Friday, December 04, 2020

Chariton County to Chariton, Iowa: Slave to freedom

I've written before about a pioneer member of Lucas County's historic black community whose chosen name was William Martin but who is buried in the Chariton Cemetery under a military headstone that bears his slave name, Benjamin Alexander.

Those posts include, The Honor of William Martin (November 2012) and A Grand Army Flag Holder for William Martin (May 2015). In both cases, I did the best I could at the time --- but the ever-increasing availability online of digitalized records means, I'm happy to report, that new information has surfaced.

This Union veteran's complete military file, kept in the National Archives and previously available only on microfilm, now is online with those of thousands of other U.S. Colored Troops veterans and can be accessed --- providing you have the right subscriptions and know where to look. The portal I use is Fold3, an site devoted to military records and research.


We've known for some time that William was born into slavery in that region along the Missouri River in central Missouri known sometimes as "Little Dixie." This area's early settlers were for the most part migrants from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee who brought slaves with them or purchased them as workers after locating there. Its pre-Civil War culture is thought to have been similar to that of the upper South, hence the designation "Little Dixie." Hemp was the principal cash crop. The map here, found at Wikipedia, defines areas where the slave population (ranging from 20 to 50 percent) was highest; the darkest shade designating the "heart" of the region; boundaries of the region vary from source to source.

William gave his birth month and year as June 1841 when the 1900 census of Chariton, Iowa, was taken some 60 years later, a date supported in general by entries in both the 1910 and 1920 census. When he was 22, he enlisted on the 10th of December, 1863, as a private in Company G, 62nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, at Macon, just north of "Little Dixie."

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, had left slaves like William in border states like Missouri --- where sentiments were divided but efforts to secede failed --- in limbo. Slaves in states that had seceded were declared free by the proclamation, but slaves in states that remained loyal to the Union remained enslaved.

One route to freedom, however, was enlistment in U.S. Colored Troops units --- a guarantee of immediate emancipation. That promise probably was why William walked away from the farm where he was enslaved and traveled to Macon, where freedom was offered.

William was mustered into Union service on Dec. 31, 1863, at Benton Barracks, St. Louis, and served honorably for two years and three months, until his discharge in Texas on March 31, 1866.

After that, he returned to northwest Missouri and on Sept. 25, 1875, married Tina Root in Kirksville. They arrived  in Chariton soon after 1880 and lived here for the remainder of their lives, producing a family of nine children, one of whom died young. William supported his family as a teamster, or drayman, widely respected by those who employed him and those he served.

Tina (Root) Martin died on Aug. 4, 1916, and William died on Oct.20, 1929, age 88. These pioneers'  grandson, Theopolis Gibson, who died during 1990 at the age of 75, was the last member of Chariton's historic black community founded by, among others, William and Tina, to live here.


William's service record (filed under his slave name, Benjamin Alexander) provides a number of fascinating clues about his early years --- in large part because it contains an application filed by his former owner, Rice Alexander, during January of 1867. Alexander hoped to collect $300 from the federal government to compensate him for the loss of William, who had been his human property.

That was possible because Congress passed on Feb. 24, 1864, an act authorizing payment to loyalist slave owners in border states that had not seceded $300 for each slave who enlisted; $100 for each slave who had been drafted. That provision was carried forward in an act of Congress dated July 28, 1866, authorizing the creation of six black regiments, later known as Buffalo Soldiers, for service on the western frontier. 

Congress killed the compensation scheme during 1867, however, and few former slave owners, including Rice Alexander, actually managed to collect. The applications were, however, filed with the other records of their former slaves.


The most informative documents in the Benjamin Alexander service file include William's "Colored Volunteer Enlistment" certificate, below:

Also included are two copies of a "Colored Volunteer Descriptive List" entry that provides the information that Benjamin Alexander's age was given as 16 at enlistment on company rosters, that he was 5 feet, 5 inches tall with black hair, eyes and complexion; that he was born in Randolph County, Missouri; and that his occupation was farmer.

Every indication is that William actually was about 22 when he enlisted, so there's no obvious reason why his age would be given as 16 in this and other records. It's possible that whoever filled out the record (William could neither read nor write) supplied his own estimate of age, based on looks; and it may very well be that William didn't actually know how old he was --- although six years is a considerable length of time. That aspect of things will have to remain a mystery.

