By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Researching a family tree is both exhilarating and frustrating. It’s like being part of a detective story. You can actually bring people to life as you learn fascinating details about them. But some details will forever remain a mystery, and that can be very frustrating. Genealogy research can reveal the past in surprising ways. It explains things; it can solve family mysteries, bring to light rationales for crucial, life-changing family decisions made long ago that continue to impact who and what we are today.
For African-American families, looking at the past brings special challenges because of the existence of slavery. Among the most heart-breaking aspects of slavery is that it disrupted and dispersed families, and rebuilding the past also means rebuilding past family structures — one relative at a time. Too often for African-American families, looking at the past brings them face to face with what I call the “Slave Wall” that makes it difficult, but not impossible, to find information about black lives before 1870. Prior to 1870, there were fewer official records that documented their existence as individuals because slaves were usually listed anonymously in groups. For example, the record would say: 100 black adult males or 80 black children. 1870 was the first year that the U.S. Census counted and recorded newly emancipated blacks as U.S citizens. Before that time, in a legal sense, they existed only as property to be categorized.
The Brown family is unique, genealogically speaking, because their family tree has been traced back to 1825, before emancipation. Documenting this kind of information about a black family is truly rare. The Browns’ story reveals a rich history, and includes information and details that paint a clear and beautiful picture of this vibrant family for future generations to treasure.
The story begins with Prince Brown, who was born a slave around 1825. He was owned by W. D. Baynard of Hilton Head. Prince was married to Mary, who as a child was owned by Henry Hasten. By the age of 13, she was sold to William Baynard, who changed her last name to Baynard. When she married Prince, she became Mary Brown.
Motivated to fight for his freedom during the Civil War, Prince enlisted in the U.S. Army on April 24, 1863, and became a member of the Colored Troops, serving as a private in Company E, 21st Regiment. Within three years of joining the war, he contracted smallpox and was hospitalized in Mitchelville on Hilton Head. The smallpox infection became a lifelong affliction that eventually took a toll on his body, preventing him from being able to do manual labor after the war.
Most stories end there, with only residential information provided by census data and possible newspaper accounts. In this case, we gain insight into the Browns’ lives after the war because of a 1901 deposition written by Mary Brown requesting a Civil War pension from the U.S. government because of her husband’s military service. In the deposition, she provided a great amount of detailed information about their lives that normally would not be available in a public record.
The deposition described both hardships and successes. At one point, they lost almost everything. Mary stated that their house was “blown away” during storm that made landfall on Hilton Head Island. The hurricane devastated the island Aug. 30-31, 1898, and destroyed all of the crops on the island that year. According to the document, Prince and Mary had owned the following property: 79 acres of land and one building valued at $230, three horses valued at $140, one buggy valued at $8, one cart valued at $8 and household furniture valued at $14.
Prince Brown’s life is only the beginning of the Brown family tree, which is connected on the maternal side to other major island families: the Driessens, whose roots can be traced to Guyana, and the Fergusons. This blended family has strong values that are rooted in the past and survive in them today.
“My mother Rachel taught us that we should always work hard, treat people the right way and to value education,” said Marvin Brown, Prince’s great-great-grandson.
That same motivation and dedication to hard work was passed down from generation to generation as far back as the 1800s when the family is known to have opened savings accounts with the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, also called the Freedman’s Bank. The company was created to assist newly freed slaves and African-American soldiers at the end of the Civil War. Although the company eventually failed and many depositors lost their savings, the bank’s existing records have become a great source for genealogy research.
Janie Brown, one of the family’s historians, added more details about the rich and storied existence that the Brown family has had on the island. Janie, who has already done a great deal of the family’s genealogy research, says the men would go on hunting parties and share the venison that was caught by her grandfather, William Ferguson, with other families. She tells stories about the three monkeys that took up residence in the Zion Mausoleum, which was close to their property when they were growing up. As children they had to pass this place every day on the way to school. “I was afraid to walk past that house because the monkeys were in there,” said her sister, Lucille Brown Davis. “My brothers would always leave me behind, so I would ask my grandmother to walk me to school. The monkeys were loud and would come out to eat our crops.”
The Brown family is very proud of the legacy of strength and service left to them by its forefather, Prince Brown. Following the example, of Prince Brown, the family has continued to take pride in serving our country and members have joined the military: Prince Albert served in World War I, Abraham Ferguson in World War II, Prince Brown Jr. in the Army in Vietnam, Jacob Brown in the Army, Keith Orage in the Army, Charles Davis Jr. in the Marines and Air Force, and Samuel Davis in the Marines.
The Brown family, which is now spread out across the country and the world, continues to be anchored here on Hilton Head Island. Regardless of where its members have gone, they will always be tethered to their beginnings here. Like thread that is woven into fabric, their lives and legacy are tied to the land, and their love of this island continues to run strong and deep.
Click here to read more stories from the series the First Families of Hilton Head.
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