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My cousin Renetta always told me I’d find enslaved ancestors in wills, “right there with the cows and the furniture.” She was right.

If you’re like me, and your ancestors were enslaved, then wills are often a treasured source of information. Remember, slavery meant people were property, so when a slaveowner died, his or her will included an inventory of property and detailed instructions of who got who what. It’s also life after death, if you will. (No pun intended… OK, it kind of was). Wills and estate papers often contain identifying information about slaves not found anywhere else such as names, ages and sometimes even family relationships.

Ancestry.com recently updated its database with wills and estate papers from several states, including Alabama, where my family roots run deep.I decided to look up the names of folks I thought might have owned my ancestors. I started with Whitehurst— since it’s such a distinct name — and happened upon the will of Levi Whitehurst of Barbour County, Ala., who died in 1853.

My grandma told me that she was born in Barbour County and that’s where her family was from. Census records supported that. My earliest known Whitehurst ancestor is my great-great-great-grandmother Sarah (Sallie) Whitehurst, who was born sometime around 1827. I knew from past research that she had lived in Barbour County for a while.

I scoured through pages and pages of Levi Whitehurst’s final wishes, deciphering the loops and swirls of his handwritten will to find any mention of a Sarah.

This page from Levi Whitehurst's will, written in 1853, includes

This page from Levi Whitehurst’s will, written in 1853, includes “one negro woman named Sarah.” I believe this Sarah is my great-great-great-grandmother, Sarah Whitehurst.

And there it was: ” …I give and bequeath unto my beloved daughter Mary Ann Whitehurst the following property: one negro woman named Sarah, Nancy a girl, one boy {illegible} and boy named Henry and one bed and one boy named Joe and one girl named Sarah Jane and furniture . . ”

A strong clue, yes, but not enough to confirm her identity. In my next post, I’ll explain how to do this.

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