Maria Montgomery found me on Ancestry.com in 2016. Our family trees overlap because my ancestors enslaved hers. We are “linked descendants”—cousins regardless of whether we share DNA. She asked if I had any probate records that might list people my family enslaved on Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County, Virginia, a five-square-mile triangle of land in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
I sent Maria my third great-grandmother Mary T. Edwards’ Civil War diary that lists 20 enslaved people seized as contraband by the Union Navy in 1863. Maria’s great-great-grandparents, William M. Smith (“Billy”) and Dolly Jones (“Young Dolly”,) are on that list.
A friend of mine recently forwarded me this link to a story about two women who discover they are linked descendants. This story is not unusual to those of us who post on BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery. If anything, it reminds us that this “searching for each other” is happening all over the country, perhaps more often than we can imagine. For those of us who are linked, it is undeniable that we are emotionally drawn to one another. Many of us have spent decades tracking down our counterparts and have stepped far out of our comfort zone to acknowledge the legacy of slavery within our very families.
In the blog BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery, we primarily focus on linked relationships between black and white people connected through US slavery—those descended from enslaved people or slaveholders who are linked by virtue of time, place or genetics. Finding a linked descendant from before the Civil War is powerful and empowering. We place a high value on these links because personal connections can create a compelling and intense desire for healing and reconciliation. But I would suggest that there is another link that joins many black and white people today that is an important yet unexplored piece of our national culture. This link occupies a more recent past, one which can provide another avenue of examination of slavery’s legacy and aftermath.
I am fighting back tears and my stomach is in knots. Most people probably wouldn’t have a physical reaction like this upon learning that 100 boxes of historical documents in Franklin County, North Carolina dating from 1840 were destroyed, but I do. They were incinerated at an Animal Pound no less. Reportedly, it took the whole weekend and a lot of fuel to burn these records. It also took more than $7,000 taxpayer dollars. I have this pained reaction because historical records are a passion of mine. They helped me find many of my enslaved ancestors. As a sort of obsessed family historian, for years I have driven far distances to research in ancestral towns and spent days in the backrooms and basements of courthouses. I’ve combed through fragile 200-year old documents. I even initiated a volunteer project in western Kentucky to try and unfold and better preserve records still folded into small bundles, like these burned in Franklin County. Folds in old documents often wears away the fibers in the paper.