A few weeks ago I found out that an old story my mother had been telling me since I was a little girl was actually true!
The Story as told to my mother Rachel Strickland Cook by her Aunt Sugar
We are descended from an enslaved woman and her master’s son. According to the story, the son fell in love with one of his family’s slaves and refused to marry any one else. This was a disgrace to the family but they could not convince him to change his mind. So they built a little house for the couple to live in on the far edge of the family’s property. In that home the couple had about 10 kids. Then the man got sick and died. His sisters came to the home and removed his body and refused to allow his wife and children to attend the funeral. The woman and her many children were then forced to leave their home and struggle on their own. Then she eventually married a black man who could help provide for her children. The children all took the second husband’s name, so now it is impossible to find out who their original father was.
How I imagine the young couple’s home looked.
Johnny Columbus Christian Hall -Mygreat grandfather
My mother and her elderly cousin thought this was the story of my great grandfather Johnny “Fox” Columbus Christian Hall’s parents John Hall and Martha (her surname was unknown by my mother and I until only recently). Fox supposedly looked white enough to pass, so everyone assumed that his father was white (see photo). But the story did not match up with the documentation and the birth dates. I had come to believe that I might never find the answer to the puzzle until a few weeks ago when a leaf popped up over Martha’s profile on Ancestry.com and revealed her surname, Fortson. An hour later I had found the interracial couple from the story and realized that the end of the story still did not make sense even though the beginning fit perfectly. A new genealogical quest began.
The Story as told by the documents found on Ancestry.com
In the 1860 Elbert County Slave Schedule section of the US Federal Census, a 27 year old white man named William E Fortson is listed with his two slaves, a 20 year old woman and a one year old boy. What the census does not say is that the unnamed woman is his common law wife Mertis Thomas and their oldest son William Jr. The 1860 Federal Census, which only lists free Americans, says that he lives with a 56 year old white woman named Sarah L Henry. Sarah had quite a bit of money and was a lot older (he is only 27 at the time). The documentation does not explain their relationship, but by 1870 she has disappeared.
1860 Slave Schedule. Elizabeth Ham at the top is William’s mother and Delancy at the bottom is his brother.
On July 15th 1861, William Fortson and his 20 year old brother Elijah enlist in Company I, Georgia 15th Infantry Regiment of the Confederate army. Their three brothers eventually joined them in the war effort but in other companies. John B enlisted February 28, 1862 at 18 years old. Henry Allen age 16, enlisted on March 4, 1862. Delancy age 25 enlisted on May 14,1862.
John B Fortson as an old man – He was the 3rd son born to the Nancy Ham and Richard Fortson. He was also the thrid to enlist in the military. Still searching for photos of William.
Example of how the Fortson brothers may have dressed in their Confederate uniforms. William like the man on the right was a Sergeant by the end of the war.
(Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, 38th Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry 1861–62)
The 15th fights in the battle of Gettysburg July 7th -5th 1863. Unless he was on leave or injured, William would have fought in and survived this historic battle which cost 51,000 lives. Forty percent of his regiment was lost in the battle. He was eventually promoted to 3rd Sargent by May of 1864 then mustered out on April 9th, of 1865 at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. That means he was close by when Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant. I have not found any records that show whether William Fortson fought in the battle that led up to the surrender, but it is likely that he did. If so, he may have come up against one of a few colored regiments who fought near Appomattox Court House the morning of the surrender. He would have at least heard that colored troops were nearby. I wonder what William Fortson, father to four little brown skinned boys, would have thought of all these free brown skinned men in blue Union uniforms. If his sons had been old enough would he have allowed them to fight? Which side would they have fought for? Would William still have fought for the Confederacy if his sons had been old enough to question his decision? How would he have explained his choice to them? “Detail of the men in Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry. Original image at Library of Congress” Interpretive Challenges blog.
One of the only known diaries written by a US Colored Troops soldier during the Civil War. His name was Christian Fleetwood and he was part of the 4th South Carolina colored regiment. It can be read in its entirety on the Library of Congress website. *The good stuff starts on page 18. Thanks to http://interpretivechallenges.wordpress.com/ for the links.
William Fortson obviously returned home a few times during the Civil War. We know this because two of his sons were born between 1862 and the end of 1865. It is hard to determine when Mertis and her children were emancipated. Freedom came to Georgia slaves at different times depending on their location. Some were finding freedom as Bill was stepping into his new grey uniform for the very first time. Many freed themselves by the thousands during the war. Some fell in line with Sherman’s army as it marched toward Atlanta, or took off in the confusion and found their way out west. A few wouldn’t discover their new status until up to a year after the war had ended.
William and Mertis continued to live together after the war, appearing in census after census, though both are listed as single every time. I wonder what he told her about his service. He fought for the losing side and at some point around 1865 he came home for good after four long years of war. What did he believe he had fought for? Had that changed by the time he returned home? How did she feel about her relationship with a Confederate soldier? Did it afford her any privileges or open her to further scorn from members of the black community? She and her children were William’s only slaves. Their property sat between William’s mother’s land, which included 12 slaves in 1860, and his brother Delancy’s which included only one enslaved 8 year old girl. I wonder if being a Confederate soldier’s kept woman was isolating. I will need to do a lot more research and questioning since I am having a difficult time not seeing this story from a 21st century northern born black feminist perspective.
1870 US Census of Elbert, Georgia
1880 US Census of Elbert County, Georgia
By 1900 Mertis has died and the single William is living alone. Next door are two mulatto women (one widowed and the other single) living with a little girl. The women are named Simmy Fortson, a 23 year old teacher, and Fannie a 19 year old housekeeper. They are two of William and Mertis’ youngest children.
