African-American genealogy

Sold for the Benefit of the Captors, redux

Back in February, I wrote Sold for the Benefit of the Captors, so the recent post on the National Archives Rediscovering Black History: Blogs Relating to the African-American Experience site might have seemed familiar to some. Let’s unofficially call it Sold for the Benefit of the Captors, redux.

I’ve had a chance to do some additional research on the document, and I’ve made some revised conclusions, along with developing a long list of questions. Take a look at the new version. I am really honored and excited to share the research process with posts for the National Archives. Get ready for an interesting, challenging exploration of the treatment of black prisoners during the War of 1812.

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Sold for the Benefit of the Captors

Surely many researchers dream of finding an unknown draft of a speech written by Abraham Lincoln; the doodles of JFK; the Ark of the Covenant; or whatever the movie National Treasure had thought was hidden somewhere in the vaults of the National Archives. The reality is that every archival file holds a hidden gem, for that information might be the key to solving a family’s mystery, or explaining their history. Sometimes, though, a document might be a bit more than a hidden gem. Let me explain.

I’ve been researching British sailors captured from the merchant vessel Dolphin and held as prisoners during the War of 1812, on behalf of Bruce Murduck, a genealogist in Canada. I’ve spent a bit of time reviewing the Registers of British Prisoners of War 1812-15.* The registers are a bit of a bear. They are mostly in alphabetical order, but only by the first letter of the surname. The entries are not in date order, and there are entries also placed in an appendix, plus a continuation of the appendix as entries for some letters in volume two. Looking for a man’s name means checking through many handwritten lines, and to be thorough, reviewing nearly every page in both volumes. At the back of volume one, I came across a most curious, unbound, folded piece of a paper.

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

“Preserve these sheets they may be wanted,” signed by J Beerce, and then lower down on the page, and upside down, “List of Slaves not Entd in General List.”

I unfolded the paper, and a list of 47 men appeared, some marked as slave, and some marked Negro. There are eight columns on the page, untitled, but they seem to follow the pattern elsewhere in the register: name, description of person, vessel on which they were captured, vessel by which they were captured, date of capture, where captured, where they were held, and finally, the date of what happened to them next, and what happened.

For example, James Baptiste, Seaman of the Sloop Searcher, captured by the Schooner Rapid in June 1813 off the coast of Belize. Taken to New Orleans and on 29 July 1813, “Sold for the Benefit of the Captors.” Seven men were sold on 29 July 1813 in New Orleans: James Baptiste, Thomas Clarke, Bristol Clarke, Sharper Forbes, Ranter Forbes, Thomas Forbes and Prince William Henry.

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

“Sold for the Benefit of the Captors:” that would be to benefit the war effort, to benefit the United States. The fate of others was “Sold by Order of the District Court.” Some died. And for some men, the information is blank, unknown.

But these men are not unknown. This document, a folded piece of paper that nearly 200 years ago a J Beerce suggested be saved, offers a genealogist, an historian, an archivist the opportunity to make these men known.

Will you help me tell their story?

Certainly I’m not the first person to see this document, nor the first to write about it. But I do not think it is well known. I’ve brought this document to the attention of several archivists at the National Archives, and it was received with much interest. I can’t fit the entire list, or a high-resolution copy of it on this blog, but I would be happy to share. Just contact me. All I ask is that you keep me posted on your research and discoveries, and share your results.

*Registers of British Prisoners of War, 1812-1815, 2 Volumes. Record Group 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, 1691 – 1945. National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Touching History

Viewing Widow's Pension File at the National Archives

Viewing Widow’s Pension File at the National Archives

Being a researcher and living in Washington, DC has its advantages, with the National Archives’ depositories of documents accessible to the public. With so much available online, it is easy to forget the feeling of holding a century-old document in one’s hand.  The paper might be yellow, brittle or creased, but in addition to the information it possesses, that piece of paper is a connection to the past. An ancestor’s hand passed across that same piece of paper.

A recent project had me accessing several record sets at the National Archives. Since my client also lives in DC, I brought him with me to the research room to view his third great-grandmother’s application for a Widow’s Pension after the death of her husband, a member of the U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War. The Widow’s Pension files can be a genealogical treasure trove, but in this case, they were more: connecting the Civil War to the present day.