Historians trying to substantiate past events and genealogists seeking to make family connections and confirm family histories often contend with the accidental or deliberate destruction of documents. Moreover, African Americans combing through archives in search of evidence of their enslaved ancestors have discovered that slave masters often recorded their human property only in inventories and only by number, gender, and approximate age. Slaves owned nothing, not even their names. Because there are no names to search for in many of the surviving records, descendants must find other ways to piece together evidence that a long-deceased relative, though very much alive in family stories, actually existed.
Most devastating to slaves and to the descendants hoping to trace them was that slave owners often tore apart enslaved families. Slaves were expendable property, and selling them was lucrative or, sometimes, expedient. President Madison, who condemned slavery as “a sad blot on our free country” and “a deep-rooted and widespread evil,” sold slaves himself. And he allowed his wife to sell his own son, Jim, about whom no records can be found.
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