.  The 1860 Slave Schedule is the only one that counted the number of dwellings; the 1850 Schedule did not capture this information.  

o Link to the 1850 Slave Schedule for Williamson County on Family Search
o Link to the 1860 Slave Census for Williamson County on
§ Here’s a link to all the 1860 Federal Slave Census information on Ancestry

Additionally, the 1860 Census required that slaves over the age of 100 be identified by name.  These are the people that I have identified in Williamson County in that Census. Using this document and other resources I was able to identify the man named Daniel who was enslaved by PGS Perkins on the below schedule.  His son Abraham McGavock served in the US Colored Troops during the Civil War. 


1 District
P. G. S.
[two slaves total]
1 District
1 District
[ten slaves total]
East Subdiv
G.? W.? C.?

· 1850 and 1860 Death Index.  Additionally, another resource in the 1850 and 1860 Census is that anyone who died during the year (i.e., 1850 or 1860) was supposed to be counted – by NAME – and their age, birth place, and cause of death recorded. This might be a useful clue for you because generally slaves were not counted in these census records by first name. I have copied these pages to my Flickr account – you can view them here.  

Below is a portion of the 1860 Mortality Index for Williamson County, Tennessee showing that an enslaved woman named Sal [Sallie] Gillespie died that year from burns.  She was born in Africa.  

You can read more about her, and how I used this information to piece together her story here

Agricultural Census Records.  Many of your enslaved ancestors were likely used to produce agricultural crops for those who enslaved them.  As a result, after they gained their freedom it would make sense for them to continue in that line of work.  Therefore, you may want to look at Agricultural Census records.  These were taken every census year from 1850 to 1910, although only the 1850 through 1880 schedules are available to researchers. The 1890 count was destroyed in the same fire that ruined the 1890 population census. The 1900 and 1910 agricultural schedules were destroyed, unmicrofilmed, by Congressional order.  You can search the available ones on 
  • The 1850 and 1860 agricultural census enumerated farms with an annual produce worth $100 or more. For your ancestors who were enslaved, these census records might provide insight into the holdings of those who were enslaving them.
  • In 1870 and 1880, farms of three or more acres—or those with an annual produce worth $500 or more—were counted. If your ancestors were farming and beginning to succeed, they might be counted on this census. 
  • Schedules list the name of the owner, agent or tenant along with the kind and value of acreage, machinery, livestock and produce. In 1880, farm operators were classified as owner, tenant, or sharecropper.

Property and Real Estate Information  

The census can also provide valuable information regarding where your family member was living and whether they owned property. Down the left hand margin of the page the census taker will sometimes (particularly in later years) write the name of the street that your ancestor lived on, and then the house number (if any). (Note that  street names may have changed - First Street was Front Street, Second Avenue was Cameron Street, 4th Avenue was called Indigo Street, etc) Often in rural areas, there were no house numbers, so they just listed the families in order in which they were visited. Additionally, the census will tell you whether your family members were renting or owned their property. The 1870 census (column 8) indicates the value of real property (land) owned by each person. The 1900 census (column 25), 1910 census (column 26), 1920 census (column 7), and 1930 census (column 7) indicate whether the person owned ("O") or rented ("R") the home or farm.

The 1900 census (column 26), 1910 census (column 27), and 1920 census (column 8) indicate whether home and farm owners owned their property with a mortgage ("M") or free of mortgage ("F"). The 1930 census (column 8) indicates the value of home, if owned, or the monthly rental, if rented. With this information, you may be able to do further research at the Williamson County Register of Deed’s Office on West Main Street in Franklin.

Incidentally, in the decades following the Civil War, insurance companies began to map the property that they were covering - particularly the Sanborn Company, whose maps today are a boon for researchers.  Maps of downtown Franklin still exist and you can view copies of them at the Williamson County archives.  Additionally, the Library of Congress has digital copies of many of the maps from all across the United States online and they can be very useful in finding the location of your ancestor's homes, schools, churches, final resting places and other relevant locations.  

Sanborn Fire Map, 1950 showing the Natchez Street area of Franklin, Tennessee
As you are looking at old maps, be sure to remember that street names often change - for example Franklin Road has been called the Nashville Highway, and the Nashville-Birmingham Highway.  Natchez Street used to be called Baptist Neck.  2nd Avenue was Cameron Street; 4th Avenue was Indigo Street.  So keep these changes in mind as you look at the maps and do your research. 

