Robert A. McInnes 2014-09-29 11:42:33
This research doesn’t concern recent events. The investigation started in 2005, not long after I began working as a manuscripts librarian at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Charlotte. The director of the UNC Charlotte Special Collections, Robin Brabham, handed me a manuscript collection he had accessioned a year earlier. The collection’s materials primarily concerned the Patterson family of northern Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where they had settled in the latter part of the 1700s. What I didn’t know then was that this collection would lead me on a years-long journey that would connect the past with the present. The Patterson Family John Patterson was an immigrant from County Antrim, in the northern part of Ireland, and soon after his arrival in 1789 in the central Piedmont region of North Carolina, he purchased several acres of land and a number of slaves—two important status symbols at that time and place. John had nine children, including a son named William, born in 1806. William married Elizabeth McEwen Potts in 1828. When her father James died, he formally deeded a slave named Joe to the William Patterson family. Joe’s name appeared four times in the manuscript collection, which may seem insignificant, but considering that Joe is part of a disenfranchised population from more than 150 years ago, this is actually substantial. Intrigued, I decided to investigate the life of this man further. I started by scanning each of the documents that bore his name and placed them in chronological order. In doing so, I found that I could—to some extent—document his life. Discovering Joe Joe was first mentioned in 1828 in his master’s will, when he was bequeathed to William and Elizabeth Patterson. Joe’s name next appears in a contract dated November 24, 1853, when he and another slave named Lucy were rented out in order to earn money for their master. The lease contract spelled out in detail the terms of the lease and the clothes that the leaser was to provide for these slaves. Joe’s name is listed on a receipt for the payment of $10 for medical services rendered to him by Dr. G.W. Caldwell. The receipt says “the 25th of 1862,” but does not include the month. The Patterson family papers register Joe’s name for a final time on December 11, 1865, on a document indicating that Joe was not among those freed men who agreed to remain on the Patterson plantation through the fall harvest. After emancipation in the spring of 1865, William Patterson made an offer to his former slaves that if they agreed to stay on the plantation through the fall harvest, he would pay them the standard wage for their work. Though some of these freedmen did stay, Joe decided to leave and relocate elsewhere. Joe may have chosen wisely to leave at that time, since William Patterson began billing the freed men for room and board as long as they remained on the plantation, and some of these freed men and women became indebted to Patterson for those expenses, according to further documentation in the collection. With this information, I compiled a PowerPoint on the life and times of Joe, mixing in a great deal of historical context with Joe’s story. I delivered a presentation to an audience of peers at Atkins Library in 2006. Several asked what happened to Joe following emancipation. Where did he go? And so my investigation continued. Joe’s Descendants Consulting the 1880 census, I found a Joe Patterson who lived in Richmond County, North Carolina (several miles east of Mecklenburg County), and was listed as a mulatto. The census also revealed that he was fifty-nine years old in 1880 (making his birth year 1821), he worked as a farmer, he married a woman named Lucy (remember the slave lease contract in 1853), and had ten children with her. Previous Page: Two documents bearing the name Joe (later Joe Patterson), a slave owned by the Patterson family. Left: The will of James Potts, 1828. Above: Joe Patterson’s emancipation document, 1865. Right: 1880 census record. Courtesy of the Patterson Family Papers, Collection 341, University of North Carolina–Charlotte, Atkins Library, Special Collections. Scans made by the author. Details about Joe’s children were vague. Close examination of the census microfilm showed that the names of some of his children were crossed out—implying that they probably died very young. In an effort to find out more about Joe’s descendants, I followed the few leads provided. One of Joe’s sons was Peter, born in either late 1879 or early 1880. Through more research in US census records, I was able to determine that he lived to adulthood, married a woman named Violet, and moved from Richmond County to neighboring Robeson County. The couple had fifteen children, including one named Frank. Meeting the Pattersons At this point, I was approaching the end of available census records, since the Census Bureau only releases them after seventy years. I relied on the help of a friend, Marilyn Davis of Connecticut, who’s an expert genealogist and member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which has an application process that requires in-depth genealogical research. Davis found key information on Peter Patterson: he was a World War I veteran and his military enlistment and discharge records provided more information on him personally. In 2008, I traveled to Robeson County’s public library. Although there was little information there that I didn’t already know, I did photocopy a page from the local telephone directory listing the Patterson names. I composed a form letter asking for information about Patterson family genealogy and mailed copies to the families listed in the directory. Within a couple weeks, I received a reply from Elaine Patterson-Miller, who mentioned that the Pattersons would be holding a family reunion in Robeson County and encouraged me to come. It was an invitation I could not pass up. On Labor Day of that year, I drove about two and a half hours from Charlotte to Robeson to attend the reunion. Family members emerged from cars parked along a dusty, two-lane country road with green bean casseroles, salads, baked beans, sweet tea, and all the fixings that make for a delicious holiday. Elaine introduced me to several members of her family; with each introduction, I explained who I was, where I was from, what I was doing, and what I hoped to discover. Eventually I sat down with three sisters: Elizabeth, Mae, and Brenda Patterson. This is where it gets a bit tangled. The women shared that there are actually two different African American families named Patterson. To complicate things further, the two families had intermarried. I then pulled out my notes and genealogical tables listing the names of so many Pattersons—Frank and his fourteen siblings—and asked the women if they were familiar with any of the names. “Well, these are our aunts and uncles, and Frank is our father,” the sisters exclaimed. Eureka! After three years of searching, I connected with living descendants of Joe, who was first identified in 1828 when he was a sevenyear- old slave. This was truly an Alex Haley Roots moment! This important information connecting the past with the present was added to my PowerPoint program about Joe. I also recruited some friends and colleagues to read from the Patterson family papers that pertain to Joe. These recordings enhanced the effects of this program. Researching Joe and his descendants— and ultimately meeting members of the Patterson family—brought him to life for me. It was a special moment in my career, reinforcing how vibrant, complex, and illuminating archives can be.
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