When I first began searching for my family’s owner I was focused on Thales Neal’s family. However, I was frustrated when I couldn’t find any documents related to Thales or his father John Mayfield that proved they were my family’s owners. What I realized is that I needed to widen my scope when researching this family, not just focusing on the last one before slavery ended. I believe my ancestors sent a sign that I was looking in the wrong direction.
I subscribe to a few different forums on African American genealogy on Facebook. One day I happened to open my page and it automatically opened to the “Our Black Ancestry” forum. There was a post from a woman who had just started researching her African ancestry after discovering her 3rd great grandfather was a free person of color. She had been working with a lot of probate records and wanted to know if there was a place to record the names of slaves that she was finding among the records. I wanted to respond to thank her because I know how valuable that information is to those researching African ancestry, and there are quite a few that I have encountered who were not so friendly and forthcoming. As I scrolled through the many other responses and questions under her post I stopped dead at the last one that read “Yesterday I was researching my Neal side in Franklin County, GA and came across probate that had like 10 or 15 slaves names listed.” I couldn’t compose myself quickly enough to form a reply because I knew that was MY family she was talking about!
We exchanged information back and forth just to make sure, and she gave me a copy of the estate file that she had been looking in. It was for William Neal, who died in Franklin County in 1835. On the jacket of the file is a list of negroes: Terrell, Mahely (1844), Berry (12), Silvy (1842), Nancy (50), Reuben (28), Patience (27), Mary (19), Gabriel (12), Queen (8), Lewis (6), Sarah.
I have been researching my family history for many years, yet the slave owners of my maternal Neal family line seem to be the most elusive. I followed the suggested tips to locate them: searching for other than the “Neal” surname, searching military records, Freedman’s Savings and Trust records, and searching nearby families on corresponding 1870 census records. In this series of posts titled “Slave Owner Research” I will look for clues using the methods above, follow clues in estate documents, investigate alternate surname possibilities, and finally reach out to slave owners families to collaborate and share information.
My first tip when I began looking for slave owners was to search the 1870 census for 10 pages forward and backward from my known family. I didn’t find any Neal families that matched the age and genders even remotely close. That could mean they moved to a different county after emancipation, they were owned by a different surname, etc. However, one document that I found early on was sticking out to me. I knew my 3rd great grandfather Gabriel Neal was listed on the 1867 Return of Registered Voters in Banks County, Georgia. I found a man named Thales Neal who was listed in the exact same militia district, and had been living there for the same amount of time.
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The 1860 Slave Schedule showed that he owned about 27 slaves; only a few matching the ages of my ancestors on the 1870 census. When I started researching this family even more closely I found out that Thales’ middle name was Major after his grandfather, and Thales’ father was John Mayfield Neal. They married into families of Crawfords and Littles. I would later discover the custom of taking the mother’s maiden name as the middle name.
In my own family I found similar names of Major, Mayfield and Crawford. I thought they were unusual names and I had not found any other relatives they could have been named after. Aside from being geographically close and having some possible matches in age on slave records, I had no valid source to prove that Thales Neal was the slave owner. However, whenever I found new information on Thales Major or John Mayfield Neal I felt that tingle that meant I was on the right path.
I ran into a few road blocks along the way. I searched everywhere for a will or papers for Thales Neal. He is listed on the Muster-In Roll of the Confederate 4th Cavalry (State Guards) on August 15, 1863. There he participated in Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, and was wounded during the skirmish at Griswoldville in late November 1864. He would succumb to his injuries approximately two weeks later.
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I finally located a will that was probated in February 1865, and in it he states “…I will and bequeath unto my beloved son John Nathaniel F Neal three negroes to wit Lucy Ann and her two children Floyd and Harriet. I will and bequeath to my beloved wife Therisa Neal a negro woman Mary known as the one given her by her father and all her increase…” What happened to the remaining slaves between 1860 and 1863, and why were these two women the only slaves mentioned in the will?
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I went back over the will and re-read the line that says “Mary known as the one given her by her father and all her increase”. Thales’ wife Therisa was given a slave named Mary by her father. Therisa’s maiden name was Holley, and all of a sudden I remember that my great grand aunt Clara Allen’s husband Judge was the son of Floyd Neal and Mary Holley! Could this possibly be the same Mary mentioned in Thales’ will? And could Floyd be the son of Lucy Ann mentioned in the will?
As of this point I cannot find a death date for Floyd or Mary to order death certificates, and when I do I am hoping that they will provide the answers to these questions. In my next post I will search through Freedman’s Bank records, alternate slave owner surnames and connections through death certificates.