Marriage Information and Records 

The census records may contain some clues to marriage information. The 1870 census (column 14), and 1880 census (column 12) indicate whether the person had married within the year. The 1900 census (column 10) and 1910 census (column 9) indicate the number of years of marriage for each married person. This information can be particularly useful when trying to track down a marriage license – it will help you narrow down your search. It can also help you figure out whether the marriage is a first marriage or a second or third - which was not entirely uncommon at a time when many women died in childbirth and from diseases.

Copies of Marriage Licenses, bonds and other documents are available on Ancestry and FamilySearch.  In 1865 many African American couples went to the Williamson County courthouse and obtained marriage licenses.  This online newspaper article contains a list of their names and might be a good place to scan for their names, although you can also search online.

In Williamson County, for many years, marriage records were marked with the letters “Col”, “CR”, or “CL” next to a person’s name to indicate that they were “Colored” – this was to prevent a white person from marrying a black one. As awful as this is, it is very helpful in researching your family’s history. Because so many slaves took the names of their former owners it is not uncommon to find whites and blacks with the same names of about the same ages living at the same time in the records. The designation of “col” on the marriage records can be very helpful for you in determining if the record is in fact for your ancestor –so be sure to check for it. Additionally, look to see who signed as witnesses on the marriage license – that can be another clue.  Further, don't be surprised if you see two people with the same last name getting married - particularly in the years right after the Civil War.  This does not mean they are relatives; rather it is probably an indication that they were enslaved by the same family and thus used the same last name.

  • Cohabitation Records.  In 1866 States were required to formalize the pre-existing relationships between slaves.  They were supposed to note the couples' names and children's names.  Unfortunately, I haven't found any of these documents from Williamson County.  It appears that many couples had already solemnized their marriages through the wedding certificates available through the courthouse in 1865.  This website offers a good overview of the Cohabitation Records that might be available in other areas.  The Freedmen's Bureau collected records of marriages and cohabitations for many couples throughout Tennessee.  If you have ancestors in Wilson County or the Memphis area, I have seen many of these relationships recorded in those areas - and there are sure to be others.  You can search them on Ancestry or FamilySearch.
 - Also, divorce records can be useful.  While it isn't always pleasant to read the sad details of the dissolution of relationships the court records can often contains information about the ages of children, paternity and residence.

Number of children

The 1900 census (column 11) and 1910 census (column 10) indicate how many children were born to each woman. The 1900 census (column 12) and 1910 census (column 11) indicate how many of those children were still living. These clues can help determine whether you have identified all the children in a given family, and it can help you figure out why certain children may be missing from later census records (they may have died). In this record, you can see that Mariah reports 12 pregnancies and 7 living children, Sula reports 2 pregnancies and one living child, and Narciss reports 4 pregnancies and 4 living children.


The 1870 census (column 7), and 1880 census (column 13) both indicate the person's occupation. If the answer is "farmer," you can look for information about the farmer's land ownership, crops, and livestock in the agricultural census schedules.  This can be a great way to add texture and depth to the story you are creating - wouldn't you love to know how many cows and pigs your great-grandfather owned?  And what kinds of crops he was raising?

General Tips When Using Census Records.  

Watch for age creep! People seem to think they get younger and younger as the years go by. The ages they report to the census takers can be as much as 5 or 10 or even 20 years younger by the end of a person’s life. Therefore, I tend to use the birth year that is given in the earliest available document. For example, if the 1870 Census states that a person was born in 1863, but by the 1930 Census they are reporting they were born in 1882, I would use 1863 as the correct date.

Look for Neighbors. Be sure to look around on the page to see who was living in the neighborhood at the time. Often family members lived near each other and this can be a clue. In the 1870 census, Mariah Scruggs is recorded just a few families down from Joseph Allison. By 1873, she and Joseph are married.

Look for Alternative Spellings. Remember that most slaves (and many whites) were illiterate or poorly educated so when they told census takers their names they couldn’t spell them correctly. So, the spelling was phonetic – and often inconsistent from year to year.

