Esoteric Clues: It’s no secret that slave-owners fathered children with their slaves

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp

The claimant’s mother’s name was Clora, and since you ask me I will tell you that Overton, her owner was the father of the claimant.  “I will tell you everything you ask me.”

— Testimony of former slave Nancy Hawkins, in the Civil War pension file of Henry Jones (March 12, 1920)

It’s no secret that slave-owners fathered children with their slaves. Stories of children begat between owners and their slaves are the subject of many oral stories concealed through painful whispers and gossip. That black women endured rape as the collateral asset of slavery is a deeply unspoken subject.  In my experience researching my once enslaved ancestors, relatives have different ways of re-remembering, telling or concealing the fragments of our family “history” depending who is telling the story, from what perspective they embrace the past and the importance or significance of the part they choose to share through re-telling.

The dynamics of African American genealogy host a number of simultaneously moving and acting parts. First, captive people were real estate, Next, as real estate they were transferred through a myriad of family gifts such as marriage, divorce settlements, death, mortgaged and sold to pay debts. Third, there are an infinite number of motivations and reasons for slave transactions between slave-owning families; so understanding their genealogy is essential to following how they trafficked slaves between each other generation after generation for nearly 300 years.  I call this doing genealogy twice — once for the slave-owning families and another for following slaves in the family. Esoteric clues lay in a disjointed fashion between the owning family and captive humans.

As a consequence, my method of genealogical research requires a concurrent practice of following the ancestry of the slave-owning family and their slave transactions to ascertain the relationships between slaves that culminate into recognized citizens for the first time on the 1870 census. Prior to this census, unless a former slave were free, the only identity relinquished to identity them on the census was as property on the slave schedules. An important record in-between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1870 census are black marriage records.  In several Missouri counties, black marriages are separately indexed. It is the first time the formerly enslaved are legally recognized in a public process and document.

On slave schedules in 1850 and 1860, slaves are enumerated only by their color, age and gender.  In probate records and other real estate transactions, they could be mentioned with only their first name, and often simply referenced as a black man or woman, aged about 45 years old etc. Even babies lack identification by name — many times inventories as “child” or “infant” next to the mother.  Fathers are not mentioned or associated with a family group. I’ve seen only one document in my 20 plus years of doing research where a black family is documented with two parents and their children are associated as a biological family unit. It’s an emancipation record. The most complicated record I’ve analyzed was a “record of slaves” — one enslaved man, fathered children with three women within a small family household of slaves.

When I present my genealogical sleuthing practices in workshops, I focus on what I consider esoteric clues. These are clues that are only meaningful to me.  Someone else following the same case, might be drawn to a different set of esoteric clues and interests based on their own sense of discovery, background story or family memories.  To me, esoteric clues are fragments of meaning. They can be in the form of an unanswered question, or a series of unanswered questions. It could be a memory of a relative who figures in recollections and family lore, but the haunting and traces of their past that continues to slip into utterances in the presence can’t be explained.  You may have a skeletal framework of a memory, story, or unnamed photo or documents without a narrative, but the who, what, where, why and when still makes no sense. When you ask other family members for their recollections, there are conflicting accounts, or they complain that your facts are wrong, or better yet, cry or get angry about a memory where those being “re-remembered” are long dead.

An Affecting Scene in Kentucky

Esoteric clues can be muddled in memories, slippages during interviews or clues drawn from a wide array of legal documents and family papers. I am suspicious of crying, anger and conflict — see those moments as obvious signs of a haunting waiting to be recovered. In such instances, family members often resist direct questioning. Older family members can be provoked into “spilling the beans” but only if you are aloof in your questioning and spend considerable time listening. Chronological ordering of events is meaningless during the sleuthing journey because esoteric clues can present themselves simultaneously in multiple moments in every generation. There is a kind of eye, ear, cultural memory, and historical knowledge coordination that requires looking for patterns of activity, hints of concealment and pulling large and small pieces of erasure, denial, and neglected snippets of factoids called “oral history” into a grander landscape for understanding. Power dynamics are always in play. Critical family theory provides a way of disturbing, rupturing and questioning the power relations of the unspeakable, unspoken and unanswered.   Children fathered by slave-owners are a perfect example. White men in general, were not as open about their explicit sexual exploitation of their female slaves in captive relationships as was Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, who served under President Martin Van Buren. Mr. Johnson also figures faintly into my slave-owning family tree, but I’ll save that for a future blog post!

