An AfriGeneas Library Article. May not be reproduced without permission. 


A Brief History of Jefferson and Amanda Cary

By David E. Paterson



Neither Jefferson nor Amanda Cary are mentioned in the standard reference work for early Upson County history, Nottingham and Hannah's History of Upson County, Georgia (pub. 1930).  Before moving away to Atlanta, Jeff Cary lived in Upson 43 years as a slave, then played a brief part in local Reconstruction history as chairman of the county's Equal Rights Association.  Amanda experienced the vagaries of slavery for 40 years before accompanying her husband into freedom.  Although they held only modest places in Upson's public life, they were not insignificant.  The story of Jefferson and Amanda Cary describes some of the ordeals faced by slaves who tried to build and preserve their family life in the face of arbitrary dominion and involuntary separation.  It is also a story with a happy ending after emancipation, when the Cary family was free to exert greater control over their own lives.  I offer this brief biographic sketch of Jefferson and Amanda Cary as a demonstration that useful stories about the experiences of local and obscure persons can be written by exploring and collating evidence from all types of surviving records.


Jefferson Cary was a slave of John J. Cary (son of the colorful Georgia politician George Cary who had moved from Columbia County to backwoods Upson County about 1827).[1]  John J. Cary was raised in Thomaston, but moved his family to Macon sometime in the late 1840s where he followed in his father’s footsteps by practiced law.  With the possible exception of personal servants at his Macon house, his slaves remained in Thomaston, hired out to various local white persons on an annual basis.  John J.'s prodigal lifestyle—keeping up a lavish establishment in Macon to entertain political friends—put him deeply into debt.  His indebtedness hung like an ominous cloud over the domestic tranquility of his slaves, who spent over 11 years (1847-1858) under the threat of sale and family disruption.  While John J. Cary and his wife Frances made every attempt to avoid the personal disgrace of having their slaves seized and sold by the sheriff, they, nevertheless, sometimes chose to sell individuals to preserve their tenuous financial solvency.


The slave Jefferson was born about 1822, the eldest surviving child of John J. Cary's slave Ellen, sometimes called Ellenor or Ellender.  Ellen Cary, described as "copper color," had been born approximately 1807.  While a teenager, she had two boy children—Jeff and his younger brother Jim, born about 1824.[2]  Records do not identify the boys' father.  It was seven years from the birth of Jim before she had her next and last child.  This gap suggests that during those seven years, the man in her life may have died or may have been sold away—or they may have separated by mutual consent.  Probably about 1830, after the Cary slaves had been moved to Upson County, Ellen married Guilford Speer, slave of local merchant and farmer James Spier.  Guilford was the father of Ellen's last child, Susan (Jefferson and Jim's half-sister) born about 1831.[3]  Ellen probably died before the end of the Civil War, perhaps in 1863-4.[4]


Jeff Cary grew up and worked in the environs of Thomaston, a village whose population hovered somewhere between 400 and 500 persons before the Civil War.[5]  Downtown city businesses and residences were intermingled with fields and farms.  In any direction from the courthouse, town streets quickly, but with no perceptible demarcation, became country roads.  Large plantations operated on the outskirts of town, while wealthy slave-owning merchants and farmers lived in houses near the town square, and scores of hired slaves served the local businesses as stableboys, depot hands, laborers and tradesmen, and served the white families as domestic servants.  Jefferson's slave step-father, Guilford Speer, even operated a harness and shoe shop downtown in his own name.  In this semi-urban milieu, the slaves socialized fairly freely, and the slaves of prominent white families intermarried as much as did their young masters and mistresses.


