Is Family Legend About a Slave Ship True?

Tracing Your Roots: Advice for verifying a story of courage passed down through the generations.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

About The Wanderer

Beyond placing your ancestor(s) within the property of the Hazzard family on St. Simons Island, you can also continue to research the ships that may have carried these ancestors to the area. Since importing slaves became illegal in 1808, you would be looking for ships arriving after this time if they were truly smuggled in. Often local newspapers reported on incidents involving such ships. Northern newspapers also had the reputation for bringing attention to stories about slavery to incite horror over the practice. You can find many digitized historic newspapers from Georgia through the Digital Library of Georgia and Genealogy Bank.

If, like with The Wanderer, you identify additional possible matches, you can look for archives and libraries with manuscript collections containing firsthand accounts (such as letters between those involved) and/or documentation of that particular ship’s transactions. To find these kinds of collections, you can check the catalogs for the Georgia Archives or more generally through ArchiveGrid.

The Wanderer was the most famous of these ships and touted as the last to successfully import slaves to America. For the best account of this vessel’s journey, you may wish to read Tom Henderson Wells’ The Slave Ship Wanderer (pdf). His bibliography details the sources he found useful, as well as those he found less accurate.

This yacht converted into a slave vessel likely left Africa with 487 Africans and landed on Jekyll Island Nov. 29, 1858, with 409 having survived the Middle Passage. Since the island was owned solely by the Dubignon family, participants in the conspiracy, this particular landing was successful and without anyone swimming to shore or drowning.

As this was 50 years after the legal cessation of Africans being brought in, the appearance of those clearly raised in Africa caught the public’s attention. The crew and owners of The Wanderer were brought to trial, which has led to a variety of federal court records and newspaper articles concerning the events. The National Archives Southeast Region (pdf) has a finding aid dedicated to the files on The Wanderer case.

About the Newcomers

The public awareness meant that some of the Africans’ movements were tracked. On Dec. 2, 1858, 170 of the Africans were sent out of Jekyll Island on the Lamar and ended up in the Tillman plantation near Hamburg, Aiken County, S.C., and in Robert L. Butler’s plantation. In late December 1858, two African men from The Wanderer were found at the Macon, Ga., station by the train to Albany, N.Y. A man from New Orleans had 38 Africans sent by train and steamer, and they passed through Montgomery, Ala. Another group of about 37 Africans set out through Southern Georgia heading west. They were caught in Worth County, Ga., but released in March 1859. Some of The Wanderer passengers remained on Jekyll Island and its neighboring islands because Nelson Trowbridge was tasked with distributing the remaining half.

Who were these newcomers? According to the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood, some of the ex-slaves later told interviewer Herbert Montgomery in 1908 that they were from the Kingdom of Kongo in West Central Africa. A language sample they provided was identified as Kikongo. It is likely they hailed from a district called Madimba, and were enslaved during the long-simmering war between the future King Pedro V of Kongo and his rival Alvaro XIII during the back half of the 19th century. The war is well-documented by local artifacts, including several letters by Pedro V.

Thornton and Heywood say some of the slaves from The Wanderer ended up at the Edgefield Pottery Works in South Carolina, where they became makers, and even inventors of a particular genre of ceramic called the “Face Jug.” The jugs became famous among a circle of collectors and are now found quite extensively in museum collections in the United States.

You may be able to connect the Africans who disembarked from The Wanderer in 1858 to the Hazzard family on St. Simons Island through Glynn County records and newspaper announcements of sales. In a more roundabout way, you could also research whether the Hazzard family had any direct connections to Charles Lamar and the others involved in The Wanderer business. The previously mentioned groups of slaves sent out from Jekyll Island were all transported and/or distributed by friends of the Lamar family.