In April of 2011, I attended a workshop at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC and what I left with changed my life. In between my workshops, I used my time wisely and requested the file of Stephen Binyard. He was the brother of Dorcas Binyard Finley, my 3rd great grandmother, whom my grandmother revered and spoke of whenever she talked about her early childhood. Stephen was one of several of Dorcas’ brothers that fought in the Civil War for the Union Army. He was a private in Company D 34th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. His Fold3 file indicated that he enlisted in March 1863, having been a house servant of a man named Philip Givens. Philip Givens was the owner of Edgerly Plantation in Beaufort, SC. Stephen’s wife Jane, upon his death in 1882, filed for the widow’s pension of her husband. Jane’s documents were housed at NARA.
Civil War Service Record for Stephen Binyard, Age 34.
“Civil War Service Records,” database online at Fold3 (www.fold3.com), Union Records > Colored Troops > 1st Infantry >1st US Colored Infantry, Misc Cards, M-Y AND 1st South Carolina, record for Stephen Binyard, image 1 of 2; citing NARA microfilm publication M1819 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2010), https://www.fold3.com/image/273/260913039, accessed 17 Jun 2017.
The research process at NARA was simple. You fill out the request for military records and, about an hour later, your records are available to view upstairs in the research room. You check in, they give you your file, you sit at a nice desk with those library lamps and you open the folder. I had no idea that for the next few hours I would commence in making copies of over a hundred documents related to the lives of Stephen and Jane Binyard. I had no idea that I would be reading the original affidavits and depositions of my third great grand aunt, as she dictated her words to her attorney, Thomas Talbird, the son of her former slave master, in her attempt to prove who she was and her right to receive the pension. I had no idea that I would be there with tears in my eyes from joy and sorrow. I was in disbelief of what I read that day. There were mentions of Tabernacle Baptist Church, the church my grandmother attended as a child and spoke of often. There were confirmations of the plantation in which the family was enslaved. There were accounts of desperation and sickness as well as love and strength. There were witnesses whose affidavits attested to the union of Stephen and Jane and the births of their children. Jane had ultimately left a story that not only broke my heart but gave me reason to continue the journey.
Civil War Pension Index Record for Stephen Binyard.
“United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KDPG-M1J : 3 April 2015), Stephen Binyard, 1890.
But how did I come to attend the NARA workshop in 2011? How did I begin to love the stories and find so much pride in them? My upbringing was my inspiration.
I was born and raised in Harlem to quite remarkable parents, Ida Smith and Walter Moore. My mother is the fourth of eight children and my dad, was an only child. My parents’ love for their African heritage was clear and visible in their actions. They raised their three girls with a rich appreciation for African American history and culture. My mother, named after her maternal grandmother Ida, was the first of her siblings to graduate from college. She attended Howard University where she received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. My father, who was considerably older than my mother, was an army veteran from WWII with technical college experience, which he used to work as an architect for the City of New York.
The best way to describe the type of environment I grew up in is “a village.” I was always surrounded by family. Mainly, my maternal side. My maternal grandmother Rosalie “Mema” Dekle Smith was the reigning matriarch of our family. She was only 36 years old when her husband died and she was left to raise five girls and three boys on her own in Harlem, New York. She was a short and gentle woman. Her personality was loving and witty. She kept family close and instilled an enormous amount of pride and courage in her children. She was a community activist and a provider whose doors were always open to family, extended family and friends in the community. Mema was not from the big city of New York. She was a lowcountry girl born in Savannah, Georgia and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina by her grand aunt, Janie Finley Tolbert. Janie and Dorcas “Ma”, as Mema called her, had already raised Mema’s mother Ida after the death of her father. And as fate would have it, Mema was raised under the tutelage of the same two matriarchs when her mother, Ida, died at the age of 32. Mema was only 12 and her baby sister Juanita was only two.
My intense interest in my family history began at an unusual time in my life. I had suffered two significant losses in my family in 2007 and now, in 2008, I was pregnant with twins and given instructions by my doctor to stay home from work. On bedrest and bored, I followed the suggestion of the Ancestry.com commercial, I entered a name, and followed the leaf. I had a few names. This was not my first time embracing the stories of my ancestors. In 1986 I was a participant in a Rites of Passage program, an African American cultural initiation designed to introduce young girls into womanhood and the community. One assignment given to the group of five African American female teenagers was to interview and record our elders to produce a family tree. I was 14 and had two grandmothers still living. I wrote down questions, I asked them and I recorded. My family tree was part of a keepsake album, that each of us initiates created, chronicling our journey and experience during the preparation for our ultimate Rite of Passage celebration.
