From the Editors: The In-Depth Genealogist team would like to thank Mariann Regan for sharing her stories and research with our readers. Mariann Sanders Regan is Professor Emerita of English at Fairfield University in Connecticut. She grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Duke, and got her doctorate at Yale. She has written articles, fiction, a book of literary scholarship (Cornell University Press), and a novel about the health care system (Creative Arts Books). Her family memoir Into the Briar Patch (AuthorHouse 2011) explores the effects of slaveholding upon her South Carolina ancestors, and the psychological legacy for the family. She and her husband, who have two children, live in Connecticut. Her book blog is http://mariannregan.authorsxpress.com/. More about the memoir, with reviews, is at http://www.mariannregan.com/memoir_desc.html.
We are all attracted to stories. With our lives unfolding in time, we are always on the lookout for a narrative line.
The more genealogical data I gather about my South Carolina ancestors in slavery days, the more stories my mind generates.
These stories give life to my set of facts. In creating the stories, my mind is continually drawing upon my ideas about human nature and historical forces, my meditations upon old photos, even past experiences that I don’t consciously recall.
So my stories are working hypotheses about my ancestors. I use them to search for more data, in a natural feedback loop. In particular, I’m trying to find my living mixed-race relatives.
Here, then, are three stories—three working hypotheses—from our family’s past:
1. The Erasmus, Annie, Caroline, and Thomas Story
My great-grandfather Erasmus is in the June 30, 1849 minutes of the Black Creek Church in Darlington, South Carolina:
The committee appointed to investigate the charge of bastardy alleged against
Brother E. G. Kirven, reported that the evidence before them was insufficient to convict him, but enough, in their judgment, was elicited to satisfy them that he is obnoxious to the charge of fornication, for which offence we recommend his exclusion from the Church.
Brother E. G., or Erasmus Goodson Kirven, grew up on a flat, hot, sun-soaked farm in Darlington, South Carolina, before the Civil War. He was the oldest son among his father John’s eleven children. John owned a number of slaves. Erasmus had sexual relations with one of them, Annie, when he was in his late 20s and unmarried. Their mulatto daughter, Caroline, was born in 1847.
Why did this happen? What were Erasmus and Annie thinking and feeling? My mind fills with speculations: Physical attraction. An attitude from the pre-bellum, masculine South that “men will sow their wild oats.” Unavailable young white women, constrained to represent pure Southern Womanhood in order to justify a slavery culture. A wish, or an instruction, that Erasmus would please his father by “growing” another slave. A wish, or a conviction, that a mulatto child might have a better life.
The mulatto baby Caroline lived with Erasmus for a while, then joined John’s slaves. Expelled from a church that couldn’t quite prove “bastardy,” Erasmus simply moved to another church.
In the 1850s, John’s slaves and children were both increasing, and Erasmus was in his 30s. He married Mary Caroline King between 1850 and 1860, and they started a family in 1856 with their first child, Joshua.
Either before or after his official marriage, Erasmus and Annie had another child together in 1855—a son, Thomas, born into slavery. Many people then thought slavery would continue indefinitely, for in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act had confirmed slaveholders’ rights.
Yet the Civil War (1861-65) and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) were soon to come. Caroline and Thomas would have been children when slavery-with-the-chains was ended.
After the War, Erasmus was able to stave off financial ruin. He sold his land, got hired to farm it, and saved to buy it back in a few years.
For that plan, he needed more farm hands. Caroline would bear fourteen children, but so far there were only seven young ones. Erasmus worried about having enough laborers. A fight broke out between Erasmus and a former slave woman who approached him while he and others were shucking corn in the barn. The woman wanted to leave with her son, but her son had chosen to stay with Erasmus. I picture Annie in her 40s, Erasmus about 50, and Thomas in his teens.
The mulatto children of Erasmus and Annie found homes and families after the War. In 1866, Caroline married James Wingate. Erasmus gave Thomas Kirven a plot of land. Thomas had a daughter (Annie, his mother’s name) by his first wife and seven more children by his second wife. He lived until 1921.
Erasmus’s obituary tells us he was a kind man, and candid:
I never knew a Kinder or more benevolent man than he was. He was a friend indeed
to the poor and, in all the walks of life, he dealt honestly with his fellow men. . . . His
faults and his virtues were alike known to the world; no deception and nothing
hidden about him. (1897)
Yet this story and the next one suggest how slavery could work its evils, expanding inhumane acts towards both blacks and whites. Pressured by their culture to own black human beings for labor, slaveholders then began to impregnate these people in the push for more laborers. White fathers expected loyal white sons to create many children, mulatto and white, and loyal daughters-in-law to bear and sustain large families for farm work. Slavery weighed down all relationships.
People believed they were using slavery to build national wealth, yet slavery was using them to perpetuate and enlarge itself.
