Saturday, December 1, 2012

Priscilla Dowell's Former Slaves Become Citizens

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the close interaction between the European-American family of Priscilla Dowell and the descendants of African Americans who were enslaved by her at the beginning of the Civil War. Priscilla was my first cousin—five times removed. Previous posts during November may be viewed by clicking on these links:

I have yet to see documentation about what happened to Priscilla Dowell’s two one-time slaves Henderson and Payton immediately after she died. They would have been about 21 and 19 at the time her estate was probated in early 1863. Were they purchased by James GWYN/GUYN as was suggested as a possibility by Priscilla in her 1859 will? Circumstantial evidence suggests that might have been the case. Seven years later Henderson was enumerated as a “day laborer” living on one side of James Gwyn and Payton was listed as a “tenant” living on the other side in the 1870 US Census:

Remarkably all three gentlemen were listed as “Male citizens of the U. S. 21 years of age and upwards.” No one in their neighborhood was listed as being a “Male Citizen of U.S. of 21 years of age and upward whose rights to vote is denied on other grounds than rebellion or other crime.”

While the FamilySearch Wiki claims that “Only 15% of freed slaves used the family name of the former owner”, the former slaves in this corner of Wilkes County seemed to buck the trend. Henderson and Payton took the name “Dowel” in the 1870 census and “Dowell” in the 1880 census. This ambivalence about the correct number of “l”s at the end of this surname was common in records about the Whites of that name as well as the Blacks. Since oral communication was much more important than written, it seemed to depend on which record keeper wrote it down.

Literacy was becoming more wide spread, but it still had a long way to go to become universal. Henderson, Payton and their spouses were listed as not being able to read or write. All the adult members of the James Gwyn family were listed as being able to read and write. Could this be because the school teacher was boarding with them? I guess it could have been the other way around. Priscilla Dowell’s grand-niece Harriet Rogers, who at age 12 in 1860 was listed as attending school, was listed in 1870 as being able to read but not write. Her parents could neither read nor write.

Both Henderson’s bride Nancy (Hickerson) and Payton’s wife Malissa (Gwyn) also shared surnames with local White families. This may have indicated that for a combination of reasons slave owners and those who had been enslaved had more personal relations than in other parts of the South where plantation owners owned larger numbers of slaves.

Five years after the war, two of Priscilla’s five former slaves can be accounted for. But what about the other three? It would appear that the “Negro Girl by the name of Juda” who Priscilla inherited from her father in his 1823 will was the “Jude” aged 46 in Priscilla’s will and in the 1860 Slave Census. If that latter age is correct, “Juda” would have been about 9 years old at the time she was given to Priscilla. Could she have been the mother of Henderson, Payton, Eloisa and Jo? If so did Priscilla come to own them as “the Heirs of Juda’s Body” as stated in her father’s will? Family tradition says that Henderson and Payton were brothers. They both have descendants who can be traced down to the present. Were they full brothers or half-brothers? Were Eloisa and Jo also their siblings? Has anyone seen evidence as to what happened to Jude, Eloisa or Jo after the Civil War?

To be continued.


  1. The 1880 Census has a Juda Martin age 80 with a Joe Martin 22. It is my opinion that Juda went to live with the Martin family after Priscilla died. Although Juda's age is 10 or more years off, Joe's age is right in line with the 1860 Census.

  2. Thanks Judy,

    Additions and corrections are always most welcome. That's one of the main ways I learn new things.

  3. I do believe "Juda" is the same person, and she is the mother of the children. Payton named one of his daughters "Judea Adeline" born 1864 died 1916 (and wouldn't you know, she married a Martin).
    I think in the 1880 census the age doesn't match up because Juda couldn't read or write.