Finding Slave Owners

It seems like the more time I spend on Ancestry.com, the more obsessed I become with adding another generation of ancestors to my tree.  Thanks to the help of my uncle who conducted several interviews with relatives in the 1970s and my paternal grandfather who saved a number of obituaries, this has been fairly easy.  This sparked my curiosity in tracing my Hendrick ancestry as far back as possible, and led me to search for more information about my great, great, great grandfather, Billy Hendrick.

Billy spent most of his life in Mecklenburg Co., which led me to believe he was probably born there.  According to the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Billy was born in April 1858.  Census taken in 1880 and 1910 suggest he was born in 1851.  Despite, the descrepencies in his birth year, the facts that Billy spent most of his life in Mecklenburg Co., VA and was born in the 1850s led me to believe that this ancestor was more than likely born into slavery.  If this was true, then one of the best ways to learn about him would be to discover the person(s) who might have claimed him as property.  My paternal grandfather, Wallace Hendrick, once told me that his great-grandfather Billy took the last name of his owner when he was emancipated.  With this information, I used Ancestry.com to search the 1860 Virginia Slave Schedule for slave holders in Mecklenburg Co., Virginia named Hendrick and enslaved boys ages 9 to 2.

Low and behold Thomas Russell Hendrick and his father William Hendrick II, were prominent farmers in the area and enslaved a great number of men, women and children.  By 1854, William died and I assumed that his widow Mary A. Hendrick (Thomas’ step-mother) inherited much of his property because she was listed as owner of 136 enslaved persons.  Thomas R. Hendrick owned 71 enslaved persons in 1860.  The University of Houston’s Digital History Textbook reported that 25 percent of the United States population owned slaves in 1860.  If my memory served me well, I recalled from my African-American and American South History courses that the average holder owned 10 persons; this indicated that Thomas and Mary were quite well-to-do.

I have identified a number of “black” and “mulatto” boys ranging from 2 months to 9 years on the 1860 Virginia Slave Schedule who were enslaved to either Thomas or Mary.  Any of these boys could have possibly been my ancestor, Billy Hendrick. Initially, I was thrilled with this discovery.  It felt like such a great victory in my research to possibly have pieced together a puzzle and make an important discovery about my ancestor.  But, the “victory” of discovering my ancestor was enslaved has been bittersweet to say the least.

As an African-American, I always believed that I was the descendent of enslaved men and women, however, finding possible evidence of that enslavement was daunting. I was excited, motivated, accomplished, resentful, fearful, proud, sad, and angry all at once.  The 1860 Virginia Slave Schedules reduced my ancestor to a few facts that tell little about him or even confirm his presence.  It only indicated the objectification Billy and other African-Americans endured and subsequently left me in such a flurry of emotions as I realized I may never know much more about Billy and my other enslaved ancestors.

I have so many questions that may never be answered: How can someone morally justify owning 136 people? Was Billy one of the children listed? If so, which one? If not, where did he live? What does mulatto mean in Virginia in 1860? Who were Billy’s parents? Was Thomas R. Hendrick or one of his relatives my ancestor? What did Billy remember from those years of enslavement? What did/do Thomas’ and William’s descendants think about their slave holding ancestors? What might happen if I contacted one of these descendants?

As overwhelmed and frustrated as I feel by all of this I want to discover more.  Ironic, isn’t it?

References:

Mintz, S. (2007). Digital History. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2011 from
http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu

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