January 09, 2009

Well, If It's In Print, It Must Be True

Or not.

To begin at a convenient point, namely the beginning, I'm related to a big chunk of everyone else here in central Alabama with the same last name as me through an early-19th Century immigrant to Bibb County named Sabert Oglesby, who was my great-great-great-(whew)-grandfather.

As most of you know, I've always been an avid history buff, and have a pretty decent handle on our family history, or at least I thought I did, until I heard from one of those many cousins of mine.

But more about that in a bit.

In any event, the original, proto-Sabert was born in Scotland sometime around 1740 and came to South Carolina with a couple of other brothers before the Revolutionary War, which he fought in (on the winning side). In 1790 he married a young lass named Phoebe Lindsay (who was 30 years his junior) with whom he set up housekeeping on land belonging to her father, and then went about farming and having at least nine children.

Industrious sorts, they.

Sometime around 1820, the whole family along with the family of his brother John packed up wagons with their belongings and began a trek that would end up near Green Pond in Bibb County, where they unloaded their baggage and their multitudes of children, all of whom soon enough grew up and began having children of their own, leading all the way to me.

I've been the beneficiary of many relatives who have taken the time over the past decades to compile not only this short biographical sketch, but numerous other stories and photos and newspaper clippings and lists of sons and daughters and such, all which came to me in a big loose-leaf binder that I've had now for over twenty years.

Then came the Internet, and I've had the chance to correspond with hosts of other unknown relatives, each time learning a bit more about our family. It's been quite a boon as a way of collecting and swapping genealogical information, although as I recently found out, just as easy for incorrect information to get out as it is for facts.

A couple of weeks ago one of those many relatives, Cousin Ken, ran across a blog post I’d done several years back about the aforementioned Sabert, and Ken was kind enough to drop me a note and let me know he'd read it and enjoyed it, and that he’d mentioned it to Cousin Charles, who was also kind enough to write a note.

Well, after being instantly reunited with a relatives I've never met, we all exchanged e-mails back and forth about Grampa Sabert and all the various blind alleys and wild geese that come with exploring your family history, until something was brought to my attention that was completely opposite of all that family history I'd read and heard about over the years.

In our conversations, it was brought to my attention that a local history website has cataloged in their master list of Bibb County cemeteries that a cemetery of unmarked graves on Tannehill State Park property is called Oglesby Plantation Cemetery, and that it holds the remains of 400 slaves of one Sabert Oglesby.

Talk about a surprise!

From what I knew of our history, Sabert the II, who was Original Sabert’s son born in 1809, was a Presbyterian minister in Green Pond, and later had two other sons, Sabert (that would be the third one) and Samuel, both of whom were also Presbyterian ministers, and I remember my grandfather (who was Sabert the III’s son and Sabert II’s grandson) often mentioning that the family had never been slaveholders because it was against their religious upbringing. Of all that collected information in my three-ring binder, nothing ever pointed to anything to do with slaves–none of the scrawled notes copied from ancient family Bibles, no carefully transcribed Census records–nothing. Of course, that doesn’t mean it was impossible, but only that it seemed quite implausible

Ken said he’d tried to get the web information corrected, but the site owner noted that the information was from the Historical Atlas of Alabama, and that all the information in it was the result of research done by professors from the University of Alabama. Cousins Ken and Charles were obviously frustrated by the inability to get at least some sort of explanation or changes made to the website.

And thus begins an even more convoluted tale, as I agreed to do some additional research to find out where the Atlas information had come from and see if maybe if I was going to have to add some more pages to that three-ring binder of mine.

First stop, I found a copy of the Atlas in my local library, and sure enough, plain as day, there’s an entry on the Oglesby Cemetery–except it gave the owner of the land specifically as Sabert II, and the footnote said the information came from the book Place Names of Bibb County, written by a noted Huntington College professor and printed in 1993.

Okay, so where did THAT author get her information? Cousin Charles, it turns out, had been a friend of the author when she was alive and knew the source of her information–a quarterly newsletter published by the Park in 1991. And that information in the brochure came from a local amateur historian Charles knew, also since deceased.

Seems it was going to be very difficult to get any easy correction, since the chain of information in all the published accounts was dropping link-by-link into the grave.

But I still had some cause for hope, because in all of these conversations with my cousins, I found out they in turn had had conversations with others involved in the creation and management of the park at Tannehill. Based on what they’d been told, not only the name associated with the cemetery but also the number of graves and who was buried there was less the result of actual archeological and primary source research than it was conjecture. And “conjecture” is being charitable.

From what I knew, 19th Century Oglesby land holdings among all the descendents in the county were relatively small–the idea that one of the relatives had at one time held over 400 slaves seemed to strain common sense. If these were the dead slaves, the live population necessary to support a dead population of 400 would have been enormous. Obviously, not an impossibility, but still improbable.

And how were all those graves identified as slave graves if they were unmarked? If they were unmarked, they could as easily held the remains of anyone too poor to afford a marker, not just slaves. And at least some of those graves could have been marked at one time, with the markers being moved or disturbed sometime in the intervening 140 years since the end of the Civil War.

In any event, it was time to do more research and try to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Next stop, the Linn-Henley research library in downtown Birmingham, where there is about half a yard of Bibb County related documents–Census books, histories, court records, marriage and death information, and what turned out to be the most valuable, a handy listing of early Bibb County homesteads, cross-referenced with land patents granted in the County, including the date when each was granted.

