Agriculture, Land, North Carolina, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

Maybe he might redeem it.

The fifth in an occasional series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. 

Defendant introduces T.F. Jones, who being duly sworn, testifies:

I had a conversation with Napoleon Hagans about this land, the 30 acre piece. (Plaintiff objects to question and answer.) I got after Uncle ‘Pole to see me the land. I told him if he would give me a deed for both places, the Calv Pig, that is the 24 acre piece, and the Tom Pig place, the 30 acre piece, I would take them. He told me he would sell me the Calv Pig place, but the Tom Pig place he had promised to let Tom stay on that as long as he lived, that maybe he might redeem it. That about ended the conversation with us. I bought some timber off this land from Tom. Off of the 30 acre piece. I suppose Hagans knew about it. (Plaintiff objects.) I couldn’t say that Hagans saw me hauling the timber, I guess he saw me. (Plaintiff objects.) Hagans never made any objection. I had a conversation with Tom about this land along during that time, when Uncle ‘Pole Hagans first got rid of that Calv Pig place, about 15 years ago. I asked him if he wouldn’t sell his part, and what would he ask for it, (Plaintiff objects). He said he didn’t want to sell it, he expected to redeem it sometime. Last Fall I told him if he expected to get that mortgage he had better attend to it. He said he had boys in Norfolk, who would take it up; that he had confidence in Will Hagans. That if his boys let it slip out after he died, they could. (Plaintiff objects.)


Mr. W.J. Exum died about 1885. Tom is known as Pig. I don’t know why he was called Pig. I think they got “Pig” from “Diggs”. Some of his people ‘way back there, were named “Diggs”, and they got to calling it “Pig” for short. I remember when Napoleon Hagans died. I was down the Country. I left here in ’94, and came back in 1900. He died during that time. I got this timber 20 years ago. I was buying all I could, I don’t know how much I got. I got it by the tree. I went in 1881 and milled ’till 1890. Either ’81 or ’82. I bought the timber about that time. I didn’t know that the deed from Mrs. Exum to Hagans was executed before 1892.


Jones’ explanation of Tom Artis’ nickname is unsatisfying. “Pig” from “Diggs”? In fact, Thomas and Calvin Artis took their name from their father, an enslaved man, who was called “Simon Pig.” Artis was the surname of their mother Celia, a free woman of color. Though I have found no other record that he was manumitted prior to Emancipation, Simon Pig Artis is listed as the head of his household in the 1860 census of Davis township, Wayne County. He reported (or was attributed with) $800 of real property and $430 of personal property. The land was almost surely his wife Celia’s; she is one of the earliest free colored property owners appearing in Wayne County deed books.

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Diggs, on the other hand, while a family surname, was that of Frances Artis Diggs, daughter of Tom and Calv’s oldest sister, Eliza Artis. Frances married Wilson (or William) Diggs in 1868 in Wayne County. (Two of Frances and Wilson’s granddaughters, Etta and Minnie Diggs, married a son, William M., and a grandson, Leslie, of Adam T. Artis. As discussed here, Adam and Celia Artis were not meaningfully related.)

Civil War, Enslaved People, Free People of Color

What’s in a name?

When James Barnes’ will was probated in 1848 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, and its provisions carried out, ownership of Howell, an enslaved man, transferred to McKinley Darden. In the 1870 census, Howell Darden, his wife Esther, and their children appear in Black Creek township in Wilson County, North Carolina. Howell had adopted the last name of the family that had owned him most of his adult life. His choice, however, was the not only one available to freedmen. Unbeknownst to slaveowners, many enslaved people claimed surnames even during slavery, though these names were not recognized legally. Some former slaves cemented links to kin by taking the surnames their mothers or fathers used. Others adopted the name of their last master, or reached back to earlier owners, perhaps from their childhood. Still others declined to acknowledge their former bondage altogether, and took names related to a skilled trade, a physical feature, a famous figure, or some other personal idiosyncracy.

