New research aims to connect Loudoun slaves to modern-day descendants

February 22, 2012

Researchers Lori Kimball and Wynne Saffer spent more than three years searching for historic records that might contain information about the dozens of slaves owned by President James Monroe. They compiled more than 300 references to named slaves.

Their research was published this month by the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg as part of a project that is designed to connect modern-day families with long-lost ancestors.

In 1830, the year before Monroe died, the former president owned 66 slaves on his 1,823-acre property in Loudoun, making him the largest slave owner in the county, according to Balch Library research. But no public information was readily available about Monroe’s slaves, Kimball said.

“So we set out to see what we could find, using primary sources,” she said.

That meant reviewing hundreds of original deeds, wills and other legal documents. The pair spent time at the Library of Congress, sorting through letters written by and to Monroe. They pored over records at the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. They visited neighboring Albemarle County, where Monroe also owned property and slaves.

“Our research wasn’t so much to document Monroe’s feelings about slavery as it was to identify who he owned,” Kimball said. “What we wanted to do was to document named slaves, and we quickly realized that we needed a database, so that’s what we did.”

Along the way, Kimball and Saffer uncovered some facts that surprised them. Some of Monroe’s slaves were unusually mobile, with the authority to travel, unsupervised, between Loudoun County and the District.

The researchers also learned that Monroe bought Tenah Hemings, sister of Sally Hemings, a famous slave owned by Thomas Jefferson and believed by many historians to be the mother of several of Jefferson’s children. Records showed that Monroe often tried to keep his slaves in family groups when they were bought or sold.

“He really struggled with feelings of humanity for his slaves, and he worried about them,” Kimball said. “And yet on the other hand, they were also valuable property to him. There are certainly documents that show his concern about the value of slaves he’s going to sell.”

According to an 1830 census, Monroe owned 20 enslaved children younger than 10, as well as 14 slaves older than 55. His slave population was divided fairly evenly by gender.

The new database includes every named slave that Kimball and Saffer identified, along with information about where the name was found and in what context it was mentioned. The researchers hope the information might help connect the slaves to descendants who still live in the region, Kimball said.

That could be a challenge: Of the hundreds of references to named slaves in the database, the majority list only first names, making it more difficult for a modern-day descendant to determine whether a named slave might be an ancestor. About one-third of the references list both the first and last names of slaves, Kimball said.

She said she hopes there might be local families with oral histories about ancestors who were possibly among Monroe’s slaves, or a known first or last name that could be cross-checked against the database.

The likelihood of making a family connection “will depend on how much family history a modern descendant already has, and if they have any records already,” she said.

Unlike the well-documented descendants of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, there are no identified descendants of Monroe’s slaves, Kimball said. This is primarily because researchers still don’t know what happened to Monroe’s slaves after his daughter and son-in-law inherited them.

A final inventory of Monroe’s estate, dated 1836, includes a list of his slaves at the time. But that leaves a 34-year gap between the last known record and the emancipation of the slaves, which would probably have occurred in 1870 unless an owner had freed them sooner, Kimball said.

“We’re going to continue our research,” she said. “We do feel there is certainly more work to do, but we wanted [our research] to be as public as possible while we continued on.”

Kimball and Saffer say they hope that families in the area will explore the database and find clues about possible ancestors. Despite the mystery of what happened to Monroe’s slaves after his death, Kimball said, she is sure that at least some descendants must be living in the region.

“Whether some of those slaves were taken to Frederick County or were sold locally in Loudoun, we do feel it could be the case that their descendants would be around here,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll find out.”

The research database can be reached through the Thomas Balch Library Web site, www.leesburgva.gov/
thomasbalchlibrary
.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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