Free blacks in Richmond in June 1865 (Alexander Gardner/the Library of Congress Prints and Photo Division)

A forebear emancipates his slaves in the 1840s, but “freedom” was a relative term in 1840s Kentucky.

Dear Professor Gates:

I’m trying to trace a family who was owned by my sixth great-grandfather the Rev. John Holland Owen. Their names were Christopher and Winney Owens and Winney’s children—Fanny, Edwin, Elijah, Andrew Jackson, Charles, America, Mary Ann, Martha and Tamar—and Fanny’s daughter, Sarah. They were legally emancipated by Owen in 1845. They are listed (except for the two oldest sons) on the 1850 census, farming in Hart, Ky. I’m having a difficult time finding any of them after 1850. 

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Also, I’m curious as to how Rev. Owen came to own them. No slaves appear on his 1830 census record, but he and his wife owned nine slaves on his 1840 census, and their information seems to match the Owens family. He may have inherited them. 

Do you have any suggestions on how I can find info about the family before Rev. Owen owned them and what happened to them after 1850? —Sherry Gorse

We’re not surprised that you have a hard time finding the Owens clan after their emancipation by the Rev. John Holland Owen and his subsequent death. Life at the time was increasingly difficult for free black people in Kentucky, as Alexander Chenault describes in “Jones v. Bennet: The Bifurcated Legal Status of Early Nineteenth Century Free Blacks in Kentucky” in the spring 2009 edition of The Modern American. They existed “both as ‘free blacks’ under the eyes of the law and as second-class American citizens,” having to defend their freedom against legal challenges and face the constant threat of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

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Unsurprisingly, “It was not uncommon for emancipated slaves to leave Kentucky,” as Chenault notes, adding that, “Upon manumission, most southern states did not allow freed slaves to reside within their borders.”

An Uphill Battle for Both the Emancipator and the Emancipated 

We received from you a typed and transcribed version of John Owen’s will from Barren County, Ky., which names the slaves he emancipated. Based on that, we searched for an original record. The General Index to Wills for Barren County, Kentucky includes several for individuals with the Owen surname from 1816 to 1949, including one for John Owen dating to 1847. We located a copy of John Owen’s original will in Book 3, Page 281.

He notes that it was “at the October Term 1845 of the Barren County Court” where he emancipated Christopher, Winney and her nine children. He also gave instructions that funds from his estate were to be used to help them move to a free state should they desire to do so, and that the executor of the estate “shall make all necessary provision for their comfortable removal and pay the whole expenses of said removal out of the proceeds of the sale of my estate.” This indicates that you ought to expand your search to outside of Kentucky, perhaps to a free state nearby, such as Ohio, Indiana or Illinois (pdf, Page 51).

Owen’s instructions also reflect tightening laws around manumission and anxiety around the growing proportion of free black people in slave states. Between 1840 and 1850, the number of free blacks in Kentucky increased 36.8 percent to 10,011, as the great historian Ira Berlin reported in his book Slaves Without Masters (though by 1860, they still represented only 4.5 percent of all black people in the state). In fact, in that year, there were more free black people living in the U.S. South than in the North (238,187 vs. 196,262), despite the increasingly harsh conditions the former group endured. Professor Gates addressed the phenomenon and Berlin’s scholarship relating to it in a previous column for The Root that describes the complex decisions that free black people faced in slave states.

Against this backdrop, manumission became increasingly difficult to achieve under Kentucky law. Between 1842 and 1851, “Regardless of his age or condition, a slave in Kentucky could be manumitted provided that his or her master posted sufficient security that the slave would not become a public charge,” according to Chenault. Between 1851 and the end of slavery, “a Kentucky master could free a slave, over sixty-five years old or infirm, but only if he gave the freed slave the means for transportation out of Kentucky and enough money to support the freed slave for one year.”

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John Owen also mentioned in his will that attempts had already been made to “defeat the emancipation of said negroes” and that he had heard efforts would continue after his death. To this, Owen stipulates that “it is my will and desire that my executor shall defend then against and such attempt and pay all the expenses attending such defence [sic.] out of the proceeds of the sale of my estate.” Owen had hired attorney B. Mills Crenshaw to defend the emancipated slaves and paid him a retaining fee so the executor could contact him should the need arise.

It’s interesting to note that a few years later, in May 1851, a Judge B. Mills Crenshaw was described in the Louisville Daily Courier (via Newspapers.com, subscription required) as “one of the first lawyers in Kentucky” known for his “urbane and elegant manners and pure moral character.” Also worth noting is another mention he received two months earlier in the newspaper, about his run for a seat on the Court of Appeals, appearing on the same page as slave ads placed by a Crenshaw & Co. located across from the courthouse. We don’t know if he had any relationship with that company, but it’s a coincidence worth exploring as you try to flesh out the narrative around the emancipated Owens family.

After Freedom, an Avalanche of Court Proceedings 

For clues about the family’s past, we suggest that you search the Barren County Court Records for the October 1845 term to locate the manumission document for Christopher, Winney and the children. FamilySearch.org has the Order Books for Barren County, Kentucky From 1813-1866 on microfilm, though only volumes 12-15 (1845-1852) are available digitally.

