Wordy Wednesday: Jefferson Davis’s letter to my Ancestor

The May 13, 1884 letter from Jefferson Davis to my great, great-grandfather, Col.W.R. Stuart, archived in the digital collection at Miami University.

There seems no end to the documentation of my great, great-grandfather’s life.  Like they say at Disney World, it is a small world after all and my ancestor, Col. W. R. Stuart seems to have run across every person in it.  Above is a letter written to him by the one and only president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, part of the Samuel Richey Collection of the Southern Confederacy at Miami University. Stuart was a Confederate like Davis,  but the 1884 letter is a different kind of business. Davis was trying to buy a ram from the Colonel who raised them along with pecans. My cousin, Monique found the letter through a Google search while trying to find images of the Colonel’s company logo.

It would be nice to find as much information about my enslaved ancestors as I do about the people who owned them like the Colonel.  I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile, as a kind of beacon of hope, I offer up the following picture of the masthead of an 1860 edition of the anti-slavery newspaper, “The Liberator.” It was given to me by my friend, Dave Pettee who I met through Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together descendants of slaves and slave holders to heal the legacy of slavery.

June 8, 1860 edition of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, "The Liberator."

Black Scholar Of The Civil War Asks: Who’s With Me? – WNYC

Black Scholar Of The Civil War Asks: Who’s With Me? – WNYC.

I’m with Atlantic Monthly writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who describes himself as a Civil War obsessive. You can hear for yourself what he has to say about the importance of Civil War history to all of us. Since I discovered that my great, great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy while leaving at home an invalid wife, and an infant child with his slave (my great, great-grandmother Tempy), I’ve tried to learn more about this war and era, particularly what it was like for slaves at the time.

Right now, I’m reading three books that are shedding more light on that era: Adam Goodheart’s, “1861,” Charles Dufour’s “The Night the War Was Lost,” and James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.’s “An Absolute Massacre.”

What I’ve learned so far outside of the everyday Civil War wisdom is that as a slave in New Orleans, my great, great-grandmother Tempy would have had a very different experience than rural slaves or even those in other cities.  According to Hollandsworth’s book, “New Orleans contained the largest, wealthiest and best educated community of free blacks in the country.” What must it have been like to be enslaved while people who looked like her were free?  I’m also learning about the battle for the port of New Orleans that my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart fought in which Charles Dufour assigns as the defining moment for the confederacy.  He says it’s the battle that lost them the war.

In my great, great-grandfather’s obituary, it mentions that he was elected as a member to the Constitutional Convention of New Orleans. I hope to learn more about this convention and discover which one he was elected to since there were several.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, what have you been learning about your ancestors and their place in this history?

Sentimental Sunday: Father’s Day Quilt

My husband, Dennis Kurtti holding up his Father's Day Quilt.

This was one of the best Father’s Days that I’ve ever celebrated with my husband.  Probably because I planned a gift far ahead of time that had a lot of personal meaning instead of hoping that a Hallmark card and something from our local stores could capture what his relationship with my daughters and I mean to me. This year, with the help of my cousin, Monique, I made him the Father’s Day Quilt pictured above from garments that span the course of our life together.

The Honest Diner sweatshirt was from one of our favorite Long Island diners that we frequented the summer we started dating. The “Just Married” shirt was a gift from some Swiss friends, hence the cows.  Most of the other panels come from maternity clothes many of which Dennis picked out. I’m the first to admit that my husband has better taste than I do and five months into my first pregnancy when I was feeling like a beached whale, he suggested a change in my wardrobe might help and took me shopping at Liz Lange, a New York City maternity boutique.  He was right.  Walking around in leather maternity pants made my disappearing waste line a little easier to take. Dennis showed his flare when he proposed as well, turning what I thought was a business trip into an engagement vacation. That boat on the left is where he asked me to marry him. As Mo showed me how to sew its panel to the others while our kids played in her basement, I was struck by how appropriate it was that my married life got started on a boat. My engagement to Dennis seemed to forecast big adventures to come.  We’ve had plenty as a couple but our engagement also incited a personal journey into my family’s history.

