Monday, July 5, 2010

A tough wrestle

So I finally finished going through my Bergstad files and updating my genealogy file with everything that I have (and have added). I say finally because I started going through the Bergstad stuff back in January! I added probably 30 or so census records (the only research I did, really, during this phase) so that kinda stretched out the process a bit, but I feel very confident that everything Bergstad-related I've gathered so far is noted in my file. Now I move on to a line with much more diverse documentation - the Berry line.

My Berry line ends with Lucinda Berry, my 4th-great-grandmother on my mom's maternal side. She was one of 18 children of Benjamin Berry (11 kids by the first wife, 7 by the second, and no he wasn't a polygamist, his first wife passed away and he remarried). Benjamin was a pretty well-to-do guy - he was a farmer, had a distillery and a mill, he had a big estate, left lots of money and land to his kids, and he owned a lot of property - including slaves. Benjamin was one of two known slaveholders in my family tree (the other being Harrison Harris, grandfather of Lucinda's husband, Lewis Harris). I haven't really spent a lot of time researching the Berry family, as my grandmother Sally Crawford has done most of the research on that line, and most of what I have is copies of her discoveries. But now that I'm getting into recording the Berry side, I kind of want to try something - I'd like to see what happened to those slaves, where they ended up, and maybe learn a little about them. From what I've seen in shows like 'The Generations Project' and 'Who Do You Think You Are?' when slaves were freed, they often took the last name of their owner. There also seems to have been a lot of cases where the female slaves were taken advantage of, and the offspring of those women were moved on to other family members. I sure hope none of that is in my family's history.

As far as where Benjamin fits into the larger slavery picture of pre-Civil War Kentucky, I'm not sure yet. I know he had at least six slaves, as they are mentioned by name in his will - Frank, Rose, Belville, Martin, Jerry, and Friday. Benjamin stated in his will and the codicils that Frank and Rose were to be given to his son, Benjamin Jr., Bellville was to go to his son, Younger (yes, his name was Younger), his daughter Harriett Redd was to receive Jerry, while Friday and Martin would go to Lewis, one of the executors of the will. Most of the slaves were given a monetary value (it shocked me to see it the first time I read it, seeing a price attached to a person), except for one, Friday. Regarding Friday, Benjamin said: "I leave my negro man Friday to my son, Lewis A. Berry, he is to take care and protect him as long as he lives, for his labor, he being an old and faithful servant and wish him well taken care of." Part of me wants to see this as Benjamin seeing Friday's humanity, realizing that he deserved some dignity and good treatment in his old age. But at the same time, part of me sees this could also just be "take care of this for me, it's old and fragile," like asking someone to take care of an old pocketwatch. I mean, Friday was as much a human being as Benjamin, but even after an apparent lifetime of 'service,' Benjamin didn't release him from it. Why not? If Friday was an old man by this point, why not free him? If you really wanted to thank him, that seems a more appropriate gesture.

But I also can't judge Benjamin by my days' standards; I can only try to understand him by what he saw and knew and understood. In his day, slavery was legal. It would be for nearly 30 years more after he died in 1838. If Friday was old when the codicil was written in 1836, it's not likely he lived to see the end of the Civil War. What I'd really like to know is: what did Friday think of Benjamin's request? Did Lewis fulfill that charge? Did it mean anything to Friday? What was Friday's relationship to the other slaves that were divided among some of Benjamin's other children? Were any of them his family - sisters, brothers, even children? If so, how could Benjamin have justified splitting them up like he did?

Obviously, in genealogy, you're lucky to find a few facts about your ancestors - birth, marriage, and death dates and places if you're lucky, maybe a will (like Benjamin's) or some land records, maybe a mention or two in a local newspaper, and at possible best, a journal or two and some photos. Answers to questions like mine just aren't going to be found in most of those records. As far as I know, Benjamin left no journal, and he lived too early for photos to be taken. Haven't really tried looking for newspapers yet, and I have a land record or two (or at least know of them). I guess that's why I want to see what his kids did with the slaves they inherited - it's really the best way I can think of to kind of see what their father taught them about slavery. It won't be perfect, they were their own individuals and made their own choices, I know that. But at least it can give me an idea of what they were taught. Who knows, maybe it all had something to do with Lucinda's son Thomas (my 3rd-great-grandfather) striking out west all on his own in 1850. Then again, maybe not.

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