Friday, September 18, 2020

Slave Patrol Research Update and Request for Research Advice

Just a quick update on my Guadalupe County slave-patrol research. Many thanks to Kyle Ainsworth of the Runaway Slave Project at Stephen F. Austin University for the tip. This is the first time I've been able to see primary source material regarding IRL slave patrols in Texas.

Grits found in commissioners court minutes that slave patrol members were being appointed at least twice per year with individual appointees' names listed (albeit in hard-to-read, handwritten script). At first there were three districts covering Guadalupe County, each with a "captain" and four privates. Eventually, there were as many as 13 districts and 65 patrolmen. I went through and copied all references I could find for patrol appointments from 1847 through 1865.

I also discovered an amazing book on Slave Transactions in Guadalupe County, Texas by Mark Gretchen which identifies all the slaveholders from Guadalupe County, includes short bios for some of them, and vetted court records from all of them. I took phone pics of entries for about three dozen patrollers while I was there. When I got home, I found the book online and ordered it, overpaying for a very out of print and unavailable volume. (Still cheaper than traveling out of town and paying courthouse rates for copies.)

So here are my next research steps: 1) Transcribe data from slaver charts from my phone photos, 2) Make a comprehensive list of Guadalupe-County slave-patrol participants from handwritten commissioners court minutes, 3) Cross reference slave patrol list with Slave Transactions book for leads and spell checks for names, 4) Review runaway slave notices related to Guadalupe County, 5) Search slave-patrol name list on Google, Confederate soldier databases, and early Texas newspapers, and 6) make one more trip to Seguin to research people on the slave-patrol list in other county records, and to perform more informed library work.

All this may take a country minute.

It looks like Bexar County has similar records, so I'll head down there as soon as they let me and we'll try to repeat the process. Montgomery County is another place where a) I have reason to believe patrols existed and b) they appear to have extant and available commissioners court records. So that could be the next stop if this continues. Pam Colloff wants me to make a book of it; we'll see if I take the project that far.

Regardless, my working theory behind this research is that finding data and facts, while important, aren't as useful as identifying stories that resonate.

It's one thing to say the Guadalupe County patrol increased in size from three districts of five men each in 1847 to 13 such districts in 1857. It's another to consider the story of Charity Ashley, a free black woman with five children, and the coercive state legislation that caused her to choose 32-year-old George B. Hollamon - a patrolman and himself already owner of three slaves who would later become conscript officer for the Confederate Army - as master of her and her five children. What caused her to make that decision rather than, say, heading down to Mexico and living free with thousands of other black expats?

I don't know the answer to that question. But it's a more interesting one than how many patrolmen were there, how much and how often were they paid, etc.. 

Similarly, consider the story of a German boy who, like Huck Finn in Mark Twain's fiction two decades later, helped a runaway slave steal a horse and escape. They were captured, possibly by the county patrol, but then escaped the Guadalupe County Sheriff's custody and were last seen on their way toward the Rio Grande. I'm dying to know what happened to them. (Following up on court records for this case, Charity Ashley, and maybe others is the reason I'll probably need one, final research trip to Seguin before wrapping up.)

Individual, stories will always be a more reliable source of human interest than just analyzing pay slips. So finding lists of names gives the opportunity to tap into individual stories that help bring the research to life. That's the hope, anyway. The process can feel like searching for needles in haystacks.

Regardless, that's where I'm at with this project, gentle readers. I tell you in this much detail because I'm asking y'all for advice: Based on the records described, do folks have advice for sources that might help flesh out anecdotes about people involved? Except for rare instances like Charity Ashley (who had a district court case I still need to review), stories from black folks' perspective are incredibly rare. So is detail about exactly what happened out in the field when the slave patrols rode. How can I find more?

Help me think about how to research this. All of the slave narratives from Texas I've seen involved people who were slaves as children, usually interviewed by the Works Project Administration decades later in the 1930s or '40s. Not much detail about patrols from that perspective.

I haven't completely run into dead ends yet, but am starting to do so based mainly on the paucity of available records. Step up, Grits readers, and help me craft a path to tell these stories!

Until then, here's a Twitter feed encapsulating research so far on slave patrols and early Texas policing. And here are links to everything else I've written on this topic so far:


Anonymous said...

Still secondhand, but check like the county historical society if they have diaries. Not the slaves, probably, but people on the estate (not just the owner but eg a tutor or bookkeeper) or patrol participants, or their family members, or judges etc forming the patrols. Esp if you've got dates and don't have to read the whole thing. They may just note the event, but there may be more thoughtful context and relationships. Alos, where you've got a name, search the NT newspaper archives - there are blurbs with commentary about just kinds of stuff.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good thought. I reached out to their historical commission.

Anonymous said...

Try the history department at one of the black colleges, they may be able to help.

Unknown said...

I think you can search public family trees on websites/services like Ancestry. Maybe living family members of those individuals have keepsakes or stories passed down by parents and grandparents?

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered and Uncensored Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

Anon, not to be disrespectful, the history provided by Grits is information during my formative years is that which was not taught. For me, it's a worthy project, to which I will attempt to assist in providing additional support. If you have a mind to, what ever productive information that you may consider adding, would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, vital, fascinating research! Wow!

Anonymous said...

I live in Guadalupe County. Let me know if I can do some legwork.

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