Dennis is Irish-American and Catholic. Years before, when my grandfather first told me about his interracial grandparents, Tempy Burton and Col. W. R. Stuart, he said that the Colonel was Irish and that the colonel’s wife was a devout Catholic.  It seemed like my family had come full circle. So soon after I got engaged, I went to New Orleans to visit my grandmother, Lillie Mae, and learn more about the Colonel, Tempy and their daughter Josephine.  15 years later, I know that the Colonel was Scottish not Irish and that his wife, Elizabeth was devout but as a Methodist not a Catholic.   I also know a lot more about all of my ancestors as well as myself.  I’m glad to be on this present adventure with Dennis and our girls as well as the parallel journey into my family’s past.  I hope that you’re enjoying your life’s adventure too, wherever it takes you.

Happy Father’s Day!

P.S. Check out my cousin, Monique’s blog, Tempy’s Treasure which highlights her talent for turning people’s memories into heirlooms.

Follow Friday: My Ancestors’ Civil War History

W.R. Stuart's Company Muster Roll for the Confederate Guards from footnote.com

As our country continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I’ve been trying to learn more about this national conflict.  So, I’ve been reading the New York Times’ Disunion blog as well as Adam Goodheart’s book, 1861 The Civil War Awakening.” The book’s description of  every day people as well as military heroes  made me realize I haven’t delved very far into my ancestors’ part in the Civil War.  My great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton lived through this tumultuous time as a slave in New Orleans while my my great-grandfather, Col. W. R. Stuart fought as a  Confederate to defend the Crescent City against Union forces.  I found a copy of the Colonel’s muster roll at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. over a year ago, but I’ve never been moved to learn more about his service than the little printed on the one-page document.  While he was fighting to uphold the Confederacy, Tempy was tending to her and the Colonel’s youngest child, Alfred who would have been around two years-old when his dad decided to fight with the Confederates. As much as I abhor the Colonel’s position as a slaveholder and his decision to fight to uphold their cause, reading Goodheart’s book made me curious about the battle that my great, great-grandfather fought in.

So, I pulled out the copy of his muster roll and gave it a closer look.   He signed up a year into the conflict and his service was short, from March 8 to April 30, 1862.  What made him decide to get involved in the conflict then? Why such a quick tour of duty? The note at the bottom of the muster roll says that Stuart was immediately transferred to Major General Mansfield Lovell “for local defense of the city of New Orleans and its approaches on March 8, 1862.”  With a little more digging at knowla.org, the online Encyclopedia of Louisiana, I soon realized that my great, great-grandfather had fought unsuccessfully to defend New Orleans against Union forces in a major battle that some historians believe lost the war for the Confederates. On May 1st, 1862, Maj. General Benjamin Butler arrived in New Orleans to begin the federal occupation of the town that would last through the reconstruction period.

I’m looking forward to learning more about what this time was like for my ancestors from resources like James McPherson’s  book The Negro’s Civil War and Charles Dufour’s The Night the War Was Lost.  There is quite a bit of material about this battle at the Louisiana State University’s library as well, but that will require a trip to their archives.  Meanwhile, I’m taking notes from  a3genealogy.com‘s Kathleen Brandt who has written a piece for AARP’s online site  on researching your Civil War ancestors.

Where else should I look to learn more about this battle and the long federal occupation of New Orleans that followed which would have affected both the Colonel and Tempy? Where are you looking to learn more about how this time affected your ancestors?

Friend of Friends Friday: 20 Slaves of William R. Stuart

Manifest of the Pioneer, a ship that transported 20 slaves from Baltimore, MD to New Orleans, LA. The passengers were enslaved by my third great-grandfather, Col. W. R. Stuart.