And, it would appear, based on other records in the file, that William was not born in Randolph County, but in neighboring Chariton County instead. Chariton is among those counties at the heart of "Little Dixie," so called because the Chariton River, which rises in Clarke County, Iowa, and gives Chariton, Iowa, its name, empties into the Missouri River there. The Chariton River already bore that name when the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed by in 1803, long before there had been a Missouri county (organized in 1820) or an Iowa county seat town (founded in 1849) to name after it.


The real treasure in the file is Rice Alexander's application, dated Jan. 3, 1867, and I've transcribed the relevant parts of it here to make the process a little easier.


I, Rice Alexander a loyal citizen, and a resident of Prairie Township County of Randolph State of Missouri hereby claim compensation, under the provisions of Section 24, Act approved February 24, 1864, and Section 2, Act approved July 28th, 1866, for my Slave Benjamin Alexander enlisted December 10 1863 at Macon, Mo. by Capt. Wm. B. Reed (illegible) in the 62 Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, Co. G, certificate of which enlistment and a descriptive list, as required, accompanying this application. Signed by Rice Alexander Jan. 3, 1867

The next item is an oath of allegiance to the United States, which I've not transcribed. The real meat of the application is found on the second page of the application, as follows:

Rice Alexander, claimant for compensation for Benjamin Alexander, slave, under Acts of Congress of February 24th, 1864, and July 28th, 1866, having been duly sworn, declares that at the date of the enlistment of said Benjamin Alexander into the military service of the United States, he was the lawful owner of said Benjamin Alexander and obtained his title to him in the following manner (1): viz, By verbal gift and delivery of possession from William Martin, my father-in-law, on my marriage with my wife, Martha Jane, then Martha Jane Martin, on the 24th day of December 1844. The public record of said marriage was kept at Keytesville, Chariton County, Missouri, and was burned when the Courthouse was burned in 1864. A certified copy of the (priest's?) Record of said marriage is (hereunto?) filed. I had possession and absolute control of said Benjamin Alexander from Dec. 24, 1844, until his enlistment in U.S. service.


All sorts of interesting information here, including the fact that our William Martin's name of choice was the name of his original owner, William Martin of Chariton County, Missouri. 

There's next to no information out there about this guy, but he was included in both the 1830 and 1840 census enumerations of Chariton County and was the owner of 11 slaves during both of those years. When the 1850 federal census was taken, William, age 71, born in Virginia, was living with his daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth (Martin) and Samuel Labban in Silver Creek Township, Randolph County, and owned neither real estate nor slaves. Samuel Labban was, when compared with his neighbors, rather poor --- he owned real estate valued at only $900 and no slaves. William, who apparently had suffered financial reverses, reportedly died during 1857, but there's no trace of a tombstone in either Randolph or Chariton County.

So the question arises, why would our William Martin claim the name of the man who owned him at birth for his own? Contrary to romanticized mythology, slaves rarely loved (or honored freely) their owners. Feel free to speculate about that one.


Next, we learn that our William was in effect a wedding present, given to Rice and Martha (Martin) Alexander when they tied the knot in Chariton County on Christmas Eve, 1844. Since William would have been only 3 at the time, it's logical to conclude that his mother was included in the gift.

Rice, Martha and the  three eldest Alexander children were listed in the 1850 census of Randolph County with real estate valued at $1,000 and four slaves, a female age 27, and three males, ages 9, 4 and 2. This could have been William, age 9, his mother and two younger brothers.

By the time the 1860 census was taken, Rice was more affluent, owning real estate valued at $4,000 and personal property valued at $3,800. Only two slaves were listed on the slave schedule accompanying that census, however, both male, one 20 and the other 12. This could have been William and one of his younger brothers.


So there you have it, what I know at present about William Martin, enslaved as Benjamin Alexander. His death certificate, filed in Lucas County during 1929, lists his full name as William Benjamin Martin, so it's possible that he answered willingly to both --- but not to the forced surname "Alexander." That appears on his tombstone simply because it was the way government rules and regulations worked and the alternative was no tombstone at all.

And it's interesting --- to me at least --- that someone born in slavery in Chariton County, Missouri, would live a long and rich life in Chariton, Lucas County, Iowa.

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