Amanda Beall was another young resident of Thomaston, slave of the highly-successful town merchant, Alpheus Beall.  She had joined Bethesda Baptist Church as a teenager during a protracted night meeting in the summer of 1843.  Camp meetings and revivals were social events for all persons, free or slave, and it is tempting to wonder whether it was at this or a similar gathering that Amanda met her future husband.  In any case, Jeff Cary married Amanda, who was three years his junior.  Their first child was Ellen (her paternal grandmother's namesake), born about 1845.  The little family grew with the birth of son, Peter, about 1847.[6]


Jefferson and Amanda, being owned by separate masters, ran a double risk of having their family disrupted by an owner's death or financial failure.  Indeed, it was not long before such anxieties became an imminent threat to them.  On July 8, 1848, Amanda's owner, Alpheus Beall died without leaving a will.[7]  Within months, his estate was entered into probate.  The first step in probate was an inventory of the property, in which Amanda was listed with the women, while Ellen and Peter were listed among the estate's nineteen slave children.  The inventory deliberately avoided listing the slaves as families because Georgia law required all administrators to sell estate property "in such manner and quantity as shall be deemed most advantageous to said estate."[8]  Slaves sold as families generally brought lower prices than the same people sold individually, so it would have been illegal for an administrator to jeopardize the heirs' financial interests by allowing sentimentality toward slave families to affect sales or the distribution of shares. Between 1848 and 1853, Amanda and the other Beall slaves were hired on an annual basis.  The estate lingered so long in dispute because widow Mary C. Beall refused to share the property with two sons whom Alpheus Beall had fathered out of wedlock (he had legitimized them by a private act of the Georgia legislature).[9]  The records do not state to whom the slaves were hired, but it is likely that Amanda and her children were hired close to home, perhaps even by Alpheus Beall's widow.  In 1849, Amanda "was taken sick in May and nursing exhausted her hire"—in other words, the estate made no money from her that year due to illness.  The sickness may have been related to childbirth, because in 1849 Jefferson's and Amanda's third child, Jeff (junior), was born.[10]  Perhaps complications from this illness were the reason that Jefferson and Amanda had no more children after Jeff.


Next, John J. Cary's indebtedness threatened Jefferson and Amanda's family.  Early in 1848, Cary had placed all his slaves in a trust in his wife's name in an attempt to shield them from his creditors, but during 1853, the trust was forced to raise money by the sale of a slave.  Perhaps Jefferson was selected because a prospective buyer had already shown interest; or perhaps he was the most expendable of Cary's men; nevertheless, it is consistent with what we know of John J. Cary that he would seek a local sale to preserve his slave's family—possibly he even asked Jefferson to help solicit a likely purchaser.  Plantation owner William Lowe bought Jefferson for $1,100.[11]  Jeff probably worked as a field hand on Lowe's land on the outskirts of Thomaston.  From there, he would still have been within easy walking distance of Amanda's house.


No sooner did it seem that Jeff's and Amanda's family was safe from John J. Cary's financial problems, than the dispute over the Beall estate was finally settled by arbitration, and the estate was divided into three parts.  The record of arbitration shows that the two local lawyers tasked with making an "equitable distribution" of Alpheus Beall's slaves were fully aware of the several slave families they were affecting, even though the process of division could not legally recognize them.  Mothers and their young children were kept together for practical reasons, but teenagers were distributed according to their appraised value, regardless of family, to make the three shares equal.  Fortunately for Amanda, her eldest child (Ellen) was only eight years old, so all three children were kept together with her.[12]


On 28 December 1853 fifteen slaves, including Mary, Ellen, Peter and Jeff (jr.) were allotted to Alpheus' widow, Mary.[13]  Although the widow had meantime remarried to William J. Stallings of Talbot County, she had executed a prenuptial agreement allowing her to retain ownership and control of her separate property.[14]  It is unknown whether Amanda and her children were moved to Talbot County, or whether they continued to be hired out in the vicinity of Thomaston.


