It was an attempt to solve a 200-year-old mystery that involved untold hours of research and eventually led to a search of legal archives and 19th Century records in the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse.
But the diligence and the persistence and the effort paid off when LaKisha David finally found her first known relative in America -- a slave bought, apparently, solely to provide children to a man whose wife was barren.
“We are planning to hold a family reunion in Avoyelles Parish in 2017,” David said. “I have been talking to my mom about a date, but we haven’t chosen when yet.”
She said she is looking forward to touring the areas where her great-great-great-great-grandmother called home and may have traveled as she accompanied the couple who bought her.
David said she may still have relatives in this area. Her family moved to Rapides Parish in the late 1800s. Her grandmother, Lugusta Voorhies, married Carnell David of Hamlet, N.C., in Alexandria in 1943, and the couple moved to North Carolina.
David said she could trace her family back to Louisiana and to Alexandria, but that was as far as she could go.
The “break in the case” came when David learned of a genealogical book by E. W. McDonald of Dry Prong. That book, LaCroix Descendants 1611-1991, included six pages detailing the story of Samuel Glass and his wife, Mary LaCroix Glass, and the couple’s only slave -- an 18-year-old girl named Milo.
McDonald, 89, said he was surprised to hear from David, who was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time. She is now pursuing her doctorate in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana.
“Samuel Glass and Mary LaCroix lived at Pointe Maigre, near Center Point,” McDonald said. “It wasn’t a plantation, just a small house. It appears the only slaves they ever had were Milo and her four children.”
McDonald said it is assumed Milo was bought to provide children for the couple because Mary was unable to have children.
“Of course, it may have just been that Mary didn’t want to be bothered by old Sam,” McDonald added with a laugh.
Glass was a leader in his community, being appointed by the Police Jury to serve as the Ward 1 road commissioner in 1824 and 1833 and as a voting commissioner for the Pointe Maigre district in 1834.
David said that being able to trace her family back to 1811 allowed her “to find a sense of security that I didn’t have before. I felt that I needed answers to my questions about my family’s origins, so I began searching for records that might give me those answers.”
That intensified search began in 2012.
Glass bought Milo in 1811 from a neighbor, John Say. Glass renamed her Tamar. David’s ancestor was James, the youngest of Tamar’s sons.
The “true detective” in the story is Gwendolyn Braxton, a friend David had met on Ancestry.com. She was working as a paralegal in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston and had done work on tracing ancestry back to slavery before. David asked for her assistance in the case.
David was pleased with the information she found in the McDonald book, but like those who didn’t want to take 12 Years a Slave solely on Solomon Northup’s written account, she wanted to see physical proof.
Braxton was making a trip to central Louisiana and worked in a side trip to Marksville.
She searched archives at the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse. A Clerk of Court’s employee suggested she look in documents concerning the sale of property, to possibly find reference to the sale of slaves.
While turning the pages of the conveyance record book for the early 1800s, she stopped abruptly when she read an entry that read:
On the sixth day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand eighteen hundred and thirteen, Before me undersigned judge of the Parish of Avoyelles came Samuel Glass of said Parish who made oath that John Say of the Parish did on the tenth day of August in the year eighteen hundred and eleven sold him a negro girl named Milo aged about eighteen years old.
The sale was apparently not recorded in 1811 because the notary public, Alexander Plauche, lost it.
Two years after that transaction, Glass asked Say to write him another bill of sale that he could file in the courthouse. Say said he had given him a good bill of sale before and he would give him another one -- when Glass returned the first bill of sale.
Glass then got two witnesses to sign affidavits attesting to the 1811 sale and to Say’s more recent comments acknowledging the sale had indeed taken place.
Braxton copied the documents she found and mailed them to David.
The discovery meant a lot to David.
“She (Milo) wasn’t just a slave in this anonymous cloud of slavery anymore,” David said. “She was real -- as if she were my mother.”
David has not been able to determine where Milo was born or who her parents were. At this time, her family tree begins with Milo in Avoyelles Parish.
David continued her search for her family’s origins by paying $299 for a DNA test by African Ancestry that determined her family descends from the Tikar, Hausa and Fulani tribes of Cameroon, located in central West Africa on the Gulf of Guinea.
She said she has been to Ghana, also in West Africa, and had intended to return to that region at some point. She said that now when she goes to Africa, she will be looking for relatives.
When she comes to Avoyelles, she may take one more try at finding her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents by looking for possible bills of sale involving Milo’s previous owner, John Say.
It may be a long shot, but it’s one she wants to take.
She personally recommends tracking down family history, even when it may be painful.