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Searching the digitally available indexes, we found other records likely related to the battle for their freedom that occurred after the death of John Owen. It turns out that he was right to make provisions for their legal defense.

Not all of these records shed light on the underlying complaints, but it’s noteworthy how often the Owen surname shows up. Court records for the March 1847 term show that “Christopher a man of colour compltt” (complainant) and his counsel appeared in court on March 12, 1847, and it was ordered that since he was poor, he could “prosecute this suit as a pauper.”

The defendants named were Johnson Owen, Lucy Nations and James Owen, who “failed to enter their appearance herein according to law and the rules of this court.” Winney and each of the children are also listed in this document as complainants. Two days later, it was noted that the depositions taken or to be taken from Christopher and the other complainants “may be road in [sic] as evidence.”

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Examining the index for the next court book, you can locate more records related to their case on Pages 7-8, 139-140, 194-195 and 249-250. For the first of these, on June 1, 1847, the complainants all appeared in court, but defendants Lucy Nations and James Owen were still absent. Defendants Johnson Owen and Elizabeth Hatcher “appeared by their council and filed their joint answer.” (We found a white Elizabeth Hatcher in Barren County in the 1850 census.)

On Sept. 10, 1847, the court gave the defendants leave to retake the deposition of Price Hatcher, and the complainants leave to retake the deposition of Christopher Tompkins. In a striking example of the precariousness of the Owens clan’s free status, the record also states that the court ordered that the “sheriff of Barren County do on the first day of January next, hire out the Complainants privately to some kind and humane persons from court to court.”

On March 3, 1848, a motion was granted to the complainants to have leave to retake the deposition of Paschal J. Kitley; and on March 11, 1848, it was ordered that the venue be changed to Allen Circuit Court, and “the clerk of this court is ordered to transmit the papers, with transcript of the orders made herein, to the clerk of said court.” This means that to continue your search for this court case, you will need to search the Allen Circuit Court records.

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The records we could locate that are available digitally are just the order books and do not tell the entire story of the case. You could contact the Barren County Circuit Court Clerk to see if they still hold records from this time period. Since you know that the case was transferred to the Allen County Circuit Court, you could check with that court, too. The depositions for the case may provide some answers about how John Owen came to own Christopher, Winney and the children and how to locate the Owenses after 1850.

In the meantime, you can gather additional information from the order books. You know that Christopher, Winney and the children had submitted a complaint against Johnson Owen, Lucy Nations, James Owen and Elizabeth Hatcher. None of these individuals are known children of John Owen, so it seems more likely that they are siblings or other close relatives and that John Owen inherited the slaves. The siblings may have felt they had rights to the slaves based on inheritance.

You also know that the defense retook the deposition of Price Hatcher and the plaintiffs retook the depositions of Christopher Tompkins and Paschal J. Kitley. These are all additional people you could research to see if records for them hold any more clues about Christopher, Winney and the children.

Clues in Tax Records and an Expanded Name Search 

You mentioned locating Christopher Owens in Hart County, Ky., in the 1850 census. Tax records may help you fill in the gaps. Free blacks were recorded on tax lists in Kentucky prior to the Civil War if they owned as much as a horse, so you may be able to locate them on tax lists. Christopher’s name first appears on the tax lists in Hart County in 1850 but was not recorded until 1851.

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At the end of the tax book is a record of “Births and deaths of blacks” for the year 1851. Included in the deaths was a Jorden Owen, age 1 month, and recorded were the births of Elizabeth Hatcher and Eliz (Male) Hatcher. Since you know the name Hatcher was associated with the court case, you may want to look at these individuals to see if you can make a connection. The tax books for the years 1853-1863 are not yet available digitally, but you could view them at a local Family History Center.

Keep in mind that they may have adopted a different surname than Owens after 1850. Try searching for each Owen-family member using just each member’s first name, date and place of birth, and race to try and locate later records. With this method, we found an interesting record for an Andrew Turpin born about 1832 in Kentucky, residing in the household of G.W. Owen in Franklin, Franklin County, Ky., in 1860 and working as a blacksmith. He matches the description of the Andrew J. Owens included in John Owen’s will, the 1850 census and the court records.

What makes the record more intriguing is that he is residing with a white Owen family. The fact that he is recorded in the 1860 census means that he was a free man, all of which would align with what we know about Andrew J. Owens. It seems likely that this G.W. Owen is George Washington Owen, the son of John Owen, as described in the biography you have of the latter. All of this suggests that this is the Andrew J. Owens described in the earlier records and that he had changed his name to Turpin.

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To continue your search, you could continue to search for Andrew under the name Turpin. You could also see if any of the other known family members of Christopher and Winney assumed this name, too. You may also want to check the households around G.W. Owen to see if there are any other free people of color in the area who could match the family in question, since they all may have moved to Franklin County together.

Finally, we suggest that you take these methods and extend your search to the nearby free states we previously mentioned.

Good luck!


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.