In 1910 William is living with daughter Simmie, her husband James Anderson, her daughter Bessie L Hill and her adopted son Henry Thornton. William eventually dies in his 80’s. I am unsure if Simmy and her family are living on their father’s family land at the time or not. If so they could have been forced to move by William’s younger sisters. Also, being that he died in 1919 it is reasonable to believe that his white sisters were too embarrassed by their brother’s black family to allow his many colored children and grandchildren to attend his funeral. Without a place to live and a young child to worry about, perhaps Simmy is the woman in the story who must suddenly remarry and change her name. I am still looking for more information about Simmie and William’s final resting place.
John B. and Laura Fortson: Were they lovers, cousins or both?
The story of another Confederate veteran and his black families
William’s brother John B also had a black partner. Her name was Laura Fortson and she was the only daughter of William and John B’s first cousin John Easton Fortson. I heard from my cousin (known as “Brandy411” on Ancestry.com) that Laura was enslaved to the Fortson’s but she may also have been a blood relative. I followed that note tonight and figured out that he was correct. It’s a long story that is easier to explain via the hand drawn chart below.
John Easton Fortson moved into his aunt Nancy Ham Fortson’s home before the 1870 census. A little mulatto servant girl arrives with him. At the same time John B Fortson is living in the same district with another black “domestic servant”, 18 year old Anna Hunt and young daughters, 3 year old Ella, and 1 year old Lucy. The girls are listed as black instead of mulatto but they could still be his children. Right? Why else would a young man hire a domestic servant with children so small she would spend so much time caring for them she would not be able to care solely for him.
In 1880 we find 19 year old Laura Fortson still listed as a servant in her great aunt’s home. Curiously above her name we find John B Fortson, suddenly an unmarried Confederate veteran, living at home with his parents and younger sister at age 37. Anna, Lucy and Ella Hunt have disappeared from the records. I simply couldn’t find mention of them anywhere. There of course is no 1890 census (stupid fire!!). So we skip to 1900 where Laura is the widowed head of a family of six daughters. Can we assume they are John B’s children? Several Ancestry.com family trees have connected them and list him as the father of Laura’s children. Unfortunately, I cannot figure out who first made that connection. At first I thought my online cousins were making the correct assumption, then I noticed that she is listed as a widow. Later, I found John B alive and living not too far away with another black family. This time he is listed as the head of the household. He appears to be living with a young black couple (his servants, but who knows what that means when they always seem to be listed that way) in their mid 20’s named Daughtery and Jenia Smith and their four children. Someone has gone in and corrected Ancestry.com’s records to say that the four children are John B’s grandchildren. But how? Could Anna Hunt have given him one more daughter before she disappeared? Were the Hunt girls really his daughters?
The Fortson/Gains/Ham/Gatewood familyPlease excuse the poor handwriting. This is how I untangled the story and documentation.
I continue to have way more questions than answers but that is how genealogy research works. I am happy that most of my initial research questions now have answers. I found the identity of the couple from the story and used their lives to teach myself more about the Civil War and Confederate history in Georgia.
Oh and since, as of today’s research, I can officially apply to both the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Daughters of the American Revolution, you should look out for future blog posts as I work my way through the application processes. I mean, why not right?
As a proud “grand daughter of Georgia,” this is how I celebrate Confederate History Month.
I ran across an excellent interview on NPR today. Don Gonyea interviewed Fordham University student, Sandra Arnold about her work on an exciting new website called VanishingHistory.org. The project began after Arnold learned about the existence and location of the old cemetary in which at least two of her formerly enslaved ancestors were burried. Arnold’s 99 year old great-aunt told her about the cemetary, then eventually the young woman returned to Tennesse and found her way to the grave yard.
Sandra Arnold’s great-grandfather (her great-aunt’s father) was born into slavery. He lived long enough as a slave to remember his mother and sibblings being sold away before Emancipation. His wife also lived her early years as a slave. The couple were burried side by side in the old grave yard in well marked graves. Unfortunately, when Arnold looked around many of the other graves were unmarked.
“‘Most grave sites of enslaved African-Americans are abandoned, unmarked, or forgotten,’ Arnold tells Don Gonyea, host of weekends on All Things Considered.’ It’s not the case for all of them, but it’s the case for most of them.'”
Like Arnold’s ancestors many of my enslaved ancestors are burried in old forgotten slave graveyards or in unmarked graves. Over the last seven years my partents and I have been attempting to locate as many of those graves as possible. The problem was always what to do once we found them. This summer before attending the big Magby Family reunion in Chambers County, Alabama, I am hoping to find some creative new ways of marking the final resting place of my great great great grandmother Alice Thompson Magby.
Alice’s grave when I first visited in 2010
This is the graveyard in which she is burried. In the center of the photo is a tree with a horizontal platform about midway up its trunk. Alice’s grave is at the base of that tree. If you look really closely what at first appear to be gray rocks and shadows are actually worn out headstones. There were a little over a dozen marked graves. We could only read the names off of a few headstones since the rest were completely unreadable. A church that Alice’s husband Thomas and his much younger brother Chris had founded around the turn of the century sat somewhere in these woods. Later the church was rebuilt at its current location. There does not appear to be anything left of the original church but perhaps some sloothing through the archives and some metal detecting can help us map out its footprint.
I will definitely be checking out Vanishing History to make sure this grave yard is included!