Be open minded.  Often times, particularly the closer you are to slavery, family relationships were fluid - your ancestors had just come through an incredibly tumultuous and difficult time.  They were creating family relationships in any way possible.  So census records that record individuals as Mothers and Cousins, may not be who they claim to be.  

Go Lateral.  Don't just focus on your direct ancestors.  Be sure to "widen the net" and look at your grandparents siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles.  Look at where they were living, read their census records, marriage licenses, death records, probate records.  Read everything you can find.  It will all help you paint a fuller picture of their lives but it all often help you put the entire "family quilt" back together.  I can't tell you how many times I have found a niece or cousin or grandchild living with someone and it would later turn out to be the exact person I was looking for.  If I hadn't gone down all the little trails I never would have found them.  Be diligent - the fuller picture that you will gain of the lives that your ancestors lived will make you glad you spent the time on the work.

Death Records

Death records can be the lottery ticket for genealogists. In Tennessee they can include the person’s name, birthdate, place of birth, parents’ names and where they were born, their address, their occupation, their spouse’s name, where they will be (or were) buried, and what they died from (which can be interesting and sometimes important). Also, sometimes the “informant” – the person giving the information – can be a clue. If you cannot find a death record for the person you are searching for, try searching for one for their siblings or children– the information on that record can often be just as useful.

o This is a link to my Flickr account with all the 1908 death records from Williamson County regarding African American deaths.  

This death certificate for Gus Scruggs shows that he was married when he died, his date of death (July 6, 1938), where he was living (No. 6 Willow St in Nashville), his occupation (farmer), his father (Ned Scruggs) - and his place of birth (Tennessee), mother (Mariah Crutcher) - and her place of birth (Tennessee), informant - the person who gave the information to be put on the death certificate (Cannon Scruggs)– and his address (914 14th Avenue), the cause of death (Bronchio pneumonia and nephritis), and burial (Scruggs Cemetery). 

Burial Records

The website “Find A Grave” contains millions of records organized by graveyard. Additionally, Billion-Graves also provides free searches for grave information. You should take the information on these sites somewhat with a grain of salt and treat the information with a little bit of skepticism -- the general public is able to add data so you should not 100% rely on its accuracy.  However, the information can provide good hints and clues, and can verify what you think you have already figured out on your own.

There are indexes for Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetery in Franklin on both sites where many African Americans were buried in the years after the Civil War; the websites includes the records for many burials at their sites. There’s also a list of all the cemeteries in Williamson County, on those sites so if you know what cemetery your ancestor is buried in you might be able to find their grave that way. I have some records from Toussaint L’Ouveture stored on my Flickr account. The list on Billion-Graves for Toussaint L'Ouveture is particularly useful due to the efforts of a local Boy Scout who has photographed and identified all of the graves.  You can go there to browse all of the headstones as well as search for those of your ancestors.  Many of them are beautiful and very moving, such as this one for Florence B. Drake.

· Old City Cemetery. There are a few African Americans buried in the Old City Cemetery. In the far right corner of the back section, there is evidence of African American graves, marked and unmarked. Only seven names are known for sure: Catherine Brown, Daniel Brown, Lena Brown and Letitia Brown (daughters and son of Hale and Charity Brown), Anarchy Cowles, Harvey Otey, and Phebey Otey. Although only these seven names are visible, the depressions in the ground and open space in the back of the cemetery suggest more graves – and it is likely more African Americans were buried in this area. A common name throughout this section of the cemetery is Otey. Many generations of the Otey family have settled in and married in Williamson County and the Otey name has a prominent African American heritage here.

Some of the African American graves in the Old City Cemetery in Franklin.
Nashville City Cemetery. If your ancestors or their relatives moved to Nashville and may have been buried there, you can also search the Nashville City Cemetery website for information – they have a special section on their website for resources specific to researching African American burials.

