This is the first of three posts about my initial efforts to identify linked descendants connected to my slave-owning ancestors on my father’s side of the family in South Carolina. These ancestors are Wood Furman (1712 – 1783), Richard Furman (1755 – 1825) and James C. Furman (1809 – 1891). On my mother’s side, I have a rich history of on-going relationships with the descendants of enslaved people at a plantation in South Carolina (see Shared History) that my cousins and I still own today—the remnants of what Sherman left behind. Several African American families stayed on the place after the Civil War and maintained relationships with my family that continue to this day.
I must begin this blog by acknowledging the tremendous advantage I have as a white person from a privileged family in undertaking this research—an advantage I recognize is not generally shared by black people or, for that matter, the majority of white people. Because of this family legacy, I have access to historical records and documents from the early 18th century right up to the present concerning my father’s family. For African Americans, the census records do not even record names until 1870, and most whites descended from slave owners do not necessarily have ancestors who were in this country during colonial and Revolutionary War periods.
Using these documents, these three posts will describe my journey to find ancestral links to specific descendants of enslaved people and as well as document my paternal connection to slavery.
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I’m looking for the descendants of Sirrah, Glasgow and Jinny, three people owned by my 7th great grandfather, Wood Furman, whose descendants, sadly, I will probably never find. An additional person, Moll, is listed as collateral with Glasgow, on a mortgage to purchase additional land by Furman in St. Thomas Parish, South Carolina (Mortgage Book AAA p. 413, no date from secondary resource provided). These two enslaved people were surely worth a considerable amount of money to be accepted as collateral for this debt. Just knowing the names of these four people, I can at least begin to acknowledge them and their plight. I can perhaps imagine their lives as enslaved humans and attempt to remember and honor them.
Before beginning this research, I wasn’t sure if this early ancestor in America was a slave owner. Sadly, I was dismayed to find out otherwise. My slaving-owning heritage spans Woods life, the lives of his sons and his grandsons: from the time he moved to South Carolina until the end of the Civil War my family owned other human beings. And this legacy lives on in me who struggles to make sense of my ancestors’ participation in the inhumane system of slavery.
Wood Furman had a mercantile business in New York City as well as in other locations in New York State. His ancestors migrated from Suffolk County, England, to the “new land” and lived in various towns near New York City. His last residence there was in Esopus, New York where my 6th great grandfather was born. There is no evidence at this point that Wood owned slaves in the North. He probably did not. However, in 1703 more than 42% of New York City’s households held slaves, a percentage higher than in the cities of Boston and Philadelphia and second only to Charleston in the South.
In 1755, he moved to South Carolina where he explicitly knew he would be given land by the colonial government and would buy slaves to work this land. The colonial government required that for each 50 acres provided to settlers, they must own at least one slave. Soon he owned 250 acres so we know he owned at least 5 slaves in the middle of the 18th century.
When he moved to South Carolina, Wood Furman became not only a slave owner but a planter, surveyor and, for a short time, a schoolteacher as well as an ardent patriot during the Revolutionary War. Like so many others fighting for freedom from oppressive British rule, he completely missed the irony of owning other human beings himself. Other positions he held were Judge In Ordinary of Camden District, County Judge and Justice of the Peace “for his Majesty” in the County of Craven. He owned and operated ferries on the Wateree and/or Santee Rivers.
I wonder what persuaded this successful merchant turned teacher turned planter from the North to the belief that slave owning was a practice that he could tolerate and morally defend? The answer is obviously the desire for the accumulation of wealth. So I get in line with the millions of other descendants of slave owners who trying to understand how our own ancestors could own human beings. I can’t help but wonder what kind of slave owner he was? Was he kind to his human property? I want so much believe this. I know this is a naïve question because all slave owners were, by the nature of the institution, tyrannical. They inflicted misery upon the people they enslaved.
WoodFurman’s plantation lands were located in what was known in the 18th century as St. Marks Parish in Craven County in the State of South Carolina. His lands are described as being in the “salubrious” climate of the High Hills of the Santee River near Columbia, South Carolina. Although I have not yet found evidence of what crops he grew, the agriculture of the area in the 18th century included indigo and rice (Historic Resource Survey, City of Sumter, SC). I have never visited this part of South Carolina but now find it imperative to go the place where my ancestors’ enslaved people lived and worked—to step in their shoes and try to feel the horror of enslavement. After seeing 12 Years a Slave, I think it will be particularly distressing to consider that these people might have suffered the same inhumane treatment as the enslaved people portrayed in the film. I’m sure I will unpack many feelings of guilt and distress, anger and disgust.
The High Hills of the Santee is now located in Sumter County. Sirrah, Glasgow and Jinny were probably bought in Charleston and surely weren’t Wood’s only slaves—he was considered a large planter in this area eventually owning over 2,000 acres of land. Sirrah, Glasgow and Jinny must have been very important people to the family, because no other slaves were identified in his will. They may have been house servants.
In Wood Furman’s will dated 1778, he gave to his wife, Rachel, 250 acres of land, household furniture, six milk cows, horses, one-half of his stock of hogs, ten ewes, one ram and one-half of all his farming utensils as well as “the use and services of my negro man Sirrah and negro man Glasgow and negro Woman Jinny and her ifuse [sic issue]…during the time she shall continue as my widow.” But should Rachel remarry, Jinny’s issue would be “equally divided between my Children or their lawful heirs….” Equally divided!? There were four heirs: Josiah, Richard (my 6th great grandfather), Charles and Sarah. I ask myself; what would these heirs do about dividing up Jenny’s “issue” should their mother remarry. Would the heirs wait until Jinny had four children so they could each take ownership of one, removing the child from Jinny to live on one of their own plantations? I doubt that would be the case. The horrible truth is that each child Jinny bore would be taken from her and sold, with the proceeds equally divided among the siblings.
This is as much as I’ve found about the enslaved people owned by Wood Furman. I feel stuck. How do I even begin to find descendants from such a long time ago? Any suggestions?