From the stories that Mema told, Neptune Finley and Dorcas Binyard, both born in slavery, were at the top of my maternal grandmother’s family line. They were her great grandparents and Mema told wonderful stories about who they were and their struggles at a time when their lives were considered less than human. I am indebted to her for passing them down to her children. I mean who wouldn’t be intrigued by, as Mema told it, a woman who “marched out of slavery with a baby in her arms” and “laid the cornerstone of Tabernacle Baptist Church”, a man who drowned in a storm, the sons of that man drowning two months later, and a cousin going to Liberia with Marcus Garvey. Her stories were only expressed in a few sentences in my keepsake album but they released a great deal of curiosity. When I sat at my computer, 22 years later, I had those stories and names on that tree.
Mema was only three when her great grandmother, Dorcas, passed away and she hadn’t been born when Neptune died. So, I began to question if her stories about the demise of several of these ancestors were even true? Or, had they been embellished to excite my interest. Since my interview for the rites of passage, I had never discussed these family members again with her. Not to say that they weren’t discussed. My cousin and research partner Olafemi Gibson, on one occasion, visited Mema in Seattle and decided to record his discussion with her. At family gatherings, my mom and aunts would recall the stories and always remember a little more than the last time. We were lucky. Mema talked about family from her experiences and the stories she heard and remembered as a child. It is not always common for the old folks to talk about the past. There is a pain that they harbor and reliving the struggle is difficult.
I remember entering those names into my tree on Ancestry.com. I remember the feeling of joy when I began to see the leaves pop up. They were there. They were documented. Their lives were being uncovered. I first discovered Neptune and Dorcas on the 1880 census. At the time, they were living in Beaufort, South Carolina with their three children Lucinda, John, and Janie. Based on the ages I calculated Neptune to have been born in 1843 and Dorcas in 1850. I had always known them to be enslaved, but this was difficult to take in. The emotions of this find fed my desire to know more. Without a doubt, from that point on, I was determined to find every piece of information possible to recreate the lives of my family who had only lived in the stories of my Mema. I dug deep. And the rewards were breathtaking.
Household of Neptune and Dorcas Finley, 1880 U.S. Census
Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010. 1880, Year: 1880; Census Place: Beaufort, Beaufort, South Carolina; Roll: 1221; Family History Film: 1255221; Page: 8D; Enumeration District: 041.
At the time, I knew very little about the genealogical documents and how to search them. I was solely dependent on what Ancestry.com, Fold3.com and Familysearch.org had available. So when I came across the Freedman’s Bureau Bank record for Neptune Finley, I was completely taken aback. These people who had only existed in the stories of my grandmother were brought to life for me. On April 25th, 1870 Neptune visited the Freedman Bureau location in Charleston, South Carolina and opened an account for his son John. Every line of the record was filled in. There was even an extra little bit of information recorded; “wife Dorcas came with him.” The family was living on Tradd Street, in Charleston, and Neptune was 25 years of age working as a carpenter for a man named Hutchinson. This is where I lost all composure. According to Neptune’s documentation, his parents were Charles and Mary; his brothers were Boston, Charley, Joe, and Moses; and his sister was Molly Ann Bolton. I had no brick wall to break down. My 3rd great grandfather left his legacy at that office that day and it was then that I realized that this was the task I was given, to leave a legacy.
Freedman’s Bank Record, Neptune Finley, 1870.
“United States, Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NSYT-2L2 : 24 December 2014), Neptune Finlay, ; citing bank Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina, United States, NARA microfilm publication M816 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1970); FHL microfilm 928,588.
And what do you think happens when you enter more names into your Ancestry.com family tree? Yes, those leaves. The moment Neptune’s father Charles was entered, his Freedman’s Bureau Record popped up. It was dated about five months prior to his son. On November 18th, 1869, Charles Finley also visited the Charleston location of the Freedman’s Bureau to open an account and his record was extraordinary. It was recorded that he was 57 years old, born in Pocatalico, South Carolina, raised and living on James Island, and renting a farm with his wife Mary. The amount of strength it would have taken to dictate the information for the next few lines is unimaginable.
Freedman’s Bank Record, Charles Finley, 1864.
“United States, Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NSYR-V94 : 24 December 2014), Charles Finley, ; citing bank Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina, United States, NARA microfilm publication M816 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1970); FHL microfilm 928,588.