Obituaries  A great resource for finding out about family relationships are obituaries.  Williamson County Library’s Special Collections Department obituary collection is partially on-line and searchable.  They also have a large collection of funeral programs for African American families that are a wonderful resource for learning more about your family.  The Williamson County Archives also has an on-line search of obituaries.  My Flickr album of obituaries for African Americans with Williamson County ties is another good place to look for information.  This is another link to early obituaries in Williamson County.  The Nashville Metro Archives has an index of obituaries from the Nashville Globe - an African American newspaper.  Additionally, my friend Kathy Lauder has a Facebook page called the Greenwood Project in which she is researching those buried in Nashville's historic African American cemetery Greenwood - you may find some information about your ancestors in her research. 

Other Resources

Freedman’s Bureau Records. As the Civil War wound down, the Federal Government established the “Freedmen’s Bureau” to provide services and security for the formerly enslaved. The records of this department can be very valuable. The Bureau had an office on the square in Franklin and oversaw the creation and enforcement of labor contracts between African American laborers and white farmers for the year 1866.  Rick Warwick has compiled the labor contracts into a book that you can purchase from the Heritage Foundation or online; this book can be very valuable in finding clues to family relationships.  At left is an example of one of these contracts.  The contracts are not available on line - the only source is Rick's book currently.

o Additionally, the Bureau provided social services for individuals and families whose lives had been disrupted during the War, and provided some military security for those who were vulnerable to the violence prevalent in the Reconstruction Era.  The Freedmen's Bureau Project is a consortium of Family Search and other organizations  that scanned and partially indexed these records.  You can search the records for free here.  Link to Tennessee Freedmen Bureau Field Office Records on Family Search.  This is another good resource for learning more about the Freedmen's Bureau and the resources available. 

Freedmen's Bank Records.  The Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company (often called the Freedmen's Bank) was established in 1865 to provide a safe place for newly freed slaves to save their hard earned money.  Tennessee had two branches of a Freedman's bank at: 
  • Memphis 1865–1874 - Accounts 1–6298 
  • Nashville 1871–1874 - Accounts 4174–6189 

I have identified over 100 records that reference individuals with ties to Williamson County and have archived those records on my Flickr account which you can access here.  Here's an example of one such Bank record for John Abbey who was born in Williamson County, Tennessee,and brought up "same."  He was 16 years old and attending school in Nashville.  He gives the name of his father as Victor, but sadly gives no name for his mother and no name for his siblings.  

You can also search these records on and on

Educational Records

As I discussed in my blog post about the Crump family, education was incredibly important to families that had newly freed themselves from the horrors of slavery.  John Abbey, the young student whose Bank records we reviewed above, was attending school.  Nashville had several African American colleges established in the years immediately after the Civil War.  Their catalogues of students may contain helpful clues as to where your ancestors were and what they were doing.  In John's case, I was able to determine that he was in deed a student - in the 2nd Class at Central Tennessee College in 1869.  And if you look at the bottom of the page, another Franklin student - Moses Young was also in his class.  Fisk and Roger Williams were other African American colleges in Nashville at this time.  Their records can be searched on Ancestry.

Military Records

I am planning another blog post specifically about the usefulness of military records in African American genealogical research - check back soon!  They can be a wonderful resource.

Page from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Franklin
Showing Baptisms of the Enslaved being recorded
Church Records.  In many guides to conducting genealogy research, you will find references that African American slaves and their enslavers worshipped separately.  And this was often true.  However, I have found documents in local church records that slaves were baptized, and in some cases funerals were conducted, by white pastors.  If you can identify the names of the people who enslaved your ancestors and you can determine where they worshipped, you may be able to find records of your ancestor's baptisms or their involvement in other other religious ceremonies.  St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Franklin and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Columbia (Maury County) both have such records available on for example.

Newspapers.  Old newspapers can be a great source of information about your ancestors, their employers, enslavers, churches, schools and other topics related to their lives.  
  • The Williamson County Archives has copies of local newspapers (dating from 1821-2002) and Nashville newspapers (dating from 1860 - 1931) available on microfiche.
  • The Williamson County Library's Special Collections Department provides access to the Tennessean newspaper archives with your library card from home or in the library. You can view historical papers 1812 - 1922 and November 7, 2002 to today.
  • The Library of Congress has made many historical newspapers available for free at their website Chronicling America including - 
    • Nashville Globe - an American American newspaper in Nashville from 1906 to the 1930s - this website has organized all of the Globe articles with links to articles by community including Franklin, Thompson's Station and Spring Hill
  • Further, multiple fee-based services such as provide access to newspapers around the country that can be very useful.
In Search of or Last Seen Ads.  In addition to searching the newspapers for articles you might also want to look for "Last Seen" or "Information Wanted" ads about your ancestor.  These were advertisements placed in the days following the Civil War by individuals in search of family members.  Villanova University and Mother Bethel AME have undertaken a project to collect, index and catalogue these ads so you might want to search for your ancestors on their website.  You should also keep checking back on these sites as material is constantly being added to them.  I have tried to collect all of these ads I can find that specifically mention Williamson County here in a Flickr album as well.  