Seeing/Eye Coordination

I consider the 1870 census the most provocative, essential and important of all the current census years.  It’s the first time former slaves appear on the census, but their location — who they live near or with, gives an important clue to who they were connected with prior to emancipation.  This is isn’t a fool-proof strategy; but it is a working mechanism of “seeing” who lives next to whom and why. It’s a tool of seeing I return to again and again.  The seeing began with a census enumeration. It began at the bottom of the page and continued on the next.

Anderson and Laura Johnson, 1870 Lewis County Missouri
Clory Munday, Virginia and Nancy Overton, Serilda and Willis Johnson

This seeing was set in motion by two esoteric clues of oral history through memory.  One, my dad’s desire to know more about cousin Easter. When questioned about her, he could provide no details.  His sister, Aunt Sharon, is my only paternal biological aunt lamented, and I missed this clue initially, when it flopped out in a conversation slippage, “You’re going to discover that there are a lot of people in the family who don’t look like you.” Those were the days when I heard and transposed information literally.  It was sometime before I realized that she wasn’t talking about facial features, or family characteristics but rather skin color. As I learned more about my father’s maternal side of the family, I began to understand that my dark skin would stand out among some of my lighter-skinned ancestors. My dad claimed there was some kind of connection to indigenous heritage. Maybe Cherokee?  Another slippage came from Dad’s uncle, or my great uncle Albert who questioned whether I had found a Zerilda.  “Who’s that?” I asked in response.  And he kept repeating “I don’t know.  But it’s Zerilda, Zerilda! Did you find a Zerilda?”  Sigh. I hung up feeling that our conversation was going nowhere. It was a boring Sunday afternoon and I was intent on trying to figure out what the heck Uncle Albert was prattling on about.  

My father’s maternal ancestral lineage has the most secrets. In fact, it is so fat with secrets that I’ve learned to not share what I uncover to protect the dead from the living.  But finding Zerilda was by chance. Uncle Albert’s blathering, verbal slippage was heavy with curiosity and he was insistent about what he was saying.

I found a Serilda Johnson in 1900, with her daughter Mary Anderson and her two sons named Amos and Hazel Anderson.  I knew dad’s mother had uncles with those names; but going backwards, I could not place Serilda on the census before 1900. In fact, while talking to Uncle Albert on the phone, I forgot about Serilda because he said Zerilda with such an emphasis on the Z sound — I forgot about Serilda with the S sound.

Forest Cemetery, Section D: Mace Wilson family burials


And then another discovery.  A seeing one. Serilda was enumerated twice on 1900 U.S. census in Kirksville, Adair County Missouri.  She was enumerated once with her daughter Mary Anderson and her two sons Amos and Hazel. Secondly, she was enumerated as a servant for a black man named Mason “Mace” Wilson.  Another esoteric clue came from digging through cemetery records for black burials in Kirksville. Alongside Mrs. Mason Wilson’s burial was a notation that one son (Willie) was from Canton, in Lewis County Missouri.   Aha! Maybe that’s where Serilda is Zerilda that Uncle Albert was talking about. The cemetery record for Mason “Mace” Wilson’s burial in the Forest Llewellyn Cemetery notes he was Black and died in August of 1904.

Mason Wilson burial, Black, died August 1904

One of my hobbies when I first began doing slave research was studying cemetery records. Older records before the digital age, recorded burials according to placement in the cemetery.  As things have become digitized records are put in alphabetical order; which erases traces in the “order” and “space” burials were made. These older burial records tended to have other clues, such as who was “colored” if the cemetery wasn’t segregated.  I used to stay up late studying cemetery record books. My husband teased me pretty mercilessly: “Honey, you do realize you are reading lists of dead people. You realize that is a very strange thing to be doing late at night?” In any case, my mind kept track of names, locations and descriptions that seemed to come alive (LOL) when a corresponding fragment seemed to arise from nowhere.  

I suspected Serilda Johnson knew Mace Wilson from a past association, which is how she came to be his servant. This is a curious thing of her being a servant for another Black person.

