AfriGeneas States Research Forum
[TX] Slaves in Guadeloupe County
Researcher delves into county slave records
By Ron Maloney
Published June 7, 2009
SEGUIN — Mark Gretchen has spent years researching the early life and times of Seguin Negro League baseball player, “Smokey” Joe Williams, who like many local residents of African American descent, is descended from Guadalupe County’s slave population, which at one point made up more than 30 percent of county residents.
Gretchen was looking for information on the ballplayer’s grandmother, Fanny Elam, who lived here as a slave and later, after she was emancipated, as the wife of Calvin Williams.
“I’ve been involved with researching “Smokey” Joe Williams for over 10 years, now, I guess, and that’s when I really started doing genealogies of African Americans,” Gretchen said.
Calvin Williams was a slave in Virginia, Gretchen said, who was freed during the Civil War when Richmond fell, and joined the Union Army.
After the war, he became a Buffalo Soldier, and ended up in Seguin.
Gretchen never found much information of Elam, but when researching records on his own home here in Seguin, Gretchen found several county record abstracts that referred to the word “slaves.”
While excited to at last have a potential lead on Elam, Gretchen realized the implications of finding government records that chronicled the lives of slaves went far beyond his research on “Smokey Joe.”
“In looking for Fanny, I kept running across these deed records, and I thought, ‘Surely, someone has compiled this already,’” Gretchen said. As it turned out, they had not, and a project Seguin’s former library director thought he could accomplish in a few weeks, turned into a year’s worth of work.
The problem, Gretchen writes in the preface to his new book, “Slave Transactions of Guadalupe County, Texas,” was a daunting one.
“How do you learn about a slave — someone whose imprint on life was so restricted that even their name was excluded from most official registers, such as census records and tax rolls?”
It’s a problem for nearly everybody who researches African American genealogy, and Gretchen set out in the county courthouse to document as fully as possible the names of those who lived here and worked as slaves prior to emancipation, and tell bits of their stories as he learned them.
The 342-page volume that includes historic illustrations is divided into chapters that list tables and sometimes includes photos of the documents the researcher found interspersed with notes that tell the stories of some.
Chapters cover the names of those who owned slaves, lists of slave purchase transactions, slave mortgage transactions, slave registers, slave agents and probate and criminal transactions involving slaves.
Much of the county, Gretchen writes in his introduction, was built by slave labor, which contributed greatly to this county’s early economic development.
“They built roads, grew crops, operated ferries, drove cattle and constructed the finest homes and businesses,” he wrote.
While the accomplishments of Seguin’s early slave owners are well-documented in history, the names of the slaves who supported them are mostly forgotten. Gretchen’s book chronicles the names of about 1,500 of them.
“There are some fascinating people in there, and some great stories,” he said. “There are lots of really prominent Texans in there.”
There are lots of not-so-prominent people in there as well, and they also had great stories, Gretchen said.
The chapter on criminal cases lists the story of a slave named Jack, who found his wife in a barn with another man, was convicted for killing her with an axe on Jan. 2, 1860 but could not testify in his own defense because slaves were not permitted to offer testimony, and was hanged along the Guadalupe — in front of a crowd of 1,500 concerned citizens.
“There were criminal prosecutions of slaves that turned out better than that,” Gretchen said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see slaves who were indicted for attempted murder and eventually found not guilty.”
It was a good thing because Texas laws of the day allowed only two penalties for slaves convicted of serious crimes — whipping or hanging.
Another unfortunate aspect of Texas law for people of color was that during those days, a freed African American could not live in Texas — one had to either be enslaved or leave the state.
One black family, he said, had to petition the court to enslave it — so they could remain here.
“Slavery wasn’t just about ownership,” Gretchen said. “It was an institution that was heavily ingrained in the culture and the economy.”
Gretchen said he’s finding a lot of local interest — not just among descendants of slaves but among the descendants of their owners, as well.
He hopes to follow “Slave Transactions” with another volume that tells some of the more interesting stories in greater detail, and Gretchen says he would like to hear from anyone who has any stories, information or documentation. He’s also compiling records and stories of freed slaves of Guadalupe County, he said.
“Before we forget, let’s find out their names and tell their stories before it’s too late,” Gretchen said. “That was really the impetus for this book. I was interested in seeking how soon after emancipation that people got married, owned businesses, participated in court proceedings and that sort of thing, and I’m compiling stories of slaves of Guadalupe County I also hope to present. I would welcome any information that comes forward.”
Gretchen can be reached by e-mail at markgretchen(at)satx.rr.com or by telephone at 303-3781.