Yesterday, while she was looking for something else, my cousin Monique found the above manifest on Ancestry.com.  It names 20 slaves aboard the Barque Pioneer transported from Baltimore to New Orleans and owned by our ancestor, Col. W.R. Stuart.  It was a surprise to find this document because we’d searched for slave manifests before and never found anything connecting with our family’s history.  (Just goes to show the importance of going back and retracing your steps.  New documents are being added to places like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org all of the time.)

But it was no surprise that the Colonel owned many slaves. In 1853, he placed an ad in a newspaper in order to sell them because he was dissolving his partnership in a Baton Rouge-based cotton plantation. (I suspect the passengers on this ship went to work on the Colonel’s plantation). That article was hard to swallow, but this manifest is heart wrenching.   The last passenger, a boy, 4’4″  tall, was only 11 years old, the same age as my oldest daughter.  No other passenger with the same last name is listed, so little Tom Iona was probably sold away from his family.  But the painful reality of this document is assuaged by its value to researchers. It gives both first and last names of the passengers as well as their  ages.  That’s a lot more information than normally provided about slaves.  Hopefully this information will help a fellow researcher connect with their ancestor.

Here are the names and ages of the slaves aboard the Pioneer on July 20, 1848:

Joseph Cedars, 23

Charles Smith, 21

Richmond Lewis, 29

Lewis Fisher, 20

Edward Henderson, 20

Carter Lewis, 27

Elija Parker, 30

Dennis Snowden, 20

Wyatt Tabor, 26

Samuel Walker, 28

Ezekiel Mathews, 35

Gabriel Bayler, 37

Frank Taylor, 28

Ephraim Jackson, 28

Nelson Holoway, 30

Alford Bensen, 20

Ruffin Baker, 28

John Gordy, 22

Robert Mitchell, 28

Tom Iona, 11

Fearless Females: My great-grandmother, Josephine

In honor of Women’s History Month, Lisa Alzo at the Accidental Genealogist blog has been providing prompts all month to honor our female ancestors.  Today’s prompt is to write a mini profile on one of our fearless female family members. So, on the last day of Women’s History month, I’m honoring my great-grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford.

According to census reports and marriage and death certificates, Josephine Burton was born in 1875 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi to a former slave, Tempy Burton and her master, Col. W.R. Stuart. She was the youngest of Tempy’s seven children, probably all fathered by the Colonel, and was 14 years younger than her oldest sibling, Alfred Burton Stuart. Like Josephine, I’m the youngest in my family and I am also 14 years younger than my oldest sibling.

At the age of 16, Josephine started writing to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist Episcopal newspaper based in New Orleans.  Over the years, her writing went from short letters about her attendance at camp revivals to Uncle Cephas, probably the newspaper’s editor, to long impassioned editorials about prayer and every day life as a Christian.  With her passion for Methodism, it’s no surprise that she married a Methodist reverend, James Ford when she was 19.  They made their home in Ocean Springs along with the rest of her family and had six children, including my grandfather, Martin Luther Ford. Most of her time probably went into caring for her home and children single-handed, since, from newspaper accounts, James was often preaching throughout the Delta and attending church conferences out of town.

She also had an interesting way of disciplining according to my cousin, Shawnique who heard a few stories about her from our grandpa, Martin. Grandpa loved baseball and when he misbehaved, Josephine would make him wear a girl’s dress in an attempt to keep him inside away from his beloved baseball.  The shame of being dressed like a girl was no deterrent to Grandpa.  He just went outside in his dress and hit the ball and ran the bases all the same.

But Josephine did not live to meet any of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren.  She died in 1922 of tuberculosis when she was about 47 years-old. But her passion for writing and religion survived in her newspaper articles. Here’s a transcription of one of her first letters to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 5, 1891:

Dear Uncle Cephas: I must write and tell you that the dear old Southwestern is a welcome visitor every week to my house.  I love it more and more every time it comes.  Our Presiding Elder, Rev. B.L. Crump, was with us recently and preached a soul-stirring sermon.  Our pastor is Rev. J.K. Comfort.  He has gone to conference.

