Betsy & John Graham – Autauga County Alabama

This is my 4th year participating in the A-Z Challenge.  I will be writing about people who were born into slavery and were later free.  In a few cases I will be writing about the descendants of enslaved people who were born free.  They are not related to me.

List of enslaved from the estate file of William A. Graham 1860. Click to enlarge.
List of enslaved from the estate file of William A. Graham 1860. Click to enlarge.

Betsey Graham was born into slavery about 1848 in Alabama. In 1860 she is found on the list, shown above, of Judge William Archibald Graham’s slaves. Her husband John is also listed.  The list appears to be arranged in family groups with parents and their children in descending age together.  Betsey’s parents were Manuel and Elsie Graham. John’s mother was Rose.

Judge Graham’s plantation in Autauga County Alabama was a far cry from James Hardage Lane’s farm in Montgomery County Kentucky that I described yesterday.  Judge Graham’s plantation consisted of 300 improved and 700 unimproved acres.  There were 4 horses; 14 asses and mules; 300 swine; 10 milch cows; 4 working oxen and 56 other cattle.  $800 worth of stock was slaughtered. In 1850 the livestock was valued at $4,400. $1,000 in 1850 money equals about $30,000 of buying power today.

Crops included 30 bushels of rye; 4,000 bushels of Indian corn; 50 bushels of oats; 100 bales of ginned cotton weighing 400 lbs per bale; 400 bushels of peas and beans; 10 bushels of Irish potatoes; 400 bushels of sweet potatoes; 300 lbs of butter and 30 tons of hay.

In the 1860 census Judge Graham was a planter with $29,000 worth of real estate and $64,000 worth of personal property (which included slaves).  His 39 slaves lived in six cabins. When his estate was being valued there were 56 slaves on the plantation.  He was married once and had nine children.  All of them were literate.

The first census taken in Alabama after the Civil War was in 1866.  John and Betsy were married with two children under the age of 10. In 1870 they had three children. Martha was the oldest at eight, Alice was five and Richard was three. John worked as a farm laborer and Betsy worked as a domestic servant. They were both illiterate and remained so for the rest of their lives.

In 1880 John was working as a laborer. Betsy was working as a servant. Richard, was the only child still at home. He was 16, attending school and working as a laborer.  He was literate.  I realize that Richard was three only ten years before in the 1870 census.That’s the way it goes.  You have to take the ages in the census with a grain of salt. He was probably 13. His parents had gained 20 years between 1870 and 1880.

In 1900 John and Betsy were no longer living together. John, 55 lived with his mother, Rose in a rented house. He worked as a laborer. Betsy, also listed as 55 and lived with Eliza Graham Fay, one of Judge Graham’s daughters.  Betsy was the cook. She had given birth to three children and two were living. John and Betsy were listed as widow and widower.  It was not uncommon for separated couples to claim their spouse was dead.

In 1900, of the three children, I could only find the daughter Alice who had married to Brag Green, a laborer. They had been married ten years and had two children ages nine and seven who were both attending school.  They rented their house.

In 1910 John was living alone and working as a laborer on a truck farm. John listed himself as single. Betsy was living with the Booth family as cook.  I did not look to see if the Booth family was related to the Grahams. Betsy listed herself as a widow. Daughter Alice was a widow working as a nurse for a private family and living with her 17 year old daughter, Bula in a rented house. Bula was literate, Alice was not.

The last time I found any of the family was in the 1930 census. Betsy 81, was living with her daughter Alice 62 in a rented house worth $1. Neither was working.  The only death record I found was for Alice.  She died in 1932 in Hayneville, Lowndes County Alabama. She had been working as a cook for a private family and was a widow.


I found the information for this post in various census records; death records; marriage records on and Family Search.  The Estate file of William Archibald Graham was on Family Search.

27 thoughts on “Betsy & John Graham – Autauga County Alabama

    1. I was trying to figure out what plantation my Graham ancestors came off of and came across the Estate records for William A. Graham in Autauga County. There were 59 names there to chose from.

      Then I had several online friends who had ancestors who had slaves and neighbors or servants who had been slaves and they had photographs or bills of sale and even a small history that gave some information about their lives in amongst the family history. Researching them I found other links to parents, as in the case of A is for Allen Lane.

      I also have a few ancestors or ancestors of relatives that I have names starting with needed letters, such as Z, that I will be using to fill in the blanks.

      Last year I did Cleages that were not related to me but came off of the Cleage plantations as did my ancestors. It turns out that that was a lot easier both because I had already researched the plantations and the area while researching my ancestors and because Cleage is a unique name and because Tennessee seems to have better online records, like death certificates, than Alabama does and most of this years people are in Alabama.