Southern Claims Commission Reports

Another place to look for clues is in the Southern Claims Commission filings.  Southern land owners sometimes filed claims for compensation for losses suffered during the war.  When the US Army came through their neighborhoods they often would take food, forage and other supplies.  After the war, citizens filed claims for compensation and they needed affidavits from witnesses.  I have often seen them ask former slaves to provide those statements.  For example, this statement below by Hardy Harrison includes this wonderful clue:  "My name is Hardy Harrison [colored]. I am 50 years of age. I reside in Williamson [County]. I belonged to Mr. Harrison before the war, and from the beginning of the war until its close I lived with Mr Harrison about three miles from the town of Franklin, out on Columbia Pike."  If you can find something like this about your ancestor you would be really fortunate!

Slave Insurance Registries

Some insurance companies wrote policies insuring slave owners against the loss, injury, disability or death of their slaves. In September 30, 2000 tGovernor Gray Davis of California signed legislation relating to the release of slave insurance information. This link lets you search records as made available by the California Department of Insurance. These records are not just related to California.

Searching Slaveholders (White Families) – 
Breaking through the "Brick Wall"

After you have researched your ancestors back to the Civil War - and looked for them in the slave census records - it can get harder and harder to find information about them.  
To get past the 1870 census for ancestors who were enslaved, you will need to research the individuals who owned your family members. Usually you will have to guess which family owned your oldest ancestors – based on proximity, last name and other hints. You might get lucky and find their a notation actually naming their enslaver if they served in the US Colored Troops or through some other documents. Once you identify the family that you know or think enslaved your ancestor start to look for your family in the enslaver's documents; they were sometimes recorded as property in the probate, contract and other documents of their enslavers. 

This site is a good source for searching slaveholders, slaves and free people of color – in Tennessee and other states.  And this is another good guide for how to research slave holders.  

This website is a good resource for learning about historic properties in Williamson County. When researching your enslaved ancestors and those who enslaved them it is helpful to understand the places where they lived and the National Register nomination forms can be very helpful sources of good information.

Build the story of the white family that you think enslaved your ancestors.  Understand how much land they owned, what type of industry they were involved in (did they grow cotton? were they merchants?), etc.  One way to understand this is to look at their tax documents. In Williamson County, Early Tax List records are available on Ancestry for the years 1805, 1836, 1838 and 1841.

The 1805 Tax list contains the number of free white men who are allowed to vote and the number of taxable slaves.

Portion of 1805 Early Tax List from Williamson County, showing some of the Perkins family entries - Thomas Hardin Perkins was taxed for 33 slaves and Constantin Perkins was taxed for 4 slaves.

The 1836 & 1838 tax lists contains the following information for each entry: 
  • Taxed Person's name
  • Acres of land, Value (of land), Tax (on land)
  • Acres of School Land, Value (of School Land), Tax (on School Land)
  • Town Lots, Value (of lots), Tax (on lots)
  • Slaves 12-50 years old, Value (of Slaves), Tax (on Slaves)
  • Carriages, Value (of Carriages), Tax (on Carriages)
  • White polls [i.e., number of white adult men who can vote], Tax (on White Polls)
  • Amount of State Tax and Total State and County Tax
Portion of 1836 Tax List from Williamson County, showing some of the Perkins family entries - Thomas Hardin Perkins was taxed for 79 slaves, Nicholas Perkins was taxed for 30 slaves and Constantin Perkins was taxed for 8 slaves. The notation of "double tax" for one entry may indicate that the taxpayer was late in reporting to the Sheriff his taxable assets.

