Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Love Across the Battle Lines or Can You Love the Man Who Owns You?: An old family story finds new truths and questions in the archive

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. 

Johnny Columbus
Christian Hall -My
great 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. 

The only known photo of Mertis Thomas

On January 19th, 1861 Georgia, the "Empire State of the South," secedes from the Union. 

On January 21, 1861, the ordinance of secession was publicly signed in a ceremony by
At the time of secession, Georgia had more slaves and slave holders
than any other state in the south (http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org).

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, 1862Delancy 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 family
Please 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.


  1. What an amazing story! Congratulations on your progress so far. Don't you love the adventure of this human jigsaw puzzle?

    1. Thank you Anne! I am sorry for the late reply. I have had to put my blog on the back burner so I could work on my finals. I definitely love my family history. There is so much to learn from complicated stories like this. I just sketched out the family tree again and then removed the names. It looks like a twisting vine of ivy now. I am working on a new digital story now. I hope to post it by next week.

  2. This is a compelling story, and so many people can relate to it. There must have been many interracial relationships during slavery, and even today people are unsure how to characterize them. You begin by saying, "According to the story, the son fell in love with one of his family's slaves and refused to marry any one else."

    Many people today would say that this sentence romanticizes the relationship, and that any interracial "love" during slavery must have been a white man forcing a black woman. As in your title: Can You Love the Man Who Owns You? As a feminist, I totally understand that statement.

    Yet how can we know for sure what any relationship is like? You describe long-lasting connections over the years with many children, in the midst of a disapproving and even horrified society. What would motivate a relationship like this to keep on going? There are many unknowns and mysteries in this story.

    You ask really good questions, and I'll be interested to see what more research reveals to you. (Your hand-drawn chart isn't showing up for me, by the way). It's great that you are looking into facts that don't necessarily fit people's pre-conceived ideas.

    1. Hi Mariann! Thank you for commenting and sharing my story. Yes the story my mother told me was definitely romanticized. As a teen I always fantasized that it was a true love story, but as an adult who has experienced love and heartbreak, I have turned a much more critical eye on it. It is totally possible that Mertis loved William even though he owned her. I can't figure out when or how she became his slave. At first I thought she was originally owned by his parents, but her age does not quite match the ages of the female slaves in the 1850 census. William's Uncle Easton Fortson owned 9 slaves but the record doesn't give any specific ages for the slaves. This is one of those cases where I need to find property records, diaries and letters for more info. William knew how to read and write so maybe he wrote home to his mother during the Civil War to ask after Mertis and their children. Maybe she dictated a letter back that could give evidence of how she felt about him. Mertis could have loved him the way many women in abusive relationships love their men. Maybe she felt like she had no other choice? There appear to be other male slaves close by who were around her age. Would she have preferred one of them? Was Bill the best option because he could provide her children with a better chance in life than an enslaved man? Did she seek out his affections knowing that was a possibility? I personally prefer to see my female ancestors as women with agency and intellect even though they may not have had an education. I guess that is the feminist in me. Yet, I have to be realistic. Just because I would write Mertis' life story and imbue her with courage, strength and the will to take charge of her life doesn't mean that she actually lived that way. I hope she did. I hope she was truly loved and cared for. I hope they enjoyed a healthy, loving, romantic relationship. I hope I can find more information about her.

  3. It's amazing that you were able to find documentation to support a family story. Still, I know that it's frustrating to be able to find out so much and yet know so little about how people actually felt about their situations. The bare facts don't tell us what we truly want to know.

    I think your investigation and your speculation over Mertis's state of mind accentuates the corrupting influence of slavery on human relationships. Of course there must have been free people and slaves who fell in love, but as long as one person owned another they could never really be equals, which is our standard for romantic relationships today. Of course, in the 19th century men generally had most of the power in a relationship, to the point that the law considered women's identity to be subsumed by that of their husbands. But slavery must have severely compounded that power imbalance. Regardless of their own personal relationship, Mertis must have known that her husband had the legal power to sell her and her children. And, as his widow, she had none of the privileges that a free woman would have after her husband's death.

    As for William Fortson, well, if there's anything that the history of slavery teaches us it's that people are capable of incredible cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization, to the point where they can embody the voice of liberty while owning slaves (I'm thinking of every founding father, ever, but mostly Jefferson) or love a woman deeply while owning her at the same time.

  4. Hi Madeline!

    Thanks for your comments. Yes I actually woke up from a dream last week where I was talking to Mertis and trying to get her to tell me more about her life but right when she was about to answer I woke up. Terrible timing. Stupid alarm clock.

    Over the last few days I have been pouring over the slave narratives that were recorded by the Works Progress Administration staff back in the 1930's and 40's. I have also accumulated a few books and novels all of which discuss enslaved women and their memories of slavery. Every single non fiction account of white male and black female sexual relations implied or implicitly stated that the sex was without the woman's consent. Every account. The first person stories found in the Library of Congress' collection were unedited and particularly horrific. The details turned my stomach. I had to stop reading and watch a sitcom for an hour at one point. I was looking for loving stories. I needed to find one. Just one! I couldn't find any. I did find a few seemingly romantic true stories about relations between enslaved or free black men and white indentured women. But I found no trace of romantic love in texts about black women. Now I did recently run across the book "My Confederate Kinfolk" (http://amzn.com/0465015557). I cannot wait to read it. It may give me at least one positive romantic relationship example. I will keep looking for more.

    One of the other books on enslaved relationships conveniently had a timeline of miscegenation laws passed throughout the country (Forbidden Fruit: Love stories from the underground railroad- Betty DeRamus http://amzn.com/0743482646). That includes the 1869 Code of Georgia, section 1707, that states that all interracial marriages within the state are null and void and any future marriages are prohibited (http://mgagnon.myweb.uga.edu/students/3090/05FA3090-Paul.htm). Ministers caught performing such marriage ceremonies were imprisoned and the two offending parties heavily fined. At least in Georgia they were punished equally. I think I read somewhere that in VA only the black fiance was punished. Gotta fined that citation. The layers of social power Will held over Mertis were compounded by state and federal laws that held her in bondage, disenfranchised her, left her unprotected against rape and coercion and gave her no recourse or compensation if she were to leave him.

    So in other words everything about Mertis and Will's relationship was forbidden by both state law and by social laws. According to family stories Will became ostracized by his family due to his insistence on living with Mertis and their children. Still, his younger brother John married their mixed race cousin Laura and she is the only known child of Will and John's uncle John Easton Fortson. So within their family, within one small community, there were three men who only entered into relationships with black women. I wonder if the three couples socialized together since they likely would have been unwelcomed anywhere else.

    I still have a lot more research to do.

    Feelings and relationships are complicated no matter what century you live in. Women in abusive relationships usually believe they love the men who repeatedly beat them. Perhaps it was Stockholm syndrome. There are a lot of lenses through which to see Mertis's relationship with Will. I may never have anything more than questions.

    I love your last paragraph by the way. I may need to quote you :)

  5. Anna Hunt didn't just disappear from John B. Fortson's life. She was hanged on May 1, 1874, at the age of 22, for the poisoning murder of another 27-year-old black woman to whom John Fortson was giving his attentions. The victim was Eliza Brawner, who was nominally employed as a cook by John's cousin Stephen Ham Fortson. John was charged as an accessory but was never tried.

    Ray Chandler
    Elbert County, Ga.