Your niece,

Josephine Burton, Ocean Sprins, Miss.

A few years later on November 30, 1893 in an editorial entitled “Hindrances to Prayer” she wrote:

The church is being sorely afflicted by the materiality of the times; earth is shutting out heaven; time is eclipsing eternity; a bold and specious humanitarianism is destroying worship; the essential idea of God is being depraved;

Strong words, from a strong woman.

Follow Friday: History Happenings

Me and cousins, Sylvia Isabel and Monique Smith Anderson kicked off Black History month by getting together and sharing our family stories.

We’re not even half way through February and my head is already spinning from all of the new family found, old family celebrated and events that are taking place in honor of Black History Month!  Here’s the roundup of what’s been happening:

  • Three new cousins found me through this blog two weeks ago! They are descendants of Tempy Burton and Col. W.R. Stuart through their granddaughter, Tempy Stuart Smith. I’m looking forward to speaking to them and introducing them to all of you.
  • The day after my new cousins found me, I met with two other Smith cousins, Monique and Sylvia to share stories and compare notes on our journey of discovering our family’s history. (It was our first time meeting cousin Sylvia.)
  • My family celebrated my husband’s birthday with my husband’s favorite, lamb, topped off with a cake my daughters made in their Easy Bake oven…remember those?
  • Author Heidi Durrow spoke at our local bookstore, Watchung Booksellers about her coming-of-age novel, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.” Both Durrow and the novel’s protagonist are bi-racial and much of the conversation centered around biracial identity.
  • Speaking of identity, as the mother of two bi-racial daughters, I spoke on the topic on abcnews.com and on the BBC show “Up All Night” earlier this week. The discussion underscored how this search for my family’s roots is equally a journey of personal discovery.
  • Tonight, I’m following the latest episode of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are starring country signer, Tim McGraw and researched by geneablogger, Kathleen Brandt of a3genealogy.
  • I joined an African American Genealogy group in my town and will speak to them about researching my family tree tomorrow at 2 pm at the Bloomfield Library. If you’re in the area, come on by.
  • Austin Dabney, the only recognized black Georgia patriot of the Revolutionary War, will be honored in a ceremony tomorrow at 3pm at the Kettle Creek Battlefield in Washington, GA. Laying the wreath in honor of Dabney will be Michael Henderson, the first African American in Georgia inducted into the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). Henderson is author of the Finding Agnes blog.
  • The Schomburg Center in New York City will air the film, “Traces of the Trade”  on Thursday, February 17th. The film tells the story of Katrina Browne’s forefathers, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history.

Whew!  I’ve got to catch my breath.  That’s a lot of history happenings!

What’s happening for Black History Month in your neck of the woods?

“The Whipping Man”: Civil War history on stage


Last night, I saw the powerful play, “The Whipping Man,” starring Andre Braugher, Andre Holland and Jay Wilkison at City Center in Manhattan.  It’s the story of three Jewish men at the end of the Civil War. Two are newly freed slaves and one is a Confederate soldier (their master) fresh from battle and the trio has to navigate their shifting relationship.  As I watched,  I couldn’t help but think of how my ancestors would have had to make similar choices.

