Truth in Oral Histories

Sibbah M. wife of Daniel Mastison and mother of Lewis Adams, died March 1848
Image courtesy of James Deeter

As a student of family history, I’ve learned that “old white guys” like me generally know next to nothing about African American ancestry. This isn’t to say that we can’t follow a census record, collect a newspaper clipping, or attempt to extrapolate the identities behind the well-hidden faces in the 1850 Slave Schedules. But let’s face it: that’s about where it stops. White researchers often fail to grasp a true understanding of the Black American experience (or of any people of color). In terms of genealogical research, this becomes especially relevant with the addition of oral histories and the role they play in uncovering historical truth.

The importance of oral histories and the truths they contain became very clear to me recently, when I was asked to delve into a friend and co-worker’s very unknown family tree. My co-worker (we’ll call her Colette for privacy’s sake) is of mixed race, and knew little about her ancestry on any side. She made it clear to me, however, that she wasn’t really all that curious about her white ancestry. Rather, Colette wanted me to focus on her enslaved ancestors and find any possible connections to free persons of color. Enter one Old White Guy trying to figure things out.

I was fortunate. I soon discovered that Colette’s African American family lines were already well-researched, and was able to follow existing trees back to several ancestors who had worked the Underground Railroad. Going further back than that elicited a slew of challenges. Nevertheless, I quickly and excitedly assembled what information I could for her. At nearly sixty years old, I hated that Colette had spent so much of her life feeling disconnected from her own family history.

At this point in my tale of discovery, I’d like to introduce to you a couple of Colette’s enslaved ancestors. What I’m about to share here are not necessarily “slave narratives” that have been written down by the subject, as you might be imagining. These are derivative accounts, oral histories given by enslaved people which were then handed down through time, likely via the owner of the individual in question. While there can be many “holes” in this kind of tale, I think you will find that these narratives connect Colette to the complex fabric of American history.

Lewis Adams, 1785-1864, is a well-documented great-great-great-great-grandfather of Colette, a wonderful fact of which she had no prior knowledge. Ample evidence shows that Lewis Adams was an impressive individual who gave aid to the Underground Railroad and furthered the cause of freedom and emancipation.1 As if that weren’t enough, I was also drawn to some alleged ancestry contained in his family’s oral histories. According to these traditions, Lewis Adams may have been the son Samuel Adams. Yes, that Sam Adams—the Revolutionary leader who appears on our beer bottles to this day.His mother was an enslaved woman named Mary Sibley, or Sibbah.3 Lewis was sent by Samuel to live on the plantation of his kinsman William Adams in Virginia.

The first part of the oral history I found was written down in 1931, likely derived from a formerly enslaved man’s narrative which had been around at least since Lewis’s death in 1864:

“Louis Adams [sic] was born in or near Louisville Kentucky, between the years 1780-1785. His mother’s name was Mary Sibley. [“Sibbah”] She being a slave belonged to Samuel Adams a United States Senator. Louis [sic] taken his Master’s name who was also [sic] Louis father. He was of a disposition that his master could not keep around the rest of the slaves, so sent Louis and his mother north with a reasonable allotment to live on.” 4

The second part reveals a portion of a 2006 investigation by a descendant of Lewis Adams:

“…My connection seems to be through Samuel [Adams] IV, the surgeon. He served in the Rev. War and settled in VA, the area that eventually became KY, as a major landholder following the War. Family history states Samuel as being the father of a child, Lewis, born in 1785 to a slave girl named Sibbah. Samuel died in 1788, Lewis and his mother went to a William Adams in Shelby Co., KY. They, Lewis & Sibbah, were manumitted in 1813 and migrated to Champaign County, Ohio.”5

The author of the 2006 portion differentiates between each of the relevant “Samuel Adamses” of the day, and ultimately concludes that William Adams of Shelby County was likely Lewis’s real father. He is very clear to state that no one may ever be able to conclusively prove Lewis’s paternity. I found no source to conclude that Samuel Adams IV ever settled in Virginia or Kentucky, but I didn’t investigate this claim fully. However, what’s interesting here is that we have an oral history set down seventy years after Lewis’s death (and carried on to this day) that still puts forth the idea that Lewis Adams, a free man of color and a transporter of enslaved refugees on the Underground Railroad, might also be a direct descendant of Samuel Adams, a man who signed the Declaration of Independence. All I could say was, wow!

Another figure of note in Colette’s ancestry is James Gales (ca. 1782-1881), once considered to be one of the longest-lived persons in the state of Ohio.6 James Gales is Colette’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and along with his astounding longevity, he brings along his own set of potential famous associations. An oral history set down in his obituary from a century and a half ago reflects that he was “…several year’s [sic] in the service in the family of George Washington, and [of] his acquaintance with Lafayette.”

