Learning from Southern Plantation Records

By Carolyn L. Barkley

I’ve written recently about the value of manuscript research and provided tips on African-American genealogical research. One major resource series, Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War, links the two topics and spotlights a major resource for anyone researching Southern roots. This microform collection brings together fourteen manuscript collections held by the South Carolina Library at the University of South Carolina, the South Carolina Historical Society, the Library of Congress, the Maryland Historical Society, the University of Virginia Library, the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, the Howard Tilton Library at Tulane University, the Louisiana State Museum Archives, Louisiana State University, the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library, the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The benefit of such a cooperative microfilm project is its ability to bring together records previously scattered across separate collections and to avoid the access restrictions imposed by individual institutions concerned with the fragility of the contents. Access either to the comprehensive collection, or to individual series, at many research libraries, archival institutions, and larger public libraries across the country lessens researcher travel and time costs.

The Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations contain a wealth of primary source materials whether you have located an African-American individual in the 1870 census and want to continue that research in slave-owner records; whether you descend from a plantation owner; or whether you want to understand the social history of a specific plantation or locality. The collection includes a wide variety of documents such as wills, estate papers, plat maps, court records, plantation record books, agricultural diaries, slave records, family letters and diaries, poetry, and photographs. They provide a snapshot of daily plantation life and provide a significant backdrop for the life of your ancestor who may have lived on or near one of these plantations.
First, you will want to consult finding aids for the collection.

  • To locate a specific collection, the most comprehensive guide is Jean L. Cooper’s A Genealogical Index to the Guides of the Microfilm Edition of Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War (2003). The index is divided into six sections: location indices by county/city and by state; plantation indices by name of plantation and by state; and surname indices by surname and by state. One caveat is that this index is not intended to be an every-name index, but rather refers to a surname when that name is reflected in a significant portion of a collection’s materials. I located three collections for Orangeburgh District, South Carolina (James D. Trezevant Plantation Diary and Records, 1845-1868; Michael Gramling Plantation Journal and Account Book, 1839-1858; Singleton Family Papers, 1759-1905) as well as thirteen collections for Nelson County, Virginia. Three plantations named Piedmont are indexed, one in Maryland and two in Virginia, involving three separate families (Barr, Wallace and Curtis). There are ten entries for the surname “Barrow” in record collections for plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia. Each index entry references the relevant microfilm series and part. The William Massie Papers for Pharsalia plantation in Nelson County, Virginia, cover the period 1766 to 1890 and can be found in Series F, part 4. (The original documents are held by the Rare Book, Manuscripts and Special Collections Library at Duke University.)
  • Each microform series has a finding aid similar in content to the National Archive’s descriptive pamphlets. Many – but not all – are available online at LexisNexis. If an online version is not available for your series, your local public library can help you identify the institution closest to you that holds the microfilm you need. Check with that institution to see if they have a printed finding aid in their collection. Use the guide to learn more about the collection, its contents, and the location of related manuscript information. The 125-page guide for Series M, Part 1, covers the Tayloe Family (1740-1860) of King George, Prince William and Richmond counties in Virginia, as well as Alabama. The original documents are part of the collections of the Virginia Historical Society. The guide includes a reel index with numbered, item by item contents listed for each of the fifty-seven reels in this collection. Each item number corresponds to a number at the bottom of each film frame, allowing for easy location of an individual item. In addition to the reel index, this guide also includes a four-page genealogical chart.

The William Massie Papers (1766-1890) for Pharsalia Plantation in Nelson County, Virginia, in particular (Series F, Part 4), are fascinating. The collection includes 614 items, mostly the papers of William Massie (b.1795; d.1862), but also includes papers of his brother Thomas (b. 1782) and his father Thomas (d. 1834), in addition to documents concerning his children and grandchildren. Most deal with the family and the plantation, but others are surprises, including an incomplete 1862 letter describing the Battle of Shiloh and an 1871 eyewitness account of the great Chicago Fire. Undocumented genealogical notes, written by Thomas James Massie and “respectfully submitted to the people of Nelson,” tell of the family’s origins in Cheshire, England, immigration to the colonies in 1690, and the first deed in New Kent County, dated 28 August 1700. There are numerous letters from Massie children while at school or visiting other members of the family.A twelve-page affidavit outlines Thomas Massie’s military service and his eligibility for a pension under the Pension Act of 7 June 1832. This document, dated 15 February 1833, stated that Massie was age 85 on “22 August last…”   Business papers include several slave transactions: “[undated] …sold unto William Massie a negro named Dandridge, a boy about twelve years of age…;” “…18th day of April 1831 sold to William Massie a young negro woman named Judy, and her female child Esther…;” and the purchase of “negro woman Eady and her son Bob” in Lynchburg on 5 August 1815.

Numerous land plats are included for both Massie properties and those of others, with courses providing the names of contiguous land owners. A group of such surveys includes a comment, “The courses of Nicholas Survey I have not time to draw off today as it will take half a day.” Another note includes the fascinating comment “Confidential, to be torn off and burnt and nothing said about it.” An undated list of property includes 9,397 acres worth $45,000; 239 slaves, worth $31,380; $5,360 in bank stock, a $100 gold watch, $470 worth of silver plate, two pianos (one unfit for use) worth $130; and five pleasure carriages worth $500.  The inventory of Massie’s estate covers numerous pages. It details the contents of plantation buildings (molasses cellar, woodwright’s shop, apple house, etc.) and the individual rooms in his residence including an astonishing five-page listing of the contents of his medicine cabinet, valued at $500. Farm diaries and memoranda include plans and diagrams for crop rotations as well as details about planting: January 1845, “…burnt and sowed a plant bed in the muddy branch tobacco lot 8;” October 17, 1845, “cut 825 sticks of frosted tobacco, some very badly frosted;” 1823, “harvested wheat [from] 23 June-4 July, seeded [from] 23 September 1822-15 October…seeded 66¾ bushels, crop made 801½ bushels, yield 12 to 1.”

I was fascinated by the weather memoranda books whose reports in 1819 sound remarkably contemporary in their description of periods of drought or high winds: 16 August 1819: “a very fine shower this evening (the best we have had since the 10th of June;” 20-21 September 1819: “The wind blows very high from N.E. We have had no rain for the last 35 days, but almost an incessant wind, which has done great harm;” 14 October: “There was a white frost last night, which pretty generally destroyed tobacco but this plantation escaped.” I discovered these interesting items during a very quick review of the William Massie Papers. A more careful reading of the collection would provide a very detailed understanding of daily life on Pharsalia Plantation in Nelson County, Virginia, the experiences of its family and slaves, as well as those of their neighbors.

Two other collections support Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantation Records from the Revolution Through the Civil War:

  • Records of Southern Plantation Records from Emancipation to the Great Migration includes three series from the collections of Duke University, the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collection at Louisiana State University Libraries; and the South Carolina Library at the University of South Carolina.
  • Slavery in Ante-Bellum Southern Industries includes three series from the Virginia Historical Society, the University of Virginia Library, and the McCormick-International Harvester Collection.

The Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations and its companion microfilm collections provide exciting opportunities in original source research, enhance our understanding, and enrich the detail we can provide to the history of our ancestors.


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