Within a year, however, Mary Stallings was dying.  In her will, not long before her death in the autumn of 1854, she wrote, "I prefer that my Negro women Amanda & Martha be sold so as to be convenient to their respective husbands, but I do not intend hereby to require my said Executor to sell them or either of them, I leave it to his sound discretion to act as he chooses."  Her estate was inventoried and appraised on October 7, 1854, Amanda being valued at $800, Ellen at $500, and Peter and young Jeff at $450 each.  As before, no kinship was indicated on the inventory list.  The estate's executor, Hudson Whitaker, lived in Upson County, but other heirs lived as far away as Wilkinson County, Georgia, and Jackson County, Florida.  On December 26, 1854, the heirs agreed to divide the Negroes without delay or additional expense, accepting the valuations made by the appraisers.  Their agreement was filed with the Court of Ordinary, but it did not include a list of which slaves went to each heir.  The fates of Amanda and her children were not recorded.[15]


Eight years intervene before available records reveal more information about Jefferson Cary, Amanda, and their children.  As previously told, Thomaston plantation owner WiIliam Lowe had bought Jefferson from the Carys in 1853.  When Lowe died nine years later, the inventory of his estate (January 19, 1863) showed that he then also owned Amanda and the two boys Peter and Jeff![16]  Perhaps Mary Stallings' executor had carried out her wishes by selling Amanda and the two youngest children to Lowe, who already owned Amanda's husband.  The couple's daughter, Ellen, however, was not in the Lowe estate, and may either have been given to one of Mary Stallings' heirs or sold elsewhere.  Of course, Stalling's will had never suggested preserving Jefferson and Amanda's whole family, but had merely desired to keep husband and wife together.


During the decade of the 1850s, Jefferson Cary had experienced other evidence of the fragility of his extended slave family.  His half-sister, Susan, and her infant child were sold away from the Cary trust and taken to Louisiana in 1855, and his brother Jim was sold away in 1857.[17]


Benjamin H. Lowe inherited the entire Lowe estate, including 32 slaves, by right of his marriage to William Lowe's daughter, his cousin, Emma R. Lowe.  By then, the Civil War had run half its bloody course, and in little more than two years, the U. S. Cavalry commanded by Major General James H. Wilson would bring a message of freedom to Upson County's bondspeople.  On April 19, 1865, at the approach of Wilson's Raiders, Benjamin Lowe discreetly headed for the hills.  General Wilson's headquarters staff camped in a field near the three-story Lowe home, where Jefferson and Amanda were probably able to get a close look at their emancipators.[18]


The summer and fall of 1865 was a time of upheaval and transition for all people in Upson County.  One change was that the freedpeople now had legal rights, and legal rights required a legal identity.  Like many former slaves, Jefferson Cary initially accepted the surname of his most recent master and went by the name Jefferson Lowe.


With freedom, new arrangements for paid labor were devised to replace slave labor.  Free labor involved contracts, and contracts implied literacy.  In January of 1866, a freedmen's convention at Augusta formed the Georgia Equal Rights Association, a major goal of which was to promote schools for freedpeople.  Each county was encouraged to form a local association, and, indeed, an Upson County branch of the  Equal Rights Association was active through much of 1866.  Jeff Lowe signed a letter as one of its officers, along with Guilford Speer, Charlie Speer, Daniel Holloway, Acy Drake, and George Cary.[19]


Jefferson Cary (alias Lowe) and his family worked in 1866 on William Spivey's farm.  A letter from J. Clarke Swayze, Freedmen's Bureau agent at Griffin, to General Davis Tillson, the Bureau's Assistant Commissioner for Georgia, tells the unsatisfactory results from Jefferson's point of view:

"...I have also to present you the case of Jefferson Carey of Upson county, who has come thirty miles to lay his case before me.  He has worked two hands steady from March until now, and two others part of the time.  Farmed himself and family; and only bought 28 lbs Bacon at 25¢ per lb. and six bushels of potatoes at 75¢ per bushel, from his employer, Mr. Wm. Spivey, and yet, upon settlement, he is brought 80¢ in debt.  The man farmed upon shares for half, and raised 12 wagon loads of corn, 5 stacks of fodder, 6 stacks hay, about 50 bushels potatoes, farmed 8 acres of cotton.  Mr. James Green, agent of the Bureau, approved the Contract several months after the work was commenced, and according to his own admission, did not read the contract, and yet upon settlement held the freedman strictly to its provisions, which I believe, from what I can learn, without seeing the contract, contains provisions with reference to feeding stock, which covered all that had been made.  The simple fact is the man and his family gave their services, farmed themselves, and were brought out in debt."[20]


The "two hands steady" and "two others part of the time" who had worked the farm were probably Jeff, his two sons, and Amanda who would also have cooked and kept house.


