There’s a TV channel packed with great information for genealogists, which I suspect very few even know exists. It is here that I learned about a tremendous historical map.
C-Span3 is all about American History all the time, or as they put it, “48 hours every weekend” of classroom lectures, author interviews, and special events all about American History. They have great talks about everything from late 20th Century political figures, to tours of historic places and museums to symposiums on historic events to classroom lectures on the Civil War. Indeed, their repertoire is particularly Civil War rich while we are in the midst of the sesquicentennial.
I was drawn into an excellent classroom lecture by a Professor Susan Schulten at the University of Denver on Slavery, Secession & the Civil War while flipping channels last weekend. Dr. Schulten has an extraordinary command of her subject, and she an artful orator.
The US Map of Slavery
Dr. Schulten shared with us her passion for historic maps as she underscored her points.
One map stood out to me, and it seems to be one of her favorites. In 1860 the Coastal Survey Organization, which maps coastal waterways, did something unique. It took the data from the 1860 US Census on the population density of slaves and overlaid the data on a US county map. This was the first time – ever – that non-geographic data was mapped in such a fashion as to make it graphic and visible on a map. It’s quite a dramatic picture of slavery in America. You can see the map here on the Library of Congress website.
Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860
Each county is a variant shade of gray from white to black. The darker the shading implied the greater the population density of slaves. Then there are actual percentages of slaves as relative to the whole population marked in each county. The black sections pop out as highly concentrated slave-holding areas which would be indicative of labor-intensive cotton or tobacco growing country.
Map as Propaganda
Dr. Schulten made the point that this map was a tool of propaganda for the North. At first that sounds odd to me. Maps as propaganda? The reality was that the War didn’t start as a battle for or against slavery in the mind of President Lincoln and many Northerners. For Lincoln it was about saving the Union. But as the War progressed, and we came to the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery became forefront in the debate. And what better to clearly illustrate the pervasive nature of slavery than a map showing the depth, breath, and density of this institution. If in your mind, as a Northerner, slavery was “other,” over there, in another place, someone else’s problem/concern, there would be no reason to give of your life and treasures for the cause if that was indeed the basis for the War. On the other hand, if it is all-encompassing, then it may be a threat to you, your family, and your way of life. A map of slavery in the South may very well persuade you to enlist in the cause.
Slavery Map Uses for Genealogists
As a long-time Kansas City resident, I was stunned to see the depth and distribution of slavery in Missouri. I had no idea the amount of geography encompasses, and the extent to which it was not only so pervasive, but so far north. The band of slave holding area cuts across the state along the Missouri River, coincident with I-70 from St. Louis to Kansas City. If my family lived during the Civil War in that area, I would so chase down the slave schedules, read the local histories, and check out probate and deed records for my ancestors. Slave or slave holder, there may be a story to uncover there. I would also want to know if the slave population coincided with Confederate support in my community.
Look at the slave population density where your family lived. If it is a high-density, what does that tell you about the farming methods employed? What does that mean about the lifestyles, and land distribution – large plantations or small subsistence farms? Were there non-farm industries? Or was it all about agriculture – specifically cotton and tobacco? Check out the farm and manufacturing schedules in the US Censuses to find out more.
What about the counties in the deep South where there were no slaves? What’s going on with the livelihood, farming, industries, cultural and religious norms in these counties that sets them apart from their neighbors? Could this be a bastion of Union sentiment? If your ancestors lived there, were they Union soldiers or sympathizers? Look into the Southern Claims Commission or state claims commissions for evidence of Union support.
Did your family migrate before, during or after the War? If so, did they migrate from one county to another of similar slave density? I would want to know why or why not. What were the laws about holding and / or traveling with slaves for those areas? Check out the local histories or state legislative records for more information.
West Virginia and Virginia
Dr. Schulten made a most interesting observation about the map. Look at the slave population density between what would be the future Virginia and the future West Virginia. There is quite a contrast – a slave stronghold in Virginia and a virtual slave-free zone in West Virginia. These peoples had little in common as it pertains to slavery and all that constitutes the lifestyle surrounding it. Differing means and methods of farming? Differing community structures? What was your ancestor’s life like?
How would this impact the lives of the families on the border of slave and non-slave counties? Would there be greater tensions? Would more families be fractured? Civil War era diaries and journals from soldiers and the home front can offer some insight into what the feelings were like from the people who lived the War.
Enjoy the map. May it be helpful in your research and understanding of the Civil War era. I know it was an eye-popper for me.