“I always knew my ancestors came to this country as slaves,” she said. “That was not a surprise. But to see documents like a bill of sale or a receipt for the purchase of your ancestor is painful.”
More of the story
Of course, the real investigator in this case was McDonald.
An interesting part of Milo’s story is the fact that as he lay dying in bed in 1838, Samuel Glass asked his wife to promise that Tamar and the four children would be given their freedom after Mary died.
Shortly thereafter, Mary Glass made a will that instructed that her five slaves -- Tamar, Betsy, Bill, Jackson Maxwell and Jim -- be emancipated and “be free from all kinds of servitude to me and my heirs or assigns, their freedom to take place after my death in pursuance of the laws of Louisiana which do exist or may exist at the time of my death.”
Her will also bequeathed each slave a cow and a calf upon her death. Bill, Jackson and Jim were also each to be given a horse.
McDonald noted that there were not many slaves in the Pointe Maigre area because it was sparsely populated and the land was not particularly suited to large agricultural operations.
Mary Glass chose the witnesses and executor of her will carefully, wanting people she could trust to carry out her wishes even if those wishes were unpopular with neighbors and heirs. As were most women at that time, Mary Glass could not read or write.
Her chosen executor, Robert McNeal, died before she did and was not replaced prior to her death, which may have contributed to the later troubles with the will.
It was feared that Mary’s heirs would be upset with freeing the slaves because the slaves’ value would be a significant part of the overall value of the estate.
Mary Glass sold her five slaves in 1841 to Daniel Kennedy Richey. That sale was recorded. Richey sold them back to her in 1844, but that sale was not recorded at the time.
In May 1847, shortly before her death, Mary Glass filed documents in the courthouse noting that the sale of the five slaves had been rescinded. The document also rescinded the sale of three cows and calves, two young horses, 30 hogs and 80 barrels of corn. Richey had paid $2,000 in cash for all of the property.
McDonald theorizes that the reason for not filing the purchase from Richey was to let the legal record show the slaves were still owned by Richey, who is believed to have been sympathetic to their being freed according to Samuel and Mary Glass’s stated wishes.
By filing the document prior to her death, it would have followed that the slaves would once again fall under the conditions of her 1838 will, which granted freedom to the five slaves upon her death.
Mary died in 1847. When the estate was being sold off, the sale of the slaves by Richey to Mary Glass was unearthed.
McDonald wrote that the controversy over freeing Tamar and her children “apparently was well-known and widespread.”
Mary Glass’ nephew, Peter LaCroix, was named executor of the estate and hired John P. Waddill -- known today as the attorney who worked to secure Solomon Northup’s freedom in 1853. LaCroix asked the court to order all property be sold.
The issue had dragged on in the courts for eight years when Waddill died of yellow fever in 1855. Two years later, the court appointed Waddill’s brother and law partner, W.W. Waddill, as the testamentary executor to represent the slaves and the heirs and resolve the dispute.
Looking at that decision from a modern perspective, we would see a glaring conflict of interest in one attorney representing the heirs who wanted to sell the slaves and the slaves who had been promised their freedom.
A petition was made to sell all property to satisfy the Glass estate’s debt.
Since there was no opposition from the heirs to selling the property -- which included the slaves -- the order was issued. In 1857, slaves had no voice in legal matters and the executor appointed to represent their interests -- W.W. Waddill -- made no objection on their behalf to the sale.
So, 10 years after their owner had said they should be freed, that freedom was denied.
“This order was carried out and completely reversed Mary Glass’ expressed wishes,” McDonald wrote.
David’s ancestor, Jim, was sold to Francoise Tassin for $1,555. As an example of the comparable worth of slaves to land, Tassin also bought 528 acres of Mary Glass’ property for $150.
In 1870, Jim was known as Jacques Tassin in the Census records and was married to a 25-year-old woman named Caroline. However, in the 1880 Census he was listed as James Voorhies and was married to a 24-year-old Indian woman named Lina. By 1900 he was a widower. His older brother, Bill, was also living with him at that time and had adopted the last name Maxwell.
James had three sons -- Jemail Tassin, born in 1867, Ferrier Tassin, born in 1869, and Stephen Voorhies, born in 1871.
In the 1880 Census, the first two sons’ surnames were changed to Voorhies. Ferrier’s name was changed to Cad Voorhies. His son, also named Cad, moved to Alexandria and is one more link in the chain that binds LaKisha David to this parish.
David’s desire to know her family history, and McDonald’s investigation and research into the LaCroix family history, have combined to provide many readers a glimpse into a world long past, a world -- as another writer once penned -- that is now “gone with the wind.”