Disenchanted with his experience as a sharecropper in Upson County, Jefferson explored the possibility of emigrating west to the Mississippi valley around Memphis, Tennessee.  He met John D. Allen, an emigration agent representing businessmen in Memphis who (according to Allen) were "willing to pay the highest wages."  In early November, Allen wrote, "I Emigrated the Chairman of the Equal wrights Society of Upson County [Jefferson Lowe] as Delegate for the county to Look at the country of the west, At My Expense.  He has now returned And is well pleased with farms, And is doing all he can to get his friends to Emigrate with Me."[21]


Jefferson Cary about this time shook off the surname Lowe, which probably had little significance for him, and resumed the Cary family name by which he was best known.  The family grew when his younger son married in Thomaston on October 18, 1866; the marriage register lists the groom as "Jeff. Cary, former slave of Benjamin H. Lowe" and his bride as "Anna Beall, former slave of Henry T. Hall."[22]


Jefferson and Amanda Cary probably did not emigrate to Tennessee, but instead took their family to Atlanta, where the 1870 federal census found them occupying two neighboring houses.  The younger Jeff Cary, with wife Annie and three children, lived next door to his parents.  The elder Jefferson Cary operated (or worked in) a restaurant and had accumulated personal property worth $300.  Amanda kept house.  Their older son Peter, a cabinetmaker, lived with them.  The census reveals a wonderful surprise about daughter Ellen, concerning whom the records had been silent since 1854: Ellen is back in her parents' house, with a husband, Ben Green, and two children of her own!  If this Ben Green is the same person as Benjamin (born 1844), formerly slave of Thomas B. Greene[23] who lived near Thomaston, then perhaps, after all, Ellen had been able to find a purchaser close to her parents in 1854.


While in Atlanta, Jefferson Carey entered the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Thomaston newspaper gives us a brief look at him, returning to his old home for an A.M.E. Church camp meeting in 1873: "Jeff Cary, formerly of this place, now a preacher in Atlanta, delivered a good sermon on Monday morning."[24]  Jefferson Cary rose quickly up the A.M.E. hierarchy: elected deacon in 1872; admitted a preacher on trial in 1873; and elected elder the following year.  He served the church many years thereafter.[25]


Just as Jefferson and Amanda Cary needed to move from Thomaston to Atlanta to take control of their own lives and to restore their family, historians often find that chronological distance from the events of the past can work to their advantage in seeking historical truths.  We have more primary sources available to us now than at any time in our country's history.  With bits and pieces from a vast range of resources, we can indeed know significant details about the lives of our forbears.  Our presumption should be that no one is unknowable.


[1] White's Historical Collections, p. 666, says Cary moved to Upson about 1834, but local records find him there several years ealier.


[2] Upson County Deed Book G, 669; deed of trust dated December 23, 1852.  Upson Superior Court, loose records, fifa #24, executed November 25, 1852, in the case of J. M. Hightower, exr., vs J. J. Cary.


[3] Upson Superior Court, loose records (January Term 1892), interrogatories of Amanda Cary and Susan Drake, in William Guilford, heir-at-law, &c., vs J. S. King, administrator of Guilford Speer; also, Upson County Deed Book G, 669; deed of trust dated December 23, 1852.


[4] Ellen was sold from the Cary trust 6 January 1857, probably to her slave husband, Guilford (see Barred and Disallowed Case Files of the Southern Claims Commission, 1871-1880, claim of Guilford Speer, Commission no. 10515, Office no. 400, Report no. 3, 1873, testimony of J. T. Sandwich that Guilford “bought his wife and paid for her”).   Upson Superior Court, loose records (January Term 1892), interrogatory of Susan Drake, in William Guilford, heir-at-law, &c., vs J. S. King, administrator of Guilford Speer, states that Ellen died when her daughter Susan’s child was “eleven or twelve years old”—Caroline was born about 1852.


