Looking for Links: First Steps


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.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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?

Author: Felicia Furman

Filmmaker and advocate of racial reconciliation.

15 thoughts on “Looking for Links: First Steps”

  1. Dear Felicia,

    My suggestion would be to see if Rachel, Josiah, Richard, Charles or Sarah left wills of their own. You may have to (of course) do a little more digging if Sarah married.

    Also I’d look to see if there were any chancery court records about estates. Here in Virginia, many details of family drama are revealed and in some of them, enslaved people were identified by name and age.

    Good luck!

  2. I certainly enjoyed reading your blog. I, too, have become deeply involved in researching both my ancestors and the family that owned them. With the help of AncestryDNA, I’m starting to be able to piece together a more accurate picture of my full ancestry. It’s truly fascinating!
    I appreciate your words about unpacking “feelings of guilt and distress, anger and disgust”. While it wasn’t you who owned other humans as property, it’s good that you acknowledge that reality. If you haven’t read “Gather At The Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade” by Sharon Morgan and Thomas DeWolf, I urge you to do so. To say that it is a good read is an understatement. It may very well help you on your journey through your family’s past.
    I will visit your blog often!

    1. Thanks for your kind and supportive comments about my post. I’ve read the wonderful Gather at the Table and know Sharon and Tom through Coming to the Table. Are you a member?

      Good luck with your research.

  3. Hello Felicia, It is great to know that you are continuing this journey. I can not help you with your research, but the invitation is always there for you to join me and others in an overnight stay in an extant slave dwelling.

  4. Felicia, I too am deeply moved by your posting. I see that a typed transcript of the will you mention is on the South Carolina Archives online database at: http://www.archivesindex.sc.gov/onlinearchives/Thumbnails.aspx?recordId=304100
    I am always fascinated by the standard practice in such wills of listing enslaved persons towards the front of the will, in contrast to court inventories, which tend to list enslaved people towards the end. In my book The Accidental Slaveowner I speculate a bit on this; there is a curious way that the dividing up of enslaved families in white persons’ wills is used to create and extend white kinship connections, as if the testator is imposing his or her will upon subsequent generations through the instrument of enslaved persons, being moved around like so many pieces on a chessboard

    There are documented cases in which named enslaved persons assigned to a widow’s life usage are biogenetic kin to the testator, who of course won’t directly acknowledge this in the will but who appears eager to prevent the immediate sale of these persons as the Estate settles its debts. Is there any evidence in this case that this might be the case with Sirrah, Glasgow, and Jinny?

    As you probably know, although there are very rich resources in the Archives in Columbia SC, many important probate and deed records remain in county courthouses (Camden County in this case?) so if time permits, those are worth searching through. Loose probate records, if they have survived, often have invaluable data on how enslaved people associated with estates were rented out, moved around or sold; and transfers are sometimes listed in the Deed books. Some of these records have been microfilmed, others are just stuck in disorganized boxes in courthouse basements, and may others have been lost through time.

    with warmest regards

    Mark Auslander

    1. Mark,
      Thank you for the great advice. I do have a copy of Wood Furman’s will. And have done a search online at the SC archives. But I will go there for further research. I enlisted the aid of one of the researchers there but I question his/her experience. They sent me census records without copying the categories at the top of the page so it’s hard to to decipher what the numbers mean. I must go there myself and plan a trip in the near future.

      Some box in the county courthouse may contain the information I’m looking for and will go to Sumter County to figure out exactly what district the plantation is located and begin my research there. As you’re well aware, this is probably a lifelong project. But I must pursue the evidence.

      The is no evidence of kinship yet. In my next post, I will describe the information I’ve collected about Wood’s son who I know owned many slaves but can’t find these in the census. He had several siblings and I do need to find their wills. There is information in Ancestry that reveal bills of sales of several enslaved people sold between the siblings. So it did happen.

      I so much enjoyed your book and will go back to it for further information about your search.

      Thank you again for the sage advice. I hope you will read my next post about Wood’s son and another about his grandson. My family was deep into slavery.

      With appreciation,


  5. This evening, I discovered Linked Through Slavery and have enjoyed it.

    The 1860 Paris Mountain, SC census reflects that James C Furman resided in the home of Thomas J Turpin.

    I am a descendant of Thomas J Turpin. His son, Samuel Turpin, and Jesse Hammett were my great-grandparents.

    Do you have any advise or direction on how to determine the affiliation between the Turpin and Furman families?


    Kevin Abernathy-Cornelius

    1. How fascinating you knew of this connection. How fascinating you should find my post on BitterSweet. Do you think there was familial connections between the families? Do you think he lived with your Turpin family, before he acquired Cherrydale–perhaps before he moved his family from High Hills to Greenville? Was Turpin affiliated with Furman University? I’m going to dig around a little further. The next post in this series will be about Richard Furman and the final of the three posts is about his son James C. Furman. Hope you’ll stay tuned.

      1. Unfortunately, I don’t have evidence of a familial relationship between the Turpins and Furmans, nor if the Turpins were associated with the University.

        If the 1860 Paris Mountain census is accurate, it shows James C. Furman residing with Thomas Turpin; however, the possibility exists that the person recording the census inadvertently left off the residence number which would result in James C being a neighbor.

        I’ll also continue research, and will inform you of any discoveries.

        I look forward to your future posts and wish you well.

  6. I just became aware of your site and this series of articles, and confess I haven’t read through everything yet. From a vintage newspaper article entitled “Remembers Mexican War: Prince Taylor Tells of Dr. Samuel Furman, Founder of Furman University” published in The Watchman and Southron on 15 March 1916, I know that Prince Taylor – my great-great-great grandfather James Taylor’s brother (and probably other members of the family) – was enslaved by the Furman family. The article states that “Prince Taylor was born a slave at Dr. Furman’s place at Providence, Sumter County” and “He remembers distinctly when his young master, Mr. William Furman, left for the Mexican War”.

    As you can imagine, I will be reading through the entries on your site with very keen interest, hoping to find something pertaining directly to my own family. Any (additional) information or tips you might have pertaining to Prince Taylor, his parents (Abraham “Abel” Taylor and Dafny Smalls Taylor) and/or his siblings would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you, too, for making this information available to the public. Even if it doesn’t help me directly in my own search in the end, I can only imagine what it has meant to those families who have been able to piece together valuable parts of their own ancestry puzzle because of your thoughtfulness and generosity.

    1. Wow, this is amazing! This presents a whole other direction and really gives me something to focus on. Thank you for supplying this information. Actually, Furman University was founded by James C. Furman (but it sometimes is attributed to his father, Richard Furman.) Samuel was a brother I think. My inquiry into their slave connection is in its infancy. You are the first person to come forward with information. I’ve got a lot to chew on, and I’ll be back to you. Here is my direct email: ffurman@ecentral.com. By the way, there are Roaches on my mother’ side of the family who were also slave owners!

  7. Felicia, you may be able to follow the document trail forward, starting with Furman’s estate inventory and forward to his wife and childrens’ wills, estate inventories, bills of sale, etc. When you rebuild the document trail sometimes the stories emerge on their own. We can help with suggestions on which record sets you might consult, please be in touch if we can be of assistance.

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