"Old Man Gales" Dies at the Age of One Hundred and Twenty-five. URBANA, O., March 26th--The news reached this city yesterday afternoon of the death of James Gales, commonly known as "Old Man Gales," a colored man, who was doubtless at the same time of his death the oldest man in the State of Ohio. His age has been variously estimated at from 115 to 125, but there is no authentic statement given of his age, until last spring, when E.R. Humes the Census Enumerator for Union Township, in which the old negro resided with a daughter, stated positively that papers had been unearthed showing conclusively that old man Gales was one hundred and twenty-five years old. Another fact that would indicate that the deceased was the Methuselah of the nineteenth century si that there are old, gray-haired men in this city who have passed their three-score and ten years that remember the deceased in their boyhood days as old man Gales. He was able to get about without much exertion until seized by the illness that resulted in his death, and last fall walked two miles to vote. Old man Gates [sic] was generally known throughout the country. He retained his mental faculties until within several weeks of his death, and would doubtless have lived a quarter of a century longer if he had not been an inveterate tobacco-chewer for about a hundred years. The only distinction the old man claimed, aside from his remarkable longevity, was several year's service in the family of George Washington just after the Revolution, and his acquaintance with Lafayette.
The Canton Daily Repository, Monday, Mar 28, 1881
The account of Mr. Gales’ time in the service of George Washington is almost immediately refuted by other printed sources of the day.7 However, these gainsayers offer no source to refute Mr. Gales’ history put forth in his 1881 obituary. Interestingly, the verbiage varies in different obituaries as to whether or not Mr. James Gales was “a servant to Washington” or had “year’s service in the family of George Washington”—a much broader picture. As there is a seven-year-old boy “James” in Washington’s 1799 list of enslaved people , I wondered if any of James Gales’s accounts might contain some truth after all. So I did what the gainsayers of 1881 should have bothered to do—I looked at the Washington family tree. Almost immediately, my eyes were drawn to the married name of his paternal grandmother: Mildred (Warner) (Washington) Gale.8

Consider only the fact of James’s surname. Then consider that the wealthy Gale family was entrenched in Virginia early on and were well-known associates of the Washingtons. When you consider this, the idea that James Gales was “…several year’s in the service in the family of George Washington” doesn’t seem quite so farfetched. This statement could easily include Washington’s extended family, perhaps even the people who were likely James’s own family: the Gales.

Clara a Negro Girl belonging to Ann Daniel born August 1st. Phill a slave belonging to Robert Daniel born August 10th. Sarah a slave belonging to Henry Johnson born July 23d. James a slave belonging to Gales Estate born July 12th. Benjamin Son of Phillis a slave belonging to John Wortham born Dec' 24th.Abram son of Bess a slve belonging to Alexd' Frazier born Nov' [...]
A possible birth record for James Gales: The parish register of Christ Church, Middlesex County, Va., from 1653 to 1812 By the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Virginia – Page 290.
In any event, the narratives which have been left behind validate the idea that Colette’s ancestral ties connect her to a larger American past. These oral histories connect her to a hero of the Underground Railroad, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps even the most famous founding father of them all. More important than “certain” proof, which is likely lost to the ages, these tales reveal the complex story of Colette’s family, and reflect the legacy of the Black American experience to which she is connected.



See: “The Underground Railroad in Champaign County, Illinois (and the) Lewis Adams Marker” located at: the intersection of U.S. 68 and Lewis B Moore Drive (County Route 55), on the left when traveling north on U.S. 68 in Freedom Grove Park

Per Wikipedia: [Samuel] “Adams [one of the founding fathers] inherited his father’s brewery on King Street (modern-day State Street). Some historians say he was a brewer, while others describe him as a maltster.”

See: memorial no. 8249496 for a brief biography of her life and a picture of her headstone.

AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum at and as per Art Thomas, Sept. 10, 2000

AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum at and as per Art Thomas, Dec. 11, 2006

The Canton Daily Repository, Monday, Mar 28, 1881, Canton, OH Page: 1 as shown

Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Saturday, Mar 26, 1881, Cincinnati, OH Page: 1 states: “Another remarkable incident is that he was never a servant to Washington.”

Mildred (Warner) (Washington) Gale 1771-1701

Except in the refutation of it found in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette mentioned above.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

10 thoughts on “Truth in Oral Histories

  1. What an interesting story! “Colette” is fortunate to have you researching her ancestry. The newspaper article you found was fascinating. Thanks for sharing this story with us.

      1. Well that’s a bummer! What were they thinking?? As a priest told my husband, when he was looking for a baptismal record for a bride-to-be who had been baptized by one of the medical staff who delivered her (because they weren’t sure she would make it), “Fr. So-and-so was a bit lax in his record-keeping. If there is any justice, he’s now helping St. Peter with the Book of Life!”

  2. I recently had experience with oral histories related to a lost 1781 SC Rev War battle site. A family had lived on the property since at least 1800 [173 years proven] (some records lost to court house fires). In the mid 1800s at least three generations were living there. Oral tradition is that the family bought the land from a 1762 grant holder. I have proved that part incorrect, but the property was originally the 1762 grant.
    A 1944 newspaper story with oral history about one of the owners who died at 85 in 1933 tells of him as a young man collecting bullets after a rain and that there was a big battle there. The accepted history books place the battle elsewhere. A battlefield archaeology group have verified my research and I am thankful for that bit of oral history to add to the story. I have found there is always a grain of truth.
    I enjoyed your article very much, and congrats to Collette for having such a rich history and you for digging it out.

  3. Thank you for this research. I am most definitely interested in the account of Louis Adams. My Gr.Gr.Gr.Grandfather- Frank Adams, was born about 1813 or so. I do not know his Parentage but I have found him in Louisvillle, Ky., in 1850. He is listed as Mulatto. I would love to know more about your research from that time period, as it may be that Louis and Frank might have been related. Thank you for any help.

  4. Pleased to see that someone acknowledges the difficulty of doing slave genealogy. Absent, as you state, “certain” proof the tendency is to not accept oral histories. Sally Hemming’s and Thomas Jefferson comes to mind. I have been researching my ancestor who lived in Frankfort, KY. He was born in 1784 (mulatto) and died there in 1853. He was well connected in the building and life of Frankfort. He was enslaved until 1816. I would love to connect with you re your research in Kentucky.

  5. Jeff. This is awesome. I too am an Adams descendent. I would love to connect with “Colette.” Much of the family still lives in Ohio. In fact, the family has been holding reunions for more than a century. I just started my own ancestry project. The Adams side was a piece of cake… it’s the others that leave me with more questions than answers. Anyway.. I would love to get in touch.

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