The Freedman’s Bureau document is like the holy grail of African American research. It can tell so much. For example, if Charles was 57 when this document was recorded, then he would have been born sometime around 1812. This means that his parents, Joe and Hester were most likely born in the 1780’s or 1790’s. And so here we are, four years following the emancipation of enslaved persons, and Charles Finley has identified his existence, and that of his family; even the deceased. This find made it easy for me to realize how important it was for my family to record their information. Charles opened his account first and following him, his sons, Neptune, Boston and Charles Jr. also opened accounts. And in the most dignified manner, he signed his own name. Had he not, there would have been an “his X mark” in between his first and last name indicating that he could not read or write.
The last census that Charles and Mary Finley appear on is the 1880 census. However, I am forever grateful to them. They paved a path that I was able to follow 148 years later – a path to bring to life Neptune and Dorcas Finley, the center of Mema’s stories. Between 1870 and 1873 Neptune visited the Freedman’s Bureau on four occasions, recording his most current information. During that time, they had moved from Charleston to Beaufort and purchased a home at 116 Prince Street. Neptune was working as a ship carpenter and Dorcas ran a successful laundry business from her home.
Freedman’s Bank Record, Neptune Finley, 1873.
“United States, Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NSYP-PZH : 24 December 2014), Naptune Finlay, ; citing bank Beaufort, Beaufort, South Carolina, United States, NARA microfilm publication M816 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1970); FHL microfilm 928,587.
Over the next few months, after having my twins and returning to work, I continued feeding my ancestry research addiction with late night phone calls to my mother and aunts. I posted queries on message boards and joined several Facebook genealogy groups. I joined a community of researchers that welcomed your questions, updates and requests for assistance. By the summer of 2009 I had traveled to Charleston, SC to meet, for the first time, descendants of Neptune’s brother Charles, whom I had found as a result of this research.
One of the stories that Mema told was of the drowning of her great grandfather Neptune Finley in a storm and the later drowning deaths of his sons John and Neptune. Pondering her stories, I would ask myself what about the story of the storm? And the drowning of the two sons? I was searching for confirmation. In May 2011, I found indication that an obituary existed in the Palmetto Post, dated November 19, 1896, for a John Finley. I immediately requested a copy of the obituary along with information about an obituary for a John D. (DeWitt) Finley and a Stephen Binyard via email from the Beaufort County Library. Within days I received the obituary for John Finley. It reads…
“Drowned. Two colored men named Moses and John Finley, and a boy named Alex Binyard, were out in a boat near the bathhouse, in Beaufort Thursday, when Binyard fell overboard. Moses leaned over the side to assist Alex back into the boat, when he lost his balance and fell overboard. John Finley, the eldest, a married man 27 years old, jumped overboard to save the others when he and his brother were drowned. Alex was saved. There was quite a breeze blowing at the time, and the river was rough. The unfortunate young colored men were the sons of Neptune Finley, who was drowned in the late storm. The bodies of the downed men were recovered and interred in one grave.”
Here was Mema’s story confirmed with only a slight error discovered through research. As for the two sons mentioned, John and Moses, John was the son of Neptune and Dorcas but Moses was Neptune’s brother. Within two months Dorcas lost her husband Neptune, her son John and brother in law Moses, to the power of the lowcountry waters.
Neptune Finley in Savannah, GA Register of Deaths, 1896.
Ancestry.com. Savannah, Georgia Vital Records, 1803-1966 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: City of Savannah, Georgia Records – Health Department, Vital Statistics Registers. Savannah, Georgia: City of Savannah.
This was absolutely amazing! It is an official account of not only the death of my 3rd great grandfather, Neptune, his son, and his brother; but the saving of the life of Alex. Alex Binyard was the son of Dorcas’s brother Stephen Binyard. It was the first time that I was able to physically connect Dorcas to her Binyard family. I cannot fathom the amount of sorrow and grief she must have felt over her loss of loved ones in that manner. I do know that she lived long afterwards, never remarrying and working hard to raise her youngest daughter Janie, and grandchildren Ida and John DeWitt (the children of her son John who drowned). I dream about how these stories were passed down to my grandmother. I wonder how these tragedies were talked about. I think about what it may have been like to sit in a room with Dorcas, as she remembered her life as an enslaved person who lived to see freedom.
Finding Dorcas’ death certificate was a major turning point in researching the Binyard line of the family. It clearly stated that she died on July 20, 1916 and was buried at a place called Edgerly. The wonderful thing about a death certificate of this time period is when it includes the names of the parents and their birth place. Dorcas’ parents were, James and Hannah Binyard from Beaufort. Wow! But something peculiar was noticeable where Beaufort was written. Something had been written there prior and erased, then written over with “Beaufort”. It wasn’t until I began researching the word “Edgerly” that I realized what it previously said. James and Hannah Binyard were from Edgerly Plantation.