Researchers attempting to trace African-American family lines often hit a brick wall at 1870. Having identified an ancestor reported in that census, they invariably ponder the question: how can I find the parents and siblings of this newly freed person? Answering these questions requires flexibility and a willingness to consider indirect sources. Marriage and death records may reveal close familial relationships among people with different surnames. For example, Vicey Artis, a free woman of color, and her enslaved husband Solomon Williams lived separately in the area of northeastern Wayne County and southwestern Greene County, North Carolina. Vicey appears in the 1850 and 1860 censuses with several children named Artis. Vicey and Solomon recorded their cohabitation in 1866, when most of their children were adults. Examination of marriage and death records reveals that some of Vicey and Solomon’s children (who were all free-born) assumed their father’s last name after his emancipation and others (especially the older ones) retained their mothers’. While nothing immediately obvious links Jonah Williams of Wilson and Adam Artis of Nahunta, vital records and other documents establish that they were brothers.

Similarly, upon Emancipation, two of the children of Margaret McConnaughey and Edward Miller, formerly enslaved in Rowan County North Carolina, chose the surname McConnaughey and three, Miller. Margaret and her children had been owned by a McConnaughey. Death certificates, marriage records, and close examination of households in census records provide the clues that establish this family’s connections.

Researchers should also pay attention to groupings of first names.   Like whites during the era, former enslaved people often fortified the ties between generations by naming children after relatives. Thus the recurrence of certain given names among a group of families sharing the same surname could indicate kinship. For example, the fact that Benjamin Barnes’ son Calvin, born about 1836, named two sons Redmond and Andrew could indicate a sibling relationship between Benjamin, Redmond and Andrew Barnes, all born circa 1820 and listed near one another in the 1870 census of Wilson County. That the elder Redmond also had a son named Calvin further supports the possibility. In addition, when comparing documents, keeping an eye out for familiar first names may help identify freedmen who changed their surnames, perhaps rejecting one that had been chosen too hastily or that had not chosen for themselves. For example, the Isom, Guilford, Robert, Jackson, and Lewis Bynum who registered cohabitations in Wilson County in 1866 appear in the 1870 census and after as Isom, Guilford, Robert, Jackson and Lewis Ellis.

Also remember that freedmen who shared a surname and common former owner were not necessarily kin. A grouping of one hundred enslaved people may have comprised a dozen or more — many more — unrelated families. For example, Mack Coley of Wayne County, North Carolina, was the grandson of Winnie Coley and of Sallie Coley Yelverton. Several of Winnie Coley’s children were fathered by Peter Coley. Trying to understand how these Coleys — all of whom appear to have belonged to a single former master — relate to one another (or don’t) is a daunting task.

Civil war pension records are another rich source of evidence about naming choices and family ties. Consider this passage from the Confederate pension application of Jim Ellis Dew of Wilson County, North Carolina:

“It was at the time we were making ‘sorgum’ that I was sent to the war. I belonged to my master Mr. Hickman Ellis who married a Miss Dew. You know missus, the white folks are not as strong as the niggers and Mr. Jonathan Dew, brother to my missus, was not very well, and they let him draw a man to go in his place and they drew me. I was sent to Fort Fisher and went to work throwing up breastworks. … We stayed on the island for while. After a while, I came home. While I was in the war I was known as Jim Dew, but when I came back from the war I was called by my old name “Jim Ellis” because I belonged to my missus.”

Similarly, the file containing the Union Army pension application of Baalam Speight’s widow Hannah Sauls Speight reveals that Baalam had enlisted as Baalam Edwards, his owner’s surname, but later adopted his father’s surname Speight. His brother Lafayette, on the other hand, had kept Edwards as his name. A witness named Lewis Harper testified that he had a brother named Loderick Artis. (Artis, born enslaved, had taken his free father’s surname.)

Though researching enslaved ancestry is almost always difficult, creative consideration of the available evidence often yields surprising rewards. Marriage records for people born into slavery often show surnames for both parents that are different from the child being married. Cross-reference siblings, and you’ll often find a completely different set of surnames. Be careful when trying to match former enslave people to their kinfolk and their masters. Reasons for choosing names were varied and inscrutable, and people tried on different identities for a few years. Empowering for them — maddening for us!

(For a more in-depth analysis of slave naming practices and patterns, see Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made and Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.)