Did This Son of Former Slaves Really Escape Hanging in the 1880s?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
Home of P.S. Stovall, Clinton, Miss. This mansion shown is owned by a different family from the one mentioned in the article. 
Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Dear Professor Gates: 

I have been helping my co-worker Quemardo Castilla research his family history, which centers around Madison, Mo. His maternal great-great-great-grandmother's name was Moriah Castilla, born in 1842. Her exact place of birth is unknown. She had a son named Spencer (spelled Spence in a census record), who was born in 1865. Moriah is found in the 1880 census married to William Walker, both listed as “mulatto.” We have found no record of Moriah and Spencer prior to 1880.


According to family oral history, Spencer Walker was hanged in the later part of the 1800s.  I found an article printed in a New York newspaper years ago mentioning it. It was said that he was hanged due to having an altercation with a white man at a local store. However, according to later oral history given to my co-worker, once Spencer's first son was born, he rode by his home at night on a horse to see the baby! There was also mention that he was possibly living somewhere up North with a relative due to not being able to come back to Mississippi!

I will send you some additional information about individuals who lived in Missouri in the 19th century with the surnames Castilla and Castelea. Perhaps some of them are related to Moriah Castilla? We would like to know where she lived prior to 1880; her maiden name; if she was enslaved, and if so, who her owner was; who her husband was; and if she had any other children. Also, did Spencer really survive the hanging? —Te-Arow Newsome

What an exciting family legend! However, before we get to whether the reported hanging of Spencer Walker happened, we have some information to share about his early life.

Working Backward Through the Censuses

To start working backward, gather as much information as you can about Moriah and Spencer from the 1880 U.S. census, which you have been able to locate. When we searched for them in the 1880 census, we located them in Clinton, Hinds, Miss., with six children in the household, including Spencer.


Noting the other children is important, since locating records for them may assist in locating records of Moriah and Spencer. The children in the household were Spencer, age 15, Alf, age 11, William, age 8, Morris, age 6, Norene, age 4, and Betty, age 2. In this record, the race of the entire family was recorded as “mulatto.” This record also tells you that the family was residing in Clinton, Hinds, Miss., and not Madison, Mo., where, according to your question, the family settled later. If you are having difficulty locating the family in the 1870 U.S. census, you can search for the Walker surname in Hinds County, Miss., to see if you can find a family that is a likely fit.

We searched the 1870 U.S. census for Clinton, Hinds County, Miss., for the Walker family through Ancestry.com (subscription required to view) and located the family residing in the same location. According to the record, the household contained Wm. Walker, age 21, Maria Walker, age 22, Spencer Walker, age 4, and Alfred Walker, age 5 months. All of the people in the household were born in Mississippi. William Walker was recorded as “mulatto” and Moriah and both children were recorded as “black.” Though some of the information in the record varies from the 1880 census, the ages and the children’s names are relatively close matches to the 1880 record and they are living in the same location. It is likely that they lived in Hinds County, Miss., prior to the end of slavery. The record also tells you that Spencer was the eldest child of William and Moriah Walker.


You stated in your question that Moriah’s maiden name was Castilla/Castelea. In 1870, the family of John Castilla was living in Clinton, Hinds County, Miss., as you can see on FamilySearch. They are not living that close to the Moriah in question, but they are in the same township and they are the only family that is returned in the results for a search for “Castilla/Castelea” in Hinds County, Miss. The race of all the members in this household was recorded as “black.” This family was recorded in Livingston, Madison, Miss., in 1880, also as seen on FamilySearch. Based on the information you provided, this family may be related to Moriah Walker in some way. Noting the ages and descriptions of this family will also give you information to compare to earlier records of the Castilla and Walker families.

Searching Slave Schedules

Since you have two surnames to work with (Walker and Castilla) and a likely location of the family prior to the end of slavery (Hinds County, Miss.), you could search earlier census records for those surnames in that location. It turns out that when we searched for Castilla/Castelea in the 1860 U.S. census for Hinds County, Miss., we did not locate any families by that name living in that location. There were, however, a number of individuals with the surname Walker in Hinds County. We did not locate any free persons of color with either surname. Next, you could examine the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule to see if you can locate a potential former slave owner, since it does not appear that these families were free before the end of slavery. You can access the 1860 Slave Schedules through Ancestry.com.


The slave schedules typically do not mention the enslaved by name, but record slaves by description (age, sex, race) under the name of the slave owner. You will need to take what you know about the ancestors in question and compare it to the records to determine a likely match. When we performed a search for the surname Walker in Hinds County, Miss., in the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules we located five slave owners in that county with the surname Walker: Lucy Walker, James Walker, G. Walker, S.W. Walker and J.A. Walker.

Did any of them own Quemardo Castilla’s ancestors? Since you know from the 1870 and 1880 U.S. census records we located for William and Moriah Walker that they were born between 1842 and 1848, you can search the records of the five potential slave owners for unnamed individuals matching that description.


We limited the search results to individuals born about 1845, since this is in between the two dates of birth provided for William and Moriah Walker and the results will also provide matches a few years before and after that date. The results of the search revealed that only Lucy Walker had a male and a female in her household about the right ages to be your William and Moriah Walker. It is possible that they both lived in the same household, so it may be a good idea to start with Lucy Walker as a potential former slave owner.

Locating Lucy Walker in the 1860 federal census revealed to us that she was born circa 1826 in Virginia and had four children ages 7-14, meaning she was likely a widow. This means there may be a probate record for her husband during slavery that may list his slaves in his will or inventory (aka probate records).


We searched for Lucy in the 1850 U.S. census, via FamilySearch, to find out to whom she was married. She was living in the household of her husband, Frederick S. Walker, in Madison County, Miss. You may want to search for his probate record in both Madison and Hinds counties, Miss., since it could have been recorded in either location. You can search probate records in Mississippi through FamilySearch. These records are only available to view by browsing, so you have to click on the link that says “Browse through images” and then browse by county. If you are lucky, a probate record for the Walker family will mention Moriah or William by name.

We did not locate a slave-owning Castilla/Castelea families in Hinds, Miss., but a search of Ancestry.com showed there was an S.E. Casteel recorded in the 1860 Slave Schedules who owned slaves in Jasper, Miss., a few counties away from Hinds and Madison. It may be worth investigating him further. Search for him in census records, land and probates to see if he could have been a potential former owner of Moriah.  It is possible that Moriah took the name Castilla, not for the last owner she had before the end of slavery, but for her previous owner.


About That Family Legend

As for whether Spencer Walker was hanged or escaped, we don’t have any answers for you. Beyond the newspaper clipping you found, the first step would be to try to locate him in a Northern state. However, it may prove very difficult to determine, particularly if he changed his name after the incident.


You could search for him by various names in the 1900 census or later to see if there could be any validity to the story. We searched the 1900 census for a Spencer Walker and Spencer Castilla/Castelea, born about 1866, but did not locate any records that matched.

You could expand the search just for a Spencer without a surname born in 1866 to see if you can locate any potential matches in case he kept his first name, but changed his last name. If you find someone of interest, do some research on him before 1900 to see if it is possible for him to be the same Spencer as Spencer Walker. You may get lucky and find someone who seemingly does not exist prior to that date. That could be a candidate to be the Spencer Walker in question.


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 co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.


This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a 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 300 million 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.

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