My Trip to Uncover a Family Mystery from 1852

Family History
14 February 2020
by Michelle Marsden

My grandmother Estella Vaughters was the type of grandmother who would gather the family together for Sunday meals after church, pick us up from school if we were sick, and dance a little jig if her favorite singer came on the radio.

The author, her mother, grandmother, and sisters.
My grandmother, Estella taught my Mom, sisters and me the importance of family.

Mommom, as we lovingly called her, was full of life and made sure that everyone in any room she was in felt welcome. She was, however, very humble and quiet about her childhood.

As an African-American woman from a small town in Georgia, she left home in her early twenties and unknowingly became part of The Great Migration. This was a period of time in the US when people of color left their families in the south to find better paying jobs and the possibility of more fair treatment in the North.

Portrait of the author's grandmother in her twenties.
My grandmother left Georgia in her twenties to look for new job opportunities in the North.

My grandmother left Georgia in her twenties to look for new job opportunities in the North.

For the majority of her life, her focus was on survival. Her past left nostalgic footprints on her heart, but it was nothing that she felt the need to discuss.

As I became fascinated with genealogy I would ask her a lot of questions. Some answers she could give me because she remembered the experiences, but others were a mystery even to her.

 The Trip “Home”

To reveal some of the details about our familial past, my sister Nicole and I took a trip to Georgia in 2002. Our goal was to discover more about where Mommom grew up and to find details about her dad, Peter Vaughters.

Portrait of the author's great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather, the Reverend Peter Vaughters.

We wanted to understand Peter’s path of survival from slavery and possibly identify the person that owned him.

We saw the remains of his house and drove by two churches, Ellis Chapel C.M.E., where he preached, and Union Grove C.M.E., the church my grandmother said that he started.

Church facade with wooden sign.
The church that my grandmother said her father Peter started.

We also visited a hundred-year-old neighbor who remembered our great-grandfather. He attended the one-room schoolhouse that Peter built for local children. It was called the Vaughters school, and it was located on the ninety acres of land that Peter owned.

To do the factual research, my sister and I went to the local Probate courthouse and then spent an entire day at the Georgia State Archives.

The author and her sister in front of courthouse.
My sister Nicole and me outside the Franklin County Probate Courthouse.

We spent so many hours scrolling through microfilm in the dark that we reached a point of dizziness and nausea.

Microfilm research is a lot like watching the credits at the end of a movie. The difference is that the constant stream of text never ends, and you wait in anticipation of a new nugget of knowledge.

For many African Americans, the work of finding one’s ancestor prior to 1870 can be especially challenging. The institution of slavery made every effort to dehumanize the people that it held in its grasp.

One reason for this difficulty is that a slave’s identity was regarded as malleable or even disposable by their owner. First names could change with new ownership and unfortunately, slaves were usually not given the opportunity to pass family last names on to their children.

Marriages between those that were not free may have been loving, symbolic commitments, but were often not enforceable, legal bonds that genealogists could trace by surname.

These obstacles are often called “brick walls” and can often require specific methodology to get beyond. To overcome these challenges, I did a lot of research to learn how to focus on deeds, tax forms, estate papers, wills, newspapers and other types of documents to find our greatgrandfather in a variety of records.

For reasons we may never know, our great-grandfather Peter chose to take the last name of his former owner after slavery ended. This led us to the particular file of the white slave owning family with the same last name.

It took us half a day, but we found the needle in the haystack: an estate paper, now available digitally on Ancestry®. The phrase “and child Peter” told us that Peter was an infant when he was the property of Hiram Vaughters.

I worry about what life must have been like for my great-grandfather. What did he do each day? How was he treated? Most importantly, where did his mom go?

Handwritten estate paper.
Peter was listed along with his mother Clary, as property of Hiram Vaughters.

Since Hiram died without a will, there was an assessment made of everything he owned. This information was used to pay off any debts that he owed.

Peter’s mother, who is my second great-grandmother Clary, is sadly listed as his most expensive possession. Her value was stated as $800.

A Mother Stolen from Her Child 

What we have learned recently is that Clary was eventually sold away from the home. According to the Southern Banner newspaper, her impending sale for the Hiram Vaughters estate was originally announced in May of 1855 and presumably carried out in October of that same year.

Franklin County newspaper clipping.
1855 newspaper announcement for the sale of my enslaved second great grandmother Clary [via Digital Library of Georgia].
The specific details to benefit the “creditors of said deceased.” This personally makes me very sad because this means that great-grandpa Peter would have been about three when she was forced to leave him.

Clary is missing from all inventories of Hiram’s property after this year. Peter is listed in the estate inventory from 1858 alone as, “1 Boy Peter, 6 years old.”

I worry about what life must have been like for my great-grandfather. What did he do each day? How was he treated? Most importantly, where did his mom go?

Second handwritten estate paper.
Estate inventory from 1858, where Peter is a six year old slave without his mother Clary.

My current genealogical goal is to continue to find these answers and to learn more about Grandpa Peter’s life. There is still more to learn about his path from former slave, to landowner, minister, husband, father, community leader, and the creator of a one room schoolhouse.

A Clue About Peter’s Mom

While we don’t know the details, the 1880 census shows us that he found his mom Clary and brought her into his home by the time he was twenty-eight. This quarter of a century between documents of them living together as mother and son leaves an overwhelming amount of discord.

1880 census record.
By 1880 Peter is reunited with his mother Clary, whose entry is on the next page.

As the family historian I will continue to look for the footprints of their journey, but what has been made clear to us is that despite all of the odds, Grandpa Peter triumphed over the institution designed to exploit him.

For this we will always be grateful to become the reality of a dream he and Clary could have only imagined.


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