I vigorously began to research Edgerly Plantation. I needed to know who owned this place where my 4th great grandparents were enslaved. I needed to see if I could find anything indicating that they were actually there. This was a haunting feeling. I found that Edgerly was owned by a man named Philip Givens at the start of the Civil War. A fold3.com, then Footnote.com, document that I found in May 2011 was everything I was looking for. Even the experts will tell you that it is so rare to find a document like this when researching African American ancestry. On November 7th, 1862 Philip Givens wrote a memorandum of his property in St. Helena Parish which he claimed was “in the possession or destroyed by the Abolition or Federal Troops.” His list included….
“Hannah 60 Sam 40 Daniel 20 Harry 18 Stephen 16 Phillis 25 Hagar 20 Harriett 13”
I was absolutely stunned and my heart ached deeply. My ancestors were listed by name and age as part of an inventory of 45 enslaved, worth $27,000. That sum would be equivalent to approximately $643,000 today.
Memorandum of Phillip Givens, 1862.
“Confederate Citizen Files,” database on Fold3 (www.fold3.com), Citing NARA, Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, compiled 1874 – 1899, documenting the period 1861 – 1865, NARA Record Group 109, Affidavit of Philip Givens, 1862, https://www.fold3.com/image/32481137, accessed 17 Jun 2017.
My first trip to NARA, one month prior to finding this document, was an indication to me of what I was being called to do. I feared that I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for this kind of pain. But quickly, I realized there was no pain greater than the one they endured. And so, the journey would continue. Jane Binyard gave me plenty to work with in Stephen’s pension file. I had plenty of connections to make. I read those documents over and over. I transcribed them for better use. I began researching the witnesses, plantations, plantation owners, and children. I continued to post inquires on message boards and chat with other researchers about discoveries and techniques. I consulted with my cousin Ola, who has also been on this journey with me. The family tree was extending and we were tackling every clue. There wasn’t a family gathering that didn’t include discussions about our ancestors.
For all of my life, my family has celebrated Kwanzaa. It has been a way for us to come together with family and friends and acknowledge our ancestors as well as reconnect with Afrocentric values that guide us towards progress and prosperity. The last day of Kwanzaa celebrates the seventh principle, Imani, meaning faith. It falls on January 1st of the New Year. On this day my mother hosts, what we call, Imani Breakfast. The event is such a big deal that it takes a few days to prepare for it and a few days to clean up afterwards. On January 7th of 2014, after completing our final stretch of cleaning, I decided to check my Ancestry account. There were three messages from the same person. The first a modest introduction of who she was and why she was contacting me. Okay, I’m interested. The second, a few sentences about whether I wanted a picture of the headstone of Stephen Binyard. Ummm, of course. The third, a full blown insomniatic explanation of my 3rd great grand uncle, Stephen Binyard’s life! Now you have me. Here was my response.
“I cannot believe this. I am crying. My mother is crying. I have been to the archives in DC and brought back all the affidavits of Jane applying for Stephen’s pension. She was extraordinary. The family was extraordinary. We must speak. I can’t type.”
Our conversation following lasted hours. It was different. I knew she was a white woman but I trusted her story. You see, I grew up understanding that African, and people of African descent, have relationships with the ancestors. I understand that I can not refuse their work. They found someone to listen and they sent her to my family. From that very day, Kimberly Morgan and I have been on this journey together. We have used each other to untangle a family deeply entwined in Beaufort history. Since our meeting we have accomplished more than any one person can tackle in such a short period. We have been afforded opportunities that some professional researchers have yet to acquire. I don’t think there exists any story like ours. Two people from totally different backgrounds have been brought together, through our research, to re-establish an entire community by giving life to the ancestors.
The work that we have been doing is most important to us. We are committed to digging deep and uncovering the stories of my family and other families in Beaufort and the lowcountry of South Carolina. Every time we find new information it has led to more family connections. We have realized that there is no end to this journey. As long as we are in love with it, it will continue. Our families have been supportive of our projects. It is not an easy task to take on and requires time, patience, diligence and money. I’ve traveled to Beaufort at least three times per year since we met. The presentations that we do during Black History Month for the Beaufort County Library and in May at the Gullah Festival are voluntary. The funds that are used are our personal funds.
