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.

Herbert Jones, April Dobbins’ grandfather Courtesy of April Dobbins

A good way to start is to find a record of William and Mattie in the 1870 census returns, since this was the census taken closest to the land transaction. The closest record we could find showed that W.W. and Martha Jones lived in Greensboro in Hale County, Ala. Since “Mattie” is a common nickname for “Martha,” this may be a record of the same couple that sold the land to Wiley four years later. It is also interesting to note that William was born in Virginia, the same state as Wiley. In this record, W.W. Jones was also listed as white. Next, you will want to see if William W. Jones ever owned a plantation or any slaves.

In your own research, you have already found several deeds relating to the property, including a few deeds where William White Jones granted Wiley land. To understand these transactions over time, it is useful to see the parcels of land on a map. In addition to helping you see how your ancestor’s property changed over time, historic maps can also give you names of previous owners, without looking up deeds.

When Wiley and the others first acquired the land in 1874, it was described as follows:

The East ½ of East ½ of Section 1, Township 21, Range 4 East, the West ½ of the West ½ of Section 6, Township 21, Range 5, the Northwest ½ of Northwest ¼ of Section 14, Township 21 Range 5 East and the Southeast, Northwest 1/4, Section 7 Township 21 Range 5 East.

The land in Alabama is divided using the Township and Range (pdf) system. Although these descriptions are hard to visualize, since they do not really use distances or distinguishing landmarks, they are useful in researching your family’s property because unless the land becomes divided, the description remains unchanged. Even if only a portion of the property is sold, it is easy to determine which part of their property is sold by identifying the section.

So, although reading the description on paper may not be easy to do, using these numbers and descriptions to find the parcel of land on a map can show you exactly where your ancestors owned land and how much they owned. 

The Alabama Maps Collection website by the University of Alabama also has a collection of historic maps of Greene County available for online viewing. One useful map included in this collection is the 1858 map of Greene County that was hand-drawn by V. Gayle Snedecor. This map gives detailed information on land ownership in Greene County in 1858 because it outlines each property and labels each one with the property owner’s name.

The land that Wiley Jones purchased in 1874 was described as being in various sections of Township 21, Ranges 4 and 5 East. The 1858 map for Precinct 3 (Beat 3) or Five Mile shows that William W. Jones owned land in section 1 of Township 21, Range 4 East, and sections 5, 6, 7 and 8 of Township 21, Range 5 East. This map is useful because it shows you how all of the land being described in various ranges and sections is actually one contiguous plot. You can also use this map to help you visualize the other land records that you already have. 

Since you know that the white landowner, William W. Jones, owned the property in 1858, you can then search for records of him in the 1860 census. A quick search of the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedule shows that Wm W. Jones of Greensboro, Greene County, Ala., owned 34 slaves, including some boys who were about the same age as Wiley. They are all listed as black (none as mulatto, which is how Wiley has been identified in some subsequent census records).

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