Portion of 1838 Tax List from Williamson County, showing some of the Perkins family entries - Thomas Hardin Perkins was again taxed for 79 slaves, Nicholas Perkins was taxed for 30 slaves, and Constantin Perkins was taxed for 9 slaves.

The 1841 Tax list available on line does not include any information about assets unfortunately. It just lists the names of the taxed individuals.

This data can help fill in the gaps about how many people were enslaved by the family you are researching in between federal census years.  It can also be enlightening to understand how much land they owned and the number of carriages can be insightful into their wealth.

Another good place to look are the probate records may contains clues regarding their life.  The page below from John Holt's probate settlement shows that his slaves were "hired out" for several years to provide income for his wife and dependent children.  The names of these enslaved people and the amount of money they earned for his estate are listed.  Since John Holt died close enough to Emancipation it might be possible to determine who some of these individuals are based on their names.  For example, if your ancestor was born around 1830, he or she would have been in their 30's at the time of the Civil War - so they would show up in Census Records and other resources after emancipation.  If you have located them you might find their name on a probate record such as this one during the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s.  

You might also find information in the probate documents like receipts for services related to enslaved people - such as their receipt for a physician's services - payable from the Alexander Ewing estate.  You can see payments for "visit to Phebe's child" and "Call visit to Phillis' twins" - based on the dates listed these and names might be clues that could help you piece your family tree together.

Slave Sales  As horrific as it is to contemplate, African Americans were sold like chattel in the United State prior to the Civil War.  Records of the transactions exist in some cases.  
Bill of Sale for Harvey McLemore

The Williamson County Archives has an on-line index that allows you to search these records by the word "slave" or by first and/or last name.   I recommend looking for documents like these to help provide one more link into the past. In addition, they have a notebook available in their reading room with all of the identified Bills of Sales for enslaved people recorded in Williamson County.

The Nashville Metro Archives has recently created an on-line, searchable database of transfers of enslaved people - link here.

I also found some records in Lawrence County, Tennessee that contain some information regarding Williamson County. They are a compilation of Slave Sales. I've copied the two entries related to Williamson County below. Hopefully it might help someone searching for their family members someday.

Deed Book C December of 1827- December of 1829
62. Nicholas Perkins, Sr., Williamson Co., TN to Charles G. Olmsted, Williamson Co., TN: Frank ca 45, wife Anset ca 30 and children Issac 11, America 9, Bethens 5 and Stewart 3; Little Frank ca 32, wife July ca 26 and children Edith 7, Maria 5 and Sam 3; Jacob ca 45, wife Sally ca 35; Charles ca 20; George ca 30, wife Charity ca 30 and children Hector ca 14, Issac ca 4 and Job ca 1; Minerva ca 20 and children Ephraim 4 and Jack 2; Sophy ca 22 and children Sam 6, Henry 4 and Anderson 1; Sylvia ca 16 and child Henry 4 months; Hannah ca 50; Terry ca 50 and child Nancy ca 9; Jinny ca 50 and child Becca ca 7; Sildi ca 24 and children Joe ca 6, Jane ca 4 and Susan ca 1; George ca 30; Bill ca 21; Arch ca 17; Henderson ca 15; Ben ca 17, Dec. 21, 1828, p. 148, 149, 150, 151.

Deed Book D August of 1829-February of 1834
91. William Nolen, Williamson Co., TN to Barnabas Gabel: Sarah ca 10, p. 208, 209.

Probate Records.  Bernice Bennett has been an incredible resource to me; her radio program is a great way to learn how to research your family.  This particular interview with David E. Paterson provides detailed guidance into the use of slaveholders' probate records in breaking through brick walls.
Here is another one:  

And this one about tips for "breaking through the brick wall":  

This video by Ancestry similarly tackles the 1870 wall:  
o Landscape of Liberation - The African American Geography of Civil War Tennessee is an interactive map showing the landscape of emancipation as it unfolded from 1861 to 1865.

o BlackPast

o AfriGeneas

o You can search Fisk University catalogs for ancestor's names

I hope that all of this information has been useful and gives you a good start in tracking down your family's roots.  I truly hope that having these links in one place will make it easier for Williamson County's African American families to start the task of piecing their family quilts back together - piece by piece - person by person.  Good luck and have fun!


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