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Everyone, Everywhere, All at Once

Easily Overlooked, Connections Really Are Important


Good morning, Class! Our word for today is “connection.”

In terms of personal relationships, Merriam-Webster defines “connection” as someone “connected with another, especially by marriage, kinship, or common interest,” or “ a set of persons associated together, such as a ‘denomination’ or ‘clan.’”

“Denomination,” of course, is most often used to distinguish between religious organizations and how each is united “in their adherence to its beliefs and practices.” And “clan” is a Celtic-derived word for “family”; but like “denomination,” also describes “a group united by a common interest or common characteristics.”

Clearly, these words are synonyms; they each define the same basic concept. Yet, in grade school, high school, or college, when we are taught history, especially American history, one thing that seems to be missing from our lessons is showing how events, and especially those participating in them, are actually connected.

Nothing in history happens in a vacuum. Events arise from reactions to previous events or situations. Sometimes they are organic, meaning they happen spontaneously. But, usually, they are the result of people planning, networking, and, most importantly, working together toward the same goal.

On the surface, it seems an obvious concept; but, when I began researching Robert Jefferson, I didn’t think about his having connections to other people or groups of people, at least not outside of the families that enslaved him and the others enslaved by those families. As I’ve said before, I saw him as a one-dimensional human being, not just because of his enslaved status, but, I think, also because we tend not to think of our ancestors as three-dimensional human beings.

The role of the genealogist, traditionally, is to record the begats; family historians, however, must look beyond birth, marriage, and death dates to clearly see an ancestor for who he or she was, warts and all.

While for me it has been an epiphany, this concept is not my own. Renowned genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, who wrote the genealogist’s bible, “Evidence Explained,” has long been a proponent of researching a person’s “FAN Club”. We should always look at the friends, associates, and neighbors of a person who is the target of our research. I have often done this in researching my own family. But in order to understand Robert Jefferson, about whom little is found in documents, combing through his FAN Club has brought fabulous benefits and insights to my work.

COMMON GROUND FOUND

So, Robert’s connections were many; he was connected to some of the most prominent Southern slaveholders and even the most rabid pro-slavery political leaders there. And, of course, he was connected to President Thomas Jefferson, his father, and probably the most important connection of his lifetime.

He was clearly well-connected with people and organizations in Indianapolis, where he lived for more than 20 years. I have no documentation, but I truly believe Robert was a member of the Indianapolis Lodge of the Prince Hall Masons. Every Black man he was associated with in that city, so far as I can tell, was a Mason. That includes his son-in-law, William Roberson, who married Lucy, and later became very influential in Saint Louis’ colored society. It is the same with the other men mentioned in the 1880 article, that I have written about for the past few weeks, which profiles several of the Circle City’s prominent Black residents

A fellow historian who I finally met in person recently, Marvin Mason* of Columbus, Ohio, has doggedly researched the Prince Hall Masons, particularly those of the grand lodges of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. His third-great-grandfather was John Wesley Harrison, a wagon-maker and inventor of a patented wagon that could dump two tons of dirt in minutes**; a pastor, possibly of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and the third man to serve as grand master of the Indiana Lodge. His predecessors were James Sidney Hinton and John G. Britton, profiled in the article mentioned above.

It is possible that J.W. Harrison was somehow related to the Harrison family that produced two presidents — William Henry and Benjamin. So far, this information largely comes from the handed-down stories Marvin has heard from his older cousins and other family members. He strongly emphasizes that he has not found any documentation to prove the story. But, from my perspective after researching Robert for so many years, I would not be surprised by its veracity. Similar oral histories of famous white ancestors have been extraordinarily common among Black American families for generations.

Regardless, J.W. Harrison was an important man in the Black community of his day. He went on to help found the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge of Michigan; later in life, he lived in Niles, Michigan, and was well-known as a conductor on the Underground Railroad in northern Indiana.

Mason, whose surname I find quite serendipitous, believes that, like his great-grandfather Harrison, Black circuit-rider ministers in the three states also were Prince Hall Masons. He believes all of them worked together within the network of Blacks and whites involved in the workings of the Underground Railroad.

That makes a ton of sense to me. It also gives me more reason to believe Robert, too, was part of that network.