Land patents are the way the United States would sell or grant Federal land to property owners, and they are a good starting point in many cases to find out who was the initial owner of a particular piece of property. Even better, many state land patents are accessible online, but I didn't know that at the time, so I set about looking through the whole stack of books and making copies of maps and lists, and found some interesting things.

First thing, the land containing the graves, a forty acre tract on the Bibb-Jefferson county line on Roupes Creek was first patented in the year 1858, and not to Sabert the I or the II, but to a George Oglesberry.

(As an aside, the Oglesby name has several variant spellings over the years, even in the previously mentioned copies from the family Bible, and I have seen it spelled as Ogilbie, Oglesbee, Oglesberry, Ogelsbe, and Ogilvie. Sort of like the mail that comes to my house. Same thing with the name Sabert–I’ve seen Seabert, Sayburt, Sabret, Sabard–and as best as we can tell, they are generally talking about the same person. Spelling was much less precise in the past and education less formal, and people tended to rely on phonetics. Also, when I refer to Sabert II or III or any other number, that is my method of placeholding--none of Sabert's descendents troubled themselves with such things. Which tends to make for more confusion.)

But back to the story–who was George Oglesb(err)y!?

Not having much other information to go on, the most obvious George would be the four-year-older brother of Sabert II. In addition to the plot of land the cemetery is located in, he was also granted patents to an additional 80 acres across the county line, a total of 120 acres, all abutting much larger parcels of land belonging to Moses Stroup and Ninian Tannehill, partners in beginning the commercial furnace works at Tannehill. Park historians note that large-scale furnace operations did not begin until around 1859, which would agree with when most of the land was initially sold by the United States.

So the land initially belonged to George, probably the same George who was brother of Sabert II, and although it’s possible it could have been sold to Sabert sometime between 1858 and 1865, none of my digging and looking has produced any legal records that would indicate such a sale.

Next stop, the Census records for 1860, which showed Sabert II living in the Green Pond vicinity with his wife and their nine children, with a real and personal property value that was modest, and certainly not the wealth one would indicate vast slaveholdings. In addition, no slaves were listed in the household.

These pieces of information in and of themselves should be enough to at least warrant some caution in assigning ownership of the land, and they also point out some more inconsistencies in the description of the site.

Since we know that the land was not transferred from the government until 1858, that means that there was only a seven year time span–to the end of the Civil War (or at least until Wilson’s Raid) when slaves would have been buried there. If the number of 400 graves seems overly large, consider if that amount of slaves died in only a seven year span! Something didn’t add up.

That’s where Cousin Charles comes back into the conversation, and after I’d mentioned to him what all I’d found out, he recounted a recent conversation with one of the people associated with the administration of the park. It seems that when the park published that quarterly newsletter back in 1991, somehow what was accepted as the possible total number of workers at the furnaces–400–got transferred to how many gravesites there were. And no one knew how Sabert’s name became associated with it, aside from the (now dead) writer of the article.

Recent archeological research conducted by Dr. Jack Bergstresser has uncovered approximately 15 houses that were where slave workers had lived, and that the furnace’s owner, Ninian Tannehill, had brought possibly 60 of his own slaves to the furnace as part of its initial work force.

So what does all this mean?

Well, to me a few things are clear–there are some unmarked graves on the Tannehill Park property, on land that was sold to George Oglesby (Oglesberry) in 1858. In 1991, a mistake was made by the author of a newsletter article in assigning the number of graves at the site when, in fact, no one had actually counted the gravesites, and no one had excavated them to determine exactly who could be buried in them. Although archaeologists have determined that slaves were part of the work force at the furnaces, Tannehill is the only owner definitely identified by name as supplying slaves to the work. Other slave owners obviously did, but there is no primary source information that has come to light to date that indicates that Sabert Oglesby II was a slave owner, nor that the land in question was ever his, and the only known source for this misidentification was also the source of the wrongly attributed number of graves on the property.

Could I be wrong about all this? Of course!

But the way historical research works is that you have to rely upon what is known, and work toward what is unknown. Conjecture is valid only so far as when it doesn’t contradict facts, and when it is necessary to supply an educated guess, it should be noted as such.

It may very well be I am completely wrong, but the things I know right now point to a different conclusion, and one I’m not willing to set aside without better evidence than I’ve seen so far.

And what do I hope to gain from all this research? Nothing more than to ask that more research be done by those associated with the Park, and to respectfully dispute a notion that seems to have sprung up many years ago from nothing more than the imagination of one poorly informed person and has continued to be passed along as established fact.

In the interest of scholarship and truth, especially in a time when it has become so very easy for misinformation to spread quickly and perniciously around the world in seconds, it is important that we are diligent in making sure the record of our past is as accurate as possible.

UPDATE 1-10-09--Results! A few days ago, before I posted the above, I'd sent a recap of the information in an email to the Bibb County website administrator, and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank her very much for taking the time to post all of the information as a separate page that will be linked back to the cemetery list. It's a welcome first step in setting the record straight!

Posted by Terry Oglesby at 03:00 PM | Comments (15)

January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

Today's dinner menu:

Pork shoulder roast, a mess of greens and black eyed peas, cornbread. It doesn't get much better than that, folks.

Hope you all have a wonderful day and a similarly wonderful year.

Posted by Terry Oglesby at 12:31 PM | Comments (17)