Finding my Enslaved Ancestors

Given my ancestral background, I knew there was a high probability of finding enslaved ancestors in my family tree. Even so, when confronted with the evidence, it still filled me with a range of emotions that time has had to assuage. At the same, time, however, the way in which I became acquainted with one enslaved ancestor in particular, also brought with it an exciting historical journey.

Days before the United States was hit with the Covid-19 crisis lockdowns, I received a message from an archivist at the Kenosha History Center in Wisconsin. The message stated that he’d come into possession of some documents – some very old documents going back nearly 200 years – regarding one Peter Ware. After researching on Ancestry.com, he found Peter in my family tree. Other names and relationships in my tree matched up with those referenced in the documents he had, so he knew he’d found the right person.

Historical documents

The archivist told me, as part of a donation to the KHC, he’d received a personal letter to Peter, a letter from a Wisconsin judge about Peter, and an original manumission document freeing Peter from slavery. My jaw dropped.

Peter Ware was my 4th great grandfather on my paternal grandmother’s side. His name had been in my tree for a while, but I’d hit a brick wall in my research. I didn’t expect to learn much more about him. However, these documents opened up doors to information beyond my expectations or imaginings. They also reopened doors to relatives with whom I’d not spoken for some time. The building of those relationships has proven to be a joy for me, as well.

The KHC archivist let me know he would scan the documents and send them to me. It would take a little bit of time, as the documents were in the process of flattening.

Shortly after our conversation, many states in the U.S. went into lockdown, with the documents remaining at the center and the archivist having no access to them. It took several months, but he was finally able to get them to me.

Portion of Peter’s manumission document, 1853
Portion of Peter’s manumission document, 1853
Personal letter to Peter
A personal letter addressed to Peter, 1882

Waiting, Searching, Building

During the wait, I contacted my second cousin, Nicky. Nicky is two generations ahead of me. She is also a rather inquisitive woman with a good deal of family history knowledge. And, she grew up knowing my great grandmother, Lottie. Perhaps Lottie had talked to Nicky about Peter. After all, Peter was Lottie’s grandfather. Unfortunately, Nicky didn’t have many details about Peter. It seems Lottie hadn’t talked much about her grandparents. But, with Nicky’s renewed interest in Peter, she and I began to have lengthy conversations, allowing us to build a relationship we previously didn’t have.

Even before receiving the documents, I had enough new information from my conversation with the archivist to allow me to do some targeted searching. I was able to come up with one more document: a paper documenting the sale of my 4th great grandfather, Peter Ware. It is hard to look at these documents knowing not only what they meant for Peter and my other enslaved ancestors, but also what they represent on a larger scale. Even so, I am also amazed that these documents of historical relevance have survived for so long.

The KHS currently has the originals of the two letters and the manumission document in their collection. The sale document is part of the Chouteau collection and is currently housed at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.

Document transferring Peter from John Ware to Sylvester Labadie, 1832
Document transferring Peter from John Ware to Sylvester Labadie, 1832
Letter from Municipal Judge John Slater regarding Peter
Letter from Municipal Judge John Slater regarding Peter
Peter’s Story

Peter Ware was born in Virginia around 1810. The actual year is unknown. I’ve seen it estimated from 1805 up to 1815. I don’t know who his parents were. But, his Wisconsin marriage certificate states their names were Samuel and Lucey. He was born into slavery. I know nothing of his early life, but hope that someday I can learn more. According to the document of sale, in 1832, Peter was sold by Capt. John Ware of Amherst County, VA to Sylvestre Labadie of St. Louis, MO. In 1853, a few years after Sylvestre’s death, his widow, Victoire Labadie, emancipated Peter. The manumission papers I received from the KHS document this event.

Peter became romantically involved with a woman from Germany, Elizabeth Erlwein. Elizabeth had immigrated to the United States as a child with her mother and two sisters, Catherine and Mary. In late 1853 or early 1854, Peter and Elizabeth, along with Elizabeth’s two sisters and their husbands, left St. Louis and travelled north. They settled in Kenosha, WI, where much of that line of my family still lives today.

Marriage was Illegal

Interracial marriage was illegal in Missouri. But that was not the case in Wisconsin. I suspect this was one reason for selecting Wisconsin as a destination. Peter and Elizabeth married in their new home town of Kenosha in 1854. Peter worked as a whitewasher. Elizabeth raised their three children, Peter Jr., Samuel and my 3rd great grandmother, Mary.

I’ve been able to obtain two obituaries for Elizabeth from digitized newspapers on Newspapers.com. One obituary in particular made note of Elizabeth and Peter’s interracial marriage, stating how much of society had shunned Elizabeth when she married Peter. I think about what Peter and Elizabeth must have gone through. But, I also feel uplifted knowing that they were true to their love for each other and their family.

Elizabeth's obituary
Elizabeth Ware’s obituary, 1904
Peter and Elizabeth‘s grave stone.
Peter and Elizabeth’s grave stone.

While I hope to learn more about Peter and other enslaved ancestors, and possibly even connect with other family from the Ware line someday, I am still in awe over what I have been able to find out about my 4th great grandparents and their journey.

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