      I am doing my research and writing as I go, although I did do a bit previous to the start of April. By the end of the month I will fill a part of that group of Cleages and maybe I’ll even figure out if the 20 year old William that came off of that plantation is my grandfather’s father. I wish…

      1. Oh that would be so great. I’ve thought about doing a family tree – apparently I have some Russian in me waaay back. Maybe one day. You inspire me. 🙂

  1. Enjoyed your post and topic. A fellow blogger in my FB group of bloggers has a site of listing blog posts listing slavery names to help fellow researchers. I sent her your site – she’s True Lewis. I know she will love your posts. I look forward to another read.

  2. This couple’s story, as pieced together by census and plantation records, made me feel sad. The end of slavery did not appear to bring many opportunities to them, and their lives felt disjointed–but perhaps that is because of the 10-year gaps between censuses and the shifting ages reported. I’m sure there was much more continuity in reality. Still, John seems to have divorced/separated and lived with his mother, while Betsy was better off working as a cook for the family which had enslaved her. Then Betsy’s daughter appears to have died before her. But John and Betsy both seemed to live quite long lives, so perhaps they were strong and healthy, and the work sustained them.

    1. It did seem dismal. I cheered to myself when I saw the granddaughter was literate. I wish I could have found her in another census to see what became of her.

  3. Isn’t it interesting how easy people can be to find in once census then completely elusive in another…not to mention those variable ages?!

    I suppose given the challenges of their early lives it’s not surprising that marriages didn’t always work out. I wonder what happened with Betsy’s death registration.

    1. The death registration just might not be digitalized. Or the name could be wrong. Given their lack of education, money, land, skills and opportunities it’s a wonder they made it at all. And yet, even for those with all those advantages, marriages and lives still sometimes don’t work out.

      The censuses are great, but have to be taken with a grain of salt too. I have found people who weren’t indexed by going page by page. On the other hand, I have gone page by page for 100 pages and STILL not found them. Once it turned out the enumerator didn’t go down that block. For several censuses. That’s when it’s great to find them in a directory.

  4. I look forward to reading your posts as usual and hope that they can assist me with future research. DNA testing has revealed that I have African ancestry. It fits that it is from my ‘mystery’ ancestor, who came from America on a whaling boat in 1851 (left Nantucket 1837).

    1. Did you write about that ancestor before and share a photograph of one of the beautiful daughters and I wondered if she didn’t have some ancestory of color? The mysteries of DNA 🙂

  5. You are doing a great job and I am enjoying reading their stories…It is sad that they had so few opportunities but I do admire them, they worked so hard with the little they had. I don’t see how anyone could consider them lazy…It was common for my folks to tell the enumerator their spouse was dead when he/she was well and alive. I guess it was their way of saying the relationship was over/dead.

    1. They did work hard and they lived and raised families. Missing when you only have the records is information like, did they go to church? Did they have good friends who they shared troubles and laughter with? Did they have a garden and raise chickens? What did they cook for dinner? What did they cook for a celebration?

      When I started out, I believed those people were dead until I would find them with their parents or with another family right around the corner or back in the home town.

  6. Hi there!

    I’m stopping by from the #AtoZChallenge. I found your letter a & B posts fascinating and signed up to receive more. The Civil War & pre-war era interest me because I can not fathom nor comprehend the notion of slavery so I continue to read all I can about that time…trying to decipher what could make one human being think they could truly “own” another one? Love these posts!

    I have two blogs in this challenge…my author blog at THE STORY CATCHER ( and my KICKS Kids Club blog ( . If you get a chance, check them out and good luck with the challenge!

    Donna L Martin

  7. What an interesting theme! Thanks for stopping by my blog. Wishing you well as your write your way through the alphabet!

  8. You did an amazing job of telling the story of this family via the census and other records. I’m in awe of how many hints these sparse records provide about what their lives were like.

  9. I read somewhere that the “widow/widower” designation was often used to mean “divorced” without the implication that a spouse was dead. In some areas, people used the term “grass widow” to indicate a spouse was just gone – could be divorced, but could also be that the spouse worked away from home in another town.

    1. The $1 was the amount of rent they paid. It must have been pretty basic – no running water, inside plumbing, electricity etc.

  10. I don’t know why, I find it fascinating that the status and age of people could change so widely over time. Like those things were liquind, not factual. It tells of such a different life.

    1. The information that appears on the census and death records is given by someone besides the person themself and is often a guess. Sometimes it’s a neighbor or child or, in the case above, could be someone who doesn’t actually know how old they are. Women, especially (I hate to say) tend to age less and less as the census records go on. I usually suppose that the earliest census record shows the closest to real age because someone probably knew how old that little kid was.

      People’s work would still show a change in most cases today from decade to decade.

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