Did My Kin Buy the Land They Worked as Slaves?

Tracing Your Roots: Solving the mystery held in a farm, a family ritual and a pile of property records.

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Herbert Jones, April Dobbins’ grandfather

Courtesy of April Dobbins

Dear Professor Gates:

My grandfather is 92 and owns 688 acres of backwoods Alabama. Supposedly, former slaves cobbled this farm together. On a good summer day, if you are willing to venture deep into the forest and beat back the kudzu, undergrowth and rattlesnakes, you can find the slave graveyard—its crude tombstones serve as precarious markers of sunken graves. During reunions, I gather with dozens of my relatives around these graves. My uncle calls the name from each tombstone, tells the relation and tells their story. He does this slowly, methodically. Dozens of us—all relatives—stand in somber silence.

One of my writing professors always tells us that settings are characters, too. This farm is a character in our family. We have been told that the farm was part of the original plantation that our ancestors worked on as slaves—that the bell in the yard was used to call the slaves in from the field. The slave owner somehow managed to pass the land on to a child that he had by a slave woman. I am working on a photography project on my family, and I would like to know if all this is true. —April Dobbins

It’s clear that you have already done a great deal of research on your ancestors, and now you are interested in learning more about the farm that, according to documents you sent us, has been owned by your family since the late 19th century. To find out how this land came into your family, you will want to search for more records of both the property and the people who lived and worked there. Researching these sources will also help you determine if your family’s story that Wiley Jones purchased the land from former slave owners is true.

First, Find the Earliest Land Record

In your research so far, the earliest land record you found shows that Wiley and his wife, Rose Harry Jones, purchased the parcel of land together with Sterling and Adeline Smith and with Joe and Mary Harry. They purchased the land on May 14, 1874, through a mortgage agreement with the landowners, Mattie A. Jones and her husband, W.W. Jones. Is this the date that the farm came into your family? Your next step would be to see if you can find any records of Wiley Jones purchasing land before this date.

Hale County, Ala., was created in 1867 from portions of Greene, Marengo, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties during Reconstruction after the Civil War. To find which of the earlier counties your family farm was in before the creation of Hale County, you’ll want to consult historic maps of Alabama. The Alabama Maps website from the University of Alabama shows the evolution of counties in Alabama from 1820 to 1860. The historic maps include white outlines that show the borders of the counties as they are today.

From looking at the county map of 1860, it seems that your family’s farm was located in Greene County. This is good to know when you are researching land records because it is possible that your ancestor purchased land before 1867, and the deed may be recorded in Greene County. If you are unable to find any land records for Wiley before May 14, 1874, in both Hale and Greene County land records, it is likely that the property first came into your ancestor’s ownership on this day.

Research People Listed in the Land Records

Once you determine when Wiley purchased the land, the next step in determining whether this property had any connection to a local plantation is to research all of the families involved in 1874 land transactions. For example, Joe and Mary Harry may be the parents of Rose (Harry) Jones. It is interesting to note that those granting the land have the same surname as Wiley, and you also found that Wiley’s father was probably white and named William Jones. As such, you will want to determine what connection, if any, Wiley has with William W. and Mattie A. Jones.