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The power of internet search engines

On Tuesday I attained an exciting research goal at two major libraries and archives at Richmond, Virginia. My quest was to find the birth family of Fannie White in slavery in Virginia. In 1882 Fannie White posted this ad in the national newspaper of the A.M.E. Church:

The Christian Recorder,
October 19, 1882

INFORMATION WANTED OF MY RELATIVES who at one time lived in Camel County, VA. Their names were at that time Ben and Elijah Nowland; my sister's name was Palsie Nowland, Father and Mother's names were Ben and Silvey Nowland. We belonged to a man by the name of Briant Nowland, and at his death I fell to his brother a speculator and was brought to Georgia and sold. Any information will be gladly received by Fanny Now[l]and then, but now Fanny White. The Rock Upson Co., GA.

After I returned home I reflected on the research strategy that had led to my success. Although I have access to and HeritageQuest, my most powerful and effective tool had been Google. I am not touting Google over other search engines; probably any good one would get similar results. The internet search engine pointed to the place where I could find my answers. I would not have been in Richmond on Tuesday, with the answers in my hands, had I focused only on genealogy pay-sites.

My initial assumption was that "Camel County" was actually Campbell County, so that was the geographic center of my search, which turned out to be correct.

The usual genealogy pay-sites did not locate exact matches for any "Briant Nowland" but using the "inexact name" feature I found several Bryan or Bryant Nowlins in the 1850 and 1860 census who were either too young or lived too far away. However, there was one who died before 1850 in Campbell, and another who died in neighboring Appomattox County in 1860. These two men were my primary suspects and both were slaveholders.

My next step was to Google the internet for family connections of "Bryan Nowlin" and "Bryant Nowlin" in Campbell County. I found several genealogy posts and blogs, but the writers seemed very uncertain about the exact names and relationships of their ancestors.

Fannie White's ad said her owner's brother was a "speculator" (= slave trader), but I did not know his name so I Googled "Nowlin" and "slave trader" together and scrolled through all the pages of returns. Lo and Behold, a 2002 query at RootsWeb asked for information about two alleged Pittsburg County brothers named Bryan Hopkins Nowlin and Matthew Bates Nowlin. According to the post, "Hopkins was a traveling slave trader." The location seemed wrong but the names and slave trading connection held my attention.

I revised my search to look for the combination "Hopkins Nowlin" and "slave trader". The top return led me to the online catalog of the Virginia Historical Society:
"Nowlin, Matthew Bates (1792–1856), papers, 1796–1886 (bulk 1837–1856). 322 items. Mss1N8675a.
Chiefly letters written to Matthew Bates Nowlin of Brookneal, Campbell County, by his brother, Hopkins Nowlin (1795?–1857) of Franklin County, while the latter was traveling in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama buying and selling slaves. The letters . . . discuss travel arrangements, sales made, and methods of payment."

Hopkins Nowlin had to be my guy, especially since a family genealogy web post (not citing any source or proof) stated that Hopkins Nowlin had brothers named Bryan Ward Nowlin and Matthew Bates Nowlin.

Now I would be looking for the estate record of the alleged brother "Bryan Ward Nowlin" but I did not know when he had died.

I took a day-trip to Richmond to read the Matthew Bates Nowlin papers, hoping for information about when brother Bryan had died, and records of Hopkins' acquisition of Fannie and her subsequent sale in Georgia. The collection came out to the reading room in two boxes. Besides a large set of business records detailing many of Hopkins Nowlin's purchases and sales of slaves on behalf of himself and his partners, there were fascinating letters Hopkins had sent to his brother from towns along his trading routes.

The first relevant document I found was an account of the sale of tobacco and wheat from the "B W Nowlin estate" in 1848. This gave me a no-later-than year for the death of Fannie's former slave owner.

The next relevant document was a letter from Hopkins Nowlin to brother Matthew, written at Chesterfield, SC, dated 15 April 1849, reporting that he had sold 9 of his Negroes, listing the ones that remained: "I have on hand Fany the 2 Girls I Bout of Wade the Boy I Bout of Hart Caly and the Girl I Bout of Weatherford." That letter was the only mention of Fannie in the collection because the preserved records of Hopkins' slave trading were patchy.

Dashing off to the other end of Broad Street to the Library of Virginia, I arrived an hour and a half before they closed. With help from the pleasant and efficient staff I was soon seated at a microfilm reader-printer, scrolling through Campbell County Will Book 10. Soon I found Bryan W. Nowlin's estate appraisement of 22 November 1847, listing Fanny $400, her mother "Silvey & Child (Patsey) $350", her probable father "Big Ben $600", "Ben Codger $450" and Elijah $450 among the 65 slaves in the estate -- all the people named in Fannie White's newspaper ad.

The clincher came fifty pages later in the book, recording the division of Negroes among the heirs in October 1848: Hopkins Nowland's share included Fanny, but none of the other members of her family she had named. I finished downloading the image to my thumb-drive the very minute the staff began closing the Library. Whew!

Bottom line 1: I might never have found the leads to the Nowlin manuscript collection at the Virginia Historical Society if I had not aggressively used Google to narrow the possible family connections and to find the online archive catalog.

Bottom line 2: None of the documents where I found my answers were on the internet. One was a manuscript collection, searched via its online catalog; the other was old-fashioned microfilm.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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