Shining a Light on Historical Transactions: Reviving Hidden Legacies in Bexar County


By Jadyn Evans

This post is from our 2024 Spring Internship series.

This spring semester, I had the opportunity to continue my research about slavery in Bexar County, San Antonio, from 1850-1860 and turn it into an internship project. Last summer, fellow university students were allowed to work with the National Parks Service on their Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project dedicated to documenting the spaces, places, and individuals whose lives have been institutionalized by slavery in the U.S. We were the first group really to be reporting the institution of slavery in Texas at a much smaller scope and what that meant for the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Not many people realize that the freedom network for enslaved individuals ran north and south. It was easier for those in the lower southern states like Louisiana and Texas to make their way down to Mexico rather than pass through multiple southern states to get to the north. Because of its proximity to Mexico, San Antonio was a hub for those fleeing enslavement. Though they would have been closer to the border of Mexico when they reached San Antonio, it was not without its challenges. San Antonio, at that time, was the largest enslaved person-holding and auctioning city in proximity to Mexico in Texas. Many who braved the journey to Mexico were caught and brought back to Bexar County to either be auctioned off again or given back to their enslavers. This history of slavery in Texas has been long overlooked; when people look at Texas, they do not associate it with being a southern state that also succeeded from the union but rather a western state with cowboys, saloons, and the Wild West because of this many individuals have lost their personhood, their story.

When I started working with NPS, my first objective was to get permission from the city to document the different spaces of slavery in San Antonio so that they could put it in their national databases of locations associated with the Underground Railroad and slavery. My objective was to get permission to document the location of the old Bexar County jailhouse and courthouse. Back then, the old jail and courthouse used to be part of the same building. It was located across from the government palace, which still stands today, and was later replaced by a newer courthouse on the adjacent street. Both buildings have been torn down, and new ones are standing in their place. It is still a significant space in Texas history. Getting to list the location could not have been more problematic. Finding those who could permit me to list the space proved extremely difficult. The Office of Historic Preservation was my first call; I was then redirected to several other departments, such as zoning and cultural heritage. It was not until finally that our research caught the eye of the local news network, and we were able to do it. Finally, someone from the Office of Historic Preservation signed off on letting us list the site.

After listing the site, I set out to find the names of those who were sold or bought from the city jail and courthouse. For the next two months, I started going through probate records, bills of sale, property deeds, runaway ads, and reward ads to continue exploring the history of these two sites. From these records, not only did we recognize the names of those who were enslaved, but we also began to see who enslaved them. There were many notable names in these records, which we see all around San Antonio and are taught as heroes in San Antonio history, but their status had covered their ugly truth. Their names are remembered on buildings and streets, places we pass by daily, yet none of us know the true story. So, I started to tell the story.

After that summer, I started my senior year at St. Mary’s University. I was still researching those enslaved who could be traced to both locations when one of my classmates who had heard about my summer research asked if I would be interested in starting a cohort at the school. The cohort would work to document the names of enslaved individuals throughout all of Bexar County from 1850-1860, since that previous summer she had joined the project at the University of Maryland where she was creating a dataset for their database. I was immediately interested especially when she stated that when we make this dataset, it will also be published with the database, filling in a gap where slavery in Texas is concerned. When we created this cohort, we wanted a team of support and a team that we could turn to for guidance. While we relied on our professor at school, we also used to our advantage the connections my partner had made throughout the summer to perfect our cohort.

Our first step was to find our starting point. Previously, in the case of NPS, we had already gone through the sales of enslaved individuals starting from volume A. The volumes of the deeds extend from A-V and are split into two volumes (volume A-1, volume A-2). Since we had already got a massive chunk of the names from those books, we decided to pick up the dataset at the last letter that still needed to be finished. We started on volume K-1. We found these records relatively simple to go through. While it could initially hurt your eyes to look at 19th-century writing, it was relatively simple to decipher. It also helped us have a fantastic Bexar County Spanish archives team who could pull out what we needed from a quick scan. Some parts of the records were also underlined with the names of those being sold and their ages. Before we fully gathered our information, we had to establish what this dataset would look like, what dataset definitions of the terms we would use to describe the information in this dataset looked like, and how far back we wanted this dataset to spread after discussing and writing out our plans when we started organizing our dataset.

We created three different datasheets in the set for enslaved individuals, enslavers, and document types. As we went from page to page of volume K-1, we would stop at each section that had either been marked for us by the archivist or by the ones underlined in pencil and fill out each datasheet. For the enslaved individuals, we created a source ID and person ID number of each person so that they could be easily located within the dataset as well as their registered given name source type (whether it was a sale trust or a release), the deed book they were located in and their volume, their source placement, document, number, page placement, date recorded, location recorded registered surname if they had one, assigned age, imputed gender, assessed value, person status, sale type, sale date, associated place, and their enslaver ID. We did this similarly with the enslavers with their source ID, source placement, location recorded, enslaved person ID, first and last names, and official title. After we finished both volumes of K, we rounded to about 50 names added to our dataset.

We also had to ask ourselves where to stop when adding names. We decided to start with the 50 to publish with We were still going to continue to add the more we found, but we wanted to focus more now on tracing ancestry and descendants. In doing this, we acquired the help of a professor from Rice University, who taught us what to do and what to look for when doing this type of work. At some point during our meeting, he asked for a name from our dataset to show us how to trace her name. When we gave him the name of an 18-year-old enslaved girl named Mary Ann, and he started his search, he was amazed to find that he had come across this girl before, only he had lost her when Mary Ann was put on a boat from Louisiana to Galveston, but here she was we had her records, we had her enslavers, it was a full circle moment. Not only did he find Mary Ann but also her companions, Titus and Andrew, enslaved men around the age of 30 who were on the ship with Mary Ann to Galveston and brought into Bexar County, where they were sold to the same enslaver. We had started putting back together her story. It was indeed a moment of awe.

Tori Mejia and Jadyn Evans at the Lemon Project Symposium, 2024.

While we started this dataset, we also applied to present our research at the 14th annual Lemon Symposium on March 22, 2024. Ultimately, our goal for the first 50 on the dataset was to represent them at this symposium and help tell the history of slavery in Texas. While working on this project while entering the new semester, I also found it an opportunity to combine my research with an internship class I had been taking this semester. With the professor’s help, I turned my research from being an individual to being an internship opportunity. I was very grateful for this because I was already passionate about what I was doing and wanted to put total effort into it.

Part of completing this internship included preparing for the symposium. I reflected on what I had done each week to get to the final days we had to present in Virginia—almost a year’s worth of research compiled into only a few slides. It was difficult, especially when we were given only a 15-minute limit to talk. We wanted to do our research justice to those we were representing. We finally arrived the last week before the symposium, so we kicked it into high gear. Creating our slides and constantly going over our talking points. It wasn’t my first time talking to an audience, but this would be my first time talking about this subject out of state. It was a bit nerve-wracking, especially when I was going to be in a room filled with experts in this field, but I had to remember to have confidence and to tell the history of my city that needs to be said. In our talk, we discussed the process of documenting enslaved individuals for our dataset; our definitions were, in this instance, difficulties with tracing ancestry and descents, like when it comes down to the names; during this time, everything was passed down orally, so when they had to write the names of enslaved individuals they had written down the name that they heard and thought was spelled. In our talk, we mentioned another girl from our dataset who had appeared multiple times throughout the volume, but each time, it was with a different spelling name, either chery or cherry; not only were we uncertain of the spelling, but we did not know if it was even how to pronounce