These connections are important; I believe they underscore just how well free or self-emancipated Black Americans were able to network—not just to help their enslaved brethren escape to Canada and other points north, but also to lift each other up to become prosperous members of society. These seem to be complicated networks that could be accessed by nearly anyone of color, regardless of their status as free or enslaved. Well, to a point. Marvin told me Prince Hall Masons were almost exclusively mulatto men, and that they were related to prominent white families, just like Robert. Documents he has found indicate that Prince Hall Masons emphatically said, outright, that if a man was too Black, he need not bother to apply for membership.

Again, this isn’t really surprising. Upperclass Blacks, like their white counterparts, preferred the company of other upper-class Blacks. I think that’s the most common trait among us as human beings. We tend to interact with people who are more like us, and not with those “others.”

By necessity, these networks included prominent white abolitionists––Levi Coffin, Willam Lloyd Garrison, Laura Smith Haviland, John Rankin, Henry Ward Beecher and his daughter, the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, to name a few. Therefore, it is only natural to assume that the Prince Hall Masons in Indianapolis and the Eureka Lodge in Madison, Indiana, on the Ohio River, would have known and worked with prominent Black abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Henry Bibb (who escaped slavery from Trimble County, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Madison), and George DeBaptiste, who lived in and worked the Underground Railroad hub in Madison, Ind., for nearly ten years.


COLLEGE PALS, COLLEAGUES, AND NEIGHBORS

The other connections that caught me by surprise, but shouldn’t have, were those of the wealthy white men that Robert Jefferson had been associated with during his life as an enslaved man.

Thomas Jefferson Catchings*, to whom Robert paid $1,500 for the freedom of his wife, Celia, and their daughters, Lucy and Georgiana. The man who brought Robert to Mississippi, John Thomas Dearing, had died intestate in 1839, and I have not found documentation to indicate who may have purchased or inherited Robert from Dearing’s family or friends at that time. Keep in mind that, if my hunch about her paternity is correct, Celia, Robert’s wife, would also be T.J. Catchings’ half-aunt.

It’s possible one of T.J. Catchings’ cousins, Silas Mercer Catching, a friend and colleague of Dearing, may have been Robert’s enslaver after Dearing’s death. However, Silas also died suddenly and intestate in 1849 (he was shot dead while sleeping in bed on Christmas Day, allegedly by one of his enslaved men). The timing is right for T.J. Catchings to have become Robert’s last enslaver.

Catchings was born in 1806 in Wilkes County, Georgia, and eventually became a planter in Canton, Mississippi, where Robert’s daughters were born. His uncle, Seymour Catching, also originally from Wilkes County, owned a plantation near Barboursville in Knox County, Kentucky. I believe he had owned—and probably fathered—Robert’s wife, Celia. The only legal document found that mentions her is Georgiana’s death certificate, which states Celia was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, which is near Barboursville, and gives her name as Wetchins––likely a misinterpretation or misspelling of Catchings.

Seymour Catching died in 1833; no copy of his will exists, according to the Kentucky State Archives. But this is probably when Celia became the property of T.J. Catchings and his family in Canton, Mississippi, where she and Robert met, married, and had their daughters.

Enter Otho RoBards Singleton, a Canton, Mississippi attorney and politician who served in the Mississippi Legislature and later as a U.S. senator from that state. Singleton, who reportedly signed Robert’s manumission papers while a state senator in 1852, was born and raised in Nicholasville, Kentucky, which is about 100 miles north of Barboursville. Singleton and T.J. Catchings likely became friends while attending college in Lexington, Kentucky, which is a very short distance from Nicholasville. Catchings studied medicine at the nearby University of Lexington (now known as Transylvania University), while Singleton earned his law degree there.

Both men ended up owning plantations in the Canton, Mississippi, area. In 1837, Catchings’ medical practice was housed in an office owned by J.T. Dearing and his partner, Jesse Heard (also born in Wilkes County, Georgia). In 1839, Dearing and Singleton announced their legal partnership in Canton.

Black or white, they ALL knew each other. They were all CONNECTED. Whether they were pro-slavery or anti-slavery, they knew each other and worked together, whether it was to continue or end that “peculiar institution.”

Amazing; yet, at the same time, I still slap my poor forehead and think, “Well, duh.”

 

* Breaking with journalistic tradition, I will use Marvin's given name, not his surname, in second references to avoid confusion between references to him and references to the Prince Hall Masons.

** There's a lot more to the wagon-patent story that I hope Marvin will share here on this blog soon!

*** Thomas Jefferson Catchings, according to a family history, added the “s” at the end of his surname. Originally, his name also was Catching.

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Apr 21, 2023

J W Harrison’s wagon patent was allegedly stolen by a member of the Studebaker family.

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