Mace Wilson enumerated with Serilda Johnson 1900 Adair County Missouri
Mary Anderson with her sons Amos and Hazel; and mother Serilda Johnson 1900 Adair County, Missouri

Going backwards to recap, a review of the 1870 census placed Anderson Johnson, his wife Laura, Clory Munday, Nancy and Virginia Overton and Serilda and Willis Johnson in the same household (8-3) on pages 1 and 2 of Township 61 Range 7 in Lewis County.  Mason Wilson and his family are enumerated on page 12. Seeing the actual images is important to understanding what esoteric clues matter. I wanted to know why there were multiple surnames in the household? Who were the two young girls listed as mulatto, and how were they related to each other?  When I found Serilda on the 1870 census, I called Uncle Albert back and said, “Uncle Albert, did you mean to say Serilda (with an S)? Is that who you were talking about a minute ago in our call? I found a Serilda!” He replied quizzically and somewhat confused, “What? Who are you talking about?” “Serilda?” I said. You just mentioned Zerilda.  Maybe you meant Serilda?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about” he snapped emphatically. “I didn’t mention any such thing.” Stunned, I didn’t respond. There was a silence plus a pause on the line. And then I said, “Well, ok Uncle Albert, thanks for talking to me.” I hung up feeling confident that I found Serilda but also feeling in that very moment that Uncle Albert had a little dementia?

All of this gets messier. Much messier. By 1880, Anderson Johnson is not married to Laura but to Nancy Overton.

Anderson and Nancy Overton Johnson with children and Clory Munday, 1880 Knox County, Missouri

Then I wondered, were Nancy and Laura sisters? Turns out Serilda’s mother was Clory Munday. Serilda’s daughter, Mary Anderson, who she was enumerated with in 1900, was my dad’s great-grandmother.  Dad fondly refers to her as Big Mama.  Big Mama’s family was a huge mystery to me in the beginning and over time unraveled as a complicated series of messes.  There was no oral history on the Munday family. Cousin Easter, who was a relic in my father’s memory, was apparently a Munday — but no one could explain how she was connected to the family.  Some remembered she had a daughter named Aunt Betty. Again, when it came to details, I got nothing. Zero. Big Mama’s daughter Bethaline was called Little Mama. They all lived together on Sycamore St. in Quincy, Il — just across the Mississippi River from Canton, MO.  Their names Big Mama and Little Mama were invoked in many discussions about growing up. But when it came down to making a claim to the Munday lineage, there was inaudible and absolute silence. What everyone knew unequivocally, was that Big Mama had been married several times.  Uncle Albert had mentioned a Lewis Munday. He thought he might be kin to Big Mama, but he wasn’t sure how. So, I had some leads, but they were very thin.

Serilda is aka Dorcas, with Willis Johnson, 1880 Lewis County, Missouri

What did I learn? Serilda married Willis Johnson; but I never found a marriage record. I pieced this together with the census and other records that came up along the way.  I could not (for many years) account for Serilda on the 1880 census. Eventually, I discovered that she was enumerated as DORCAS living doors away from a household of Black Mundays.  

Willis Johnson died before 1900 and Serilda died shortly thereafter, sometime in the early 1900s — as she does not appear on the 1910 census. Willis served in the U.S. Colored Troops and his pension file (a small one) was recovered via the National Archives.  More clues (some esoteric) lay among the pages. Serilda’s sister Jennie Jones, was a witness in pension case file; supporting Serilda’s claim for her husband’s pension benefits as a widow of a Civil War veteran. The file notes Willis was owned by Daniel Lignon, one of the largest slave owners in Lewis County, Missouri. All of these fragments would eventually steam roll into larger fragments; leading to more esoteric meanderings that begged for answers.

I have leap-frogged over several esoteric clues in jumping here.   In my next post, I will discuss the messiness of the in-between space created by esoteric clues that bring fragments on the margins together using documents, photos and interviews. I’ll discuss how each of the family members in Anderson Johnson’s household are related and why two girls are named Overton.  Finally, I will theorize and comment on insights I found while peering into Serilda’s family and the power dynamics at play that work to keep the Munday Overton “history” silent and invisible.

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp is a 2nd-year doctoral student at the MU College of Education with an emphasis in Social Studies education. She is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism, Public Relations.  She is a neighborhood and community activist who advocates for community-oriented policing, responsive local government, and sustainable urban planning.  She is the president of Race Matters, Friends a non-profit organization focused on social justice advocacy based in Columbia, Missouri.

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