In March of this year I traveled back to NARA with approximately 45 USCT military pension file requests organized by myself, Kimberly and Ola. I had two days to pull, read and scan as much as I could that pertained to individuals connected to my family line, as well as other families that were important to Beaufort and lowcountry history. It was an extraordinary trip. I was in constant contact with Kim and Ola, via texting and emailing scanned documents. My excitement was immeasurable and the documents were jackpots!
One such recent find exposed more of the lives of Charles and Mary Rivers Finley. They were the parents of eight children, their first born being Isaiah. For a few years, based on his pension index found on Ancestry.com, I was aware that Isaiah served as a United States Colored Troop in Company B 103rd Regiment. What was interesting about the index is that Isaiah wasn’t filing for the pension, his mother Mary was.
Isaiah Finley, Civil War Pension Index.
“United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KDYV-41W : 3 April 2015), Isaiah Finley, 1889.
Since I hadn’t been to NARA in six years I never knew the details of this file. But on this day, I would cry for the second time, sitting at a table at NARA. On the 25th day of October 1889 Mary Finley, following the death of her husband Charles, began filing for the military pension of her son Isaiah. It was reasonable to assume that Isaiah had also passed. The first three sentences of one deposition hurt me to my core.
“My age I don’t know. My occupation is selling molasses cake here on King St. at my door. I live at #12 King St. Charleston SC.”
Civil War Pension Deposition, Mary Finley, 1893.
National Archives and Records Administration, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934. NARA Record Group 15, Pension Application, Mary Finley.
For more than seven years Mary was determined in her attempts to prove her worthiness of that pension. She had more than ten witnesses submit affidavits; from military comrades of her son to former neighbors. Her son Charles Finley Jr. supported her attempts by also writing the pension office for updates on the claim. From the documents, I have gathered that by 1895 Mary learned how to write and began writing her own letters. She was very humble in her requests. She was old, tired and in need of help. She desired to take care of herself and not depend on her children. A witness, Benjamin Singleton of Beaufort, stated in his affidavit that after the death of her husband Charles, Mary was solely dependent on her son Neptune. After Neptune died in 1896, her son Charles Jr. was her sole provider. Her seven page letter written on March 30, 1896 left me in complete shock. The writing was slightly difficult to read but said the following….
“My son is dead and I never have seen him since he bid me goodbye. Mother I am going to join the army in the United States service and if I should live until the war is close you will see me again and if I don’t live you will never see me. This [said gentleman] at the time of the last battle of war. I was a slave own[ed] by Mr. James Lawton and I could not send to my son during the war nor he did not send to me for he known he left me in slavery…”
Civil War Pension Deposition, Mary Finley, 1896.
National Archives and Records Administration, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934. NARA Record Group 15, Pension Application, Mary Finley.
My heart broke for her. Her son Isaiah, at an age of around 19, escaped slavery before the war commenced, survived the war, became sickly near after, and died in a hospital in Savannah.
Isaiah Finley, Register of Burials, 1866.
Ancestry.com. Savannah, Georgia, Cemetery and Burial Records, 1852-1939 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Savannah Georgia Cemetery and Burial Records. Savannah, Georgia: Research Library & Municipal Archives City of Savannah, Georgia.
When I first started researching my family I used to feel like there’d be a point where the story would come to an end. There were times when I didn’t think there was anything left to find. Absolutely impossible! What began as a search for answers to the stories Mema remembered has morphed into the most remarkable journey. It has changed my life in a glorious way. I have learned lessons I would’ve never learned as a simple high school math teacher from Harlem. There is no body of work that will equate to the emotions that the pages of documents in which my ancestor’s lives were delivered. I will never find better research partners than Kimberly and Ola. I will never find a better audience than my family members. I will never find better cheerleaders than my friends, colleagues, and fellow genealogy research addicts. Thank you all.
And thank you to my Babas and Mamas; Joe & Hester Finley, Charles & Mary Finley, Neptune & Dorcas “Ma” Finley, James & Hannah Binyard, Stephen & Jane Binyard, and the greatest Mama of them all, Rosalie “Mema” Dekle Smith. You gave us our story back.
About Akosua Moore
Akosua Moore was born and raised in Harlem, New York and currently lives in Georgia with her daughters. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at Clark Atlanta University and her Master of Arts in Math Education at City College of New York. Akosua loves researching her family history and hopes to continue her work with other African American genealogy projects and families in the Lowcountry. She and Kimberly Morgan have been featured in several Beaufort, SC newspaper articles for their work on the preservation of Akosua’s family history and that of the descendants of the formerly enslaved of Edgerly and surrounding plantations. In 2015 she had the opportunity to do contractual research on a special project for the producers of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.