[5] David E. Paterson, A Frontier Link with the World; Upson County's Railroad (Macon; Mercer University Press, 1998), 52.


[6] Federal Population Census, 1870, Fulton County, Georgia, page 216-7.  Bethesda Baptist Church, Minute Book One, entry for June 8, 1843.  Upson County, Record of Accounts Book C, 40 and 44.  Upson Superior Court Writ Book H, 257.


[7] Edwin L. Cliburn, In Unbroken Line, A History of the First Baptist Church of Thomaston, Georgia (Thomaston, 1979), 806.


[8] Thomas R. R. Cobb, A Digest of the Statute Laws of the State of Georgia (Athens: 1851), 314.


[9] Upson Superior Court Writ Book H, 247-276, William & Elisha H. Beall vs William J. Starling, administrator of Alpheus Beall


[10] Upson County Record of Accounts Book C, 167 and 289.  Upson County Writ Book H, 257 lists Amanda's [as yet unnamed] "infant born since the Inventory and Appraisement" which was conducted in October 1848.  In Record of Accounts Book C, 167, Amanda is still hired with two children for 1849, but (page 289) is hired with three children for 1850, suggesting Jeff's birth in 1849.


[11] Upson County Deed Book G, 669.  Upson Superior Court Writ Book H, 502.


[12] David E. Paterson, “Case Study: Determining Maternity by Correlating Records of Alpheus Beall's Slaves” (Afrigeneas Library), .


[13] Upson Superior Court Minute Book B, 530.


[14] Upson Will Book A, 154. Mary C. Beall had married William J. Stallings on January 9, 1853.


[15] Upson Will Book A, 154.  Upson Record of Accounts Book D, 209 and 629.


[16] Upson Record of Accounts Book E, 408.  This record does not indicate the kinship of Amanda, Peter and Jeff, but the name coincidence strongly suggests their identity.


[17] Drake-Flewellen-Cary letters, "Memorandum of sale of 4 of J J Carys negroes on Jan 6th 1857" (in private possession).  Upson Superior Court Writ Book H, 502.


[18] Carolyn Walker Nottingham and Evelyn Hannah, History of Upson County, Georgia (1930; rpt 1969), 645.


[19] Wm. Guilford & others (Freedmen) to Gen. Dean, letter of August 3, 1866, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Georgia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication: M798), Unregistered Letters Received (roll 27).


[20] J. Clarke Swayze to Gen. Davis Tillson, letter of December 27, 1866, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Georgia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication: M798), Unregistered Letters Received (roll 29).


[21] John D. Allen to Gen. Davis Tillson, letter of November 2, 1866, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Georgia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication: M798), Unregistered Letters Received (roll 25).


[22] Upson County Marriage Record to 1876, 11 (license #28).  Jeff was seventeen years old.  Anna Beall, five years his senior, already had one five-year-old child (see 1870 census, Upson County).


[23] Upson Superior Court, loose records ((May Term 1852) in the case of Thomas T. Wyche & wife vs Thomas B. Greene et al., Bill of Injunction, Relief, etc.


[24] Thomaston Herald, September 20, 1873.


[25] Wesley J. Gaines, African Methodism in the South; or, Twenty-Five Years of Freedom (Atlanta, 1890), 39, 46, 57, 63.




About the Author: David E. Paterson, AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum manager, was born in Scotland, UK, grew up in Seattle, WA, and lives in Norfolk, VA. He is married to the former Judy L. Moody of Memphis, TN. David is completing his MA in History from University of West Florida with a concentration on the American Old South and Reconstruction. David's slavery-related work has appeared in American Archivist, and Oxford University Press has commissioned him to write two biographies for the forthcoming African-American National Biography.  His long-term research goal is to write a history of Upson County, GA.


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