2. The Cade Alexander and Eli Story
Caid Kirven (1761-1829), my 3 x great grandfather, had 13 children and 15 slaves on his Darlington farm. His next-to-last child, Cade Alexander, was born in 1827, so he lost his father at the age of two.
At 21 years old, Cade Alexander fathered a mulatto son by a slave woman, later named Nancy Allen. The boy, Eli, was born into slavery.
That was in 1848, the year after Caroline was born to Erasmus and Annie. The U. S. Slave Trade Act of 1807 had made international slave trade illegal, and the 1850s South began a movement to re-open the trade. Erasmus and Cade Alexander may both have been obeying silent (or spoken) directives to produce more slaves for the farm by siring mulatto children.
Cade Alexander joined the Confederate Army as a private and died in 1864. He left his three white children and his mulatto son Eli without a father, as he had been.
Eli Kervin established his own family after the Civil War, as Caroline and Thomas each did. He and his wife Barbara had seven children, all designated “mulatto” in the censuses. Three of his sons share first names with white Kirvens: Robert, John, and Cade Alexander. He lived to be 75 and was buried at Wesley Chapel in Darlington.
Eli could have changed his name or moved North, but he spotlighted links with his former masters. Was that for social position, livelihood, perhaps even affection or gratitude? What was the emotional cost to Eli?
My ancestors, like many white Southerners, believed that good treatment of slaves was a badge of honor.
“If you have made a contented slave, you have made a DEGRADED MAN.”
I am haunted by this Burke quote from The North Star of April 28, 1848, from @accessarchives, in a blog by JD Thomas.
3. The Legend of Great-Uncle Luke
Luther Kade Kirven was born in 1872 to Erasmus and Caroline, just as Reconstruction was winding down.
Here he is in 1911, with some of his brothers and sisters—front row, far right:
Eckard Lee Kirven, the son of Luke’s brother Bob, had memories of his Uncle Luke. Eckard Lee was 94 years old and sharp as a tack when he and I undertook our oral history sessions. He claimed that Luke was the roughest and toughest of all Erasmus’s sons. Luke once walked toward a man who was shooting at him. The man shot him in the arm. Luke kept on coming. He shot Luke in the chest. Luke kept on coming. Finally, the man fled. How was Luke? Just fine.
Luke did not believe in marriage, Eckard Lee said. He lived by himself, homesteading. He also lived with white women and black women, one after the other. One day, Bob went around to Luke’s house and found him sick in bed. White babies and black babies were jumping all over the bed, with no woman in sight. “Come on in!” says Luke.
My Sumter cousins claim that when they went hunting with Luke, they didn’t have to clear grasses or brush. They just let Luke stride ahead of them. His big frame cleared a swath for the rest of the hunters.
Official records of Luke are slim indeed. I hope to find out more someday, perhaps from one of his four reputed grandchildren. For now, Luke’s unconfirmed legend will have to do.
How would it have felt to be Nancy or Caroline, Thomas or Annie or Erasmus or Cade or Eli or Luke? How might I have fared in that immediate circle of others’ perspectives, in the heat of the South?
If and when I find my living mixed-race relatives, what will we say to one another?
In creating stories and hypotheses about our ancestors, we learn more about our own natures. That’s where truth comes in. We descendants are charged with the truth of the future.
~ Mariann Regan
Sources & Notes:
Data for story #1: In the 1850 Census slave schedules, Erasmus owns a 3-year-old female (Caroline?), and John owns a 24-year-old female (Annie?). In 1860 one 12-year-old and one 36-year-old female (Caroline and Annie?) are among those owned by John.
Thomas Kirven’s 1921 Death Certificate gives Erasitus Kirven as his father and Annie Tony as his mother. The 1880 Census lists Thomas, a mulatto with a wife and newborn daughter, living close to Erasmus. He is a “farmer” rather than a “laborer.” Erasmus’s gift of land and his fight with the former slave woman are family anecdotes.
The 1870 Census lists Caroline Wingate, mulatto, married to James Wingate. In 1880 they have been married 14 years and their son, Charlie, is a newborn. In 1900 Annie Tony, “mother-in-law,” lives with them all. Charlie is “Charlie Kirven.”
Data for story #2: The 1925 Death Certificate for Eli Kirven has Kade Kerven as his father and Nancy Allen as his mother. The 1880 and 1910 Censuses record Eli’s wife and children. The 1860 Census lists Cade Alexander Kirven and his young family. Civil War Records show him as a private in the 5th Regiment of the South Carolina Infantry.
Data for story #3: The 1910, 1920, and 1930 Censuses show Luke living in Darlington as a farmer, either alone or with one other man as laborer. I took Eckard Lee’s oral histories in 2004 and 2005. In the 1880 Census Luke is 7 years old, and his tombstone says he died in 1935. Family members tell me that Luke has one self-acknowledged son and four grandchildren.