My great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton, was in her 40s when freedom arrived at her doorstep in Ocean Springs, Mississippi where she lived with her masters, Elizabeth McCauley Stuart and Col. W.R. Stuart.  Tempy bore several of the colonel’s children including my great-grandmother, Josephine for whom this blog is named. Tempy was illiterate from all the census records I’ve seen and it would have been difficult to say the least for her to up and move. By the time the Civil War was over she’d already had at least one son by the Colonel, Alfred Burton Stuart, so it would have been even more difficult to move with a small child.   Like the slaves in the play, she would have had to decide if she wanted to stay in the same town, the only one she’d known for most of her life or head out without knowing how to read or write and try to make a life for herself somewhere new.  Should she sever all ties to the people who once owned her and with whom she now had blood ties or could she find a way to take that bitter relationship and make it palatable like the characters seemed to be doing as they ate bitter herbs during their Passover Seder. Bitter herbs or Maror symbolize the bitterness of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt.   But what most stirred me watching a dramatization of what was in a way my family’s real life, was mention of the word “love” among people in an inherently imbalanced relationship such as slavery. To elaborate on the love idea would spoil the play.  So, instead I’ll pose a question: Could love exist?  What about their shared faith, which did not keep the white Jew from enslaving the black ones? Could their common belief  alleviate the scars slavery left on them all?

These are all things I wonder every time I look at my ancestors’ faces pictured in the header. My great-grandmother probably inherited her beliefs the way the slaves in the play inherited their Jewish faith from their master. Did my ancestors’ shared faith as Methodist Episcopalians help them forge a new relationship after emancipation?  Tempy and Elizabeth lived together for most of their lives.  Tempy and the colonel had at least two children together, but possibly seven before and well after slavery ended. Did any or all of them believe there was love between them? Unless I turn up a diary, I’ll never be able to unequivocally answer these question, but some of the things I’m finding in  my research journey are at least providing possible explanations.

If you’re in the New York area, “The Whipping Man” is worth seeing especially as we celebrate Black History month (Braugher is an actor worth celebrating) and commemorate the upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary of the the Civil War. “The Whipping Man” is bittersweet food for thought.

Amanuensis Monday: How My Ancestor Celebrated Columbus Day.

My great, great-grandfather's exhibit of Stuart pecans at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893 as pictured in The Stuart Pecan Co. book, "The Pecan and How to Grow It."


Today, my family and I are celebrating Columbus Day by taking advantage of the day off and going to a beautiful farm-lined part of our state to do some apple picking.  But back in 1893, the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in America on a grand scale with the World Columbian Exposition .  Chicago beat out New York City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. for the honor of hosting this world fair which took three years to organize, pushing back the  celebration a year later than planned.  Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame designed the grounds visited by over 25 million people including my second great-grandfather, Col. W. R. Stuart.  His Stuart pecans exhibit was one of tens of thousands on display at the fair.

Happy Columbus Day!

Motivation Monday on Tombstone Tuesday: My Ancestor in a Slave Narrative?

My grandmother, Lillie Mae Ford's tomb at Lake Lawn Cemetery, New Orleans. She's at the top of the end row. I'm standing beneath.

Only my third week of Motivation Monday and already, I’ve fallen down on the job.  I blame my stuffed nose for not posting my goals yesterday as part of this weekly theme I instituted only three weeks ago.  That’s also my excuse for not fulfilling the genealogy goal I set last week to transcribe one of my third great-grandfather’s letters.  The letters are still sitting in their big manilla envelope where I left them the week before.

But last night as my sinuses were finally starting to clear, I couldn’t resist googling and found something unexpected on the MSGenWeb site, the online source of Mississippi genealogical resources and branch of the larger US GenWeb.  In the late 1930s, writers from the federal Works Project Administration (WPA) recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women including ex-slaves and MSGenWeb transcribed as many of the Mississippi slave narratives as they could and have them available at their site.   I didn’t expect to see my enslaved ancestor, Tempy Burton listed since she died in 1925 before the project began, but there were two narrations for Jackson County where she lived. I read them out of curiosity.  In Nat Plummer’s narrative, this ex-slave makes no reference to Tempy, but he does refer  to Tempy’s master, my great, great-grandfather, Col. W. R. Stuart.  It’s just a reference to his house and the last name is misspelled Stewart,  but it was exciting nonetheless, that his house could be mentioned as a point of historical reference in a context broader than just my family’s history.

My goal for next week is to fulfill the one from last week: transcribe another letter from my third great-grandfather’s collection of papers.  Also, I plan to get rid of this cold.

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