QUITE a Surprise

This is my 7th year participating in the A to Z Challenge. In the 2015 challenge, I wrote about the Cleages formerly enslaved on the plantations of Samuel and his sons Alexander and David Cleage of Athens, McMinn County, Tennessee. Most of the people in these posts are not related to me by blood or DNA, however my ancestors were enslaved on the same plantations with them.

Late last year, I ordered the Civil War Pension files of the Cleage men who served in 1st Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery (USCHA), during that war. Through these files I learned that their lives were much richer and more complex than census, death and other records can show. I am using the information from pension files and records that I found through the pension files for this years challenge.

After posting the testimony given by Louis and Alfred Isbell saying they witnessed Susan Rice and Nelson Ragan married, I decided to look them up in the records. And this is what I found.

The plantation of Benjamin Isabel was near to both the plantations of James H. Reagan and William L. Rice in McMinn County. These are the presumed slave holders of Nelson Reagan, Susan Rice and Alfred and Louis Isabel. I have not found records linking them to these slave holders, but the ages on the 1850 and 1860 slave censuses point that way.

Click to enlarge. I was not sure if Nelson Ragan was living on the Reagan or the Rice place. You can look for a young man about 22. I started adding names on the right side of the column, but ended up adding them in the yellow. The column heading says it’s for the name of the slave owner, but if it’s my added typing in yellow, it’s for the enslaved.

Their mother, Milla was born about 1810 in North Carolina. Louis and Alfred were both born in Tennessee in 1831 and 1838 respectively. Alfred Isbell married Leticia Rice in 1850 during slave times. She and her parents had been born in Virginia. Letcia gave birth to 16 children. By 1910, only three were still alive. Louis married Amanda and they had at least one son, John. None of them could read or write.

In 1870 the brother’s, their wives, young children and mother lived next door to each other in McMinn County. Louis owned real estate worth $400 and was a farmer. Alfred was farm labor and had no real estate. Both had personal worth of $200.

By 1880, Louis, Amanda and Milla were gone. John, now 13 was living with his uncle Alfred and was counted as one of their children. Alfred and John were working as laborers. John was able to read and was attending school. Nobody else in the house was literate.

In 1889 Louis was shot to death. Why? By whom? I have been unable to find the answers. Alfred was the administrator of his estate, but I do not know how it was disposed of. In 1900 his widow, Amanda, was an inmate at the McMinn County Infirmary. I do not know what her ailment was. She died befoe 1910.

In 1900, Alfred and his wife and son Henry lived next door to his nephew John and his wife. Both owned their homes. John was a preacher. Alfred was a farmer. Henry worked on the railroad and both wives were not working outside of the home. The younger people were all literate. Alfred and Leticia were not.

In 1910, Alfred, Leticia, son Henry and Henry’s wife Nellie and their son Austin were sharing a house and farming on land owned by Alfred. Like his Uncle Louis, Austin was shot to death. He was 17.

Click to enlarge

Alfred Isbel died at age 79 in McMinn County of Senility and Chronic Nephritis ( kidney failure). He was a farmer and a widower. His son Henry was the informant. He is buried in Hammond’s Cenetery, a black cemetery in Athens, McMinn, TN.

Statewide registration of deaths was not required until 1914. That is why I could not find death certificates for everyone. Sometimes there will be information about burial which can be very helpful in filling in the blanks.


I used censuses from 1860 to 1910, and death certificates for the information in this post. I found the records on Ancestry dot com and find-a-grave.

12 thoughts on “QUITE a Surprise

  1. As always, I am blown away by the depth of your research.

    It wasn’t always a given that families lived together, was it? I remember reading (Roots?) wherein people were always insecure about being sold and separated from their wives/husbands/relatives/friends. But of course that would be before 1865.

    1. Sometimes husbands and wives lived on nearby plantations. I’m not sure how it was with the couples I’ve been describing. Wish their testimonies had been more than basic question and answers!

  2. I like the technique you used to track the slaves. This would also be useful for figuring out families in the census records before 1850.

    1. As long as you have the right families, or in this case right slave holders. Otherwise it’s a big mess with people being counted in the wrong place, and hence not being the people at all.

    1. Especially frustrating when those skeletal testimonies are for my own ancestors. It’s possible some of the other descendants might find me. But even the gaps they can fill in aren’t the same as having testimony from that time in their own voices. I would have liked to hear what my GG grandmother had to tell us about her wedding and her children’s births and just life on the plantation and afterwards. Unless she left a journal and since she couldn’t write, I don’t think that will turn up, there is no other way to do that.

  3. I like the way you’re letting us see some of your sleuthing process here. Boy, is it complicated and painstaking! I suppose with practice you can “read” those death and census records and figure out by what you already know from the census and other data whether certain people are the people you are looking for. To go from those skeletons to fleshing out real people is the even more bewildering magic of what you do.

    1. Yes, I can read most of that handwriting. Some is worse than others and even worse when the copies are bad ones. The censuses have information about how many births and how many children are still alive, what jobs people hold, if they own their home, how much $ there property and personal estate is worth, if they can read and write. Different censuses have different information.

      Finding news items can be very helpful.

      If some other wonderful files turn up, I could find out I didn’t quite get it right after all.

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