Education, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

Signature Saturday, no. 1: Adam Artis’ children.

Adam T. Artis was illiterate. Though a smart and successful man, he executed contracts with a shaky X and probably conducted much of his business on the basis of verbal agreements. Here, his mark on a receipt for goods purchased from him by the Confederate government in 1863:

Adam Artis mark

There’s little evidence to show whether Adam’s wives could read and write, but it seems doubtful that the first three or four could. His granddaughter Pauline Artis Harris told me that education was important to him, however, and he hired a teacher to live on his farm and school his children. His efforts bore fruit. Below, the signatures of eight of Adam’s 26 or so children.

The signature of the oldest son, Cain Artis (1853-1917):

Cain Artis Sig

The signature of Louvicey Artis Aldridge (1865-1927) on the final account of her husband’s estate:

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It is, perhaps not surprisingly, the shakiest of the bunch. Vicey was among Adam’s earlier children and likely came along before her father’s resources allowed for tutors. She was also a girl.

From the World War I draft registration card of Walter Scott Artis (1874-1951):

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From the World War I draft registration card of William Marshall Artis (1875-1945):

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From the World War I draft registration care of Jesse Artis (1878-1922):

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Jesse used the alternate spelling “Artice,” which was rarely adopted by members of this family. Notice that somewhere between William and Jesse’s early schooling, cursive capital A’s shifted in style from a form very similar to a printed “A” to one like an oversized small “a.”

From the World War I draft registration card of Robert Elder Artis (1883-1934):

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From the World War I draft registration of Columbus Estell Artis (1886-1973):

CE ARtis Sig

C.E.’s signature is interesting. This round, upright script, from 1917, is a relatively early version. Later, over the course of the hundreds of death certificates he signed as an undertaker, he developed a bold, right-leaning, immediately identifiable signature characterized by a bold slash through the “r” in Artis:

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From the World War I draft registration card of June Scott Artis (1889-1973):

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Though his letters are well-formed and decisive, the missing “S” in Scott suggests a man who signed his name from memory and did not write much.

From World War I draft registration card of Henry J.B. Artis (1892-1973):

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From the Social Security application of Alphonso Pinkney Artis (1903-1976):

[I’ve got this somewhere. I just need to find it.]

Education, Enslaved People, Land, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Other Documents


My grandmother tells a story:

… Jay and I were supposed to clean the house on Saturday. You know, do the vacuuming and dusting and cleaning and everything. And then I would play, and we would play, and Grandma would say, “I’m gonna tell your mama. I’m gonna write your mama and tell your mama how you act.” She said, “I can’t write her right now ‘cause I’m nervous,’ you know.” Couldn’t write a lick. [I laugh.] Couldn’t read …. I don’t think she could read or write, but I know she couldn’t write. Bless her heart. She says, “I’m gonna tell your mammy on you. You see if I don’t. And, see, if I wont so nervous, I’d write her, but I’m too nervous” – couldn’t write any more than she could fly! [Laughs.]

Martha Miller McNeely, born into slavery in 1855, may not have been able to read or write, but her children signed their names in clear, firm hands that evidence both their early education and their easy familiarity with penmanship. Their father Henry, the literate son of a slaveowner, may have taught them rudiments, but they likely attended one of the small country schools that dotted rural Rowan County. (My grandmother said that her mother Carrie finished seventh grade and was supposed to have gone on to high school at Livingstone College, but the family used her school money to pay for an appendectomy for one of her sisters.) The document below is found in the estate file of Henry’s half-brother, Julius McNeely, who, unlike Henry, was not taught to read during slavery. Julius died without a wife or children, and Henry’s offspring were his sole legal heirs.

Power of attorney

Signatures are often-overlooked scraps of information that yield not only obvious clues about literacy, but also subtleties like depth and quality of education and preferred names, spellings and pronunciations. They are also, in original documents, tangible traces of our forebears’ corporality — evidence that that they were once here.


 Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved. File of Jule McNeely, Rowan County, North Carolina Estate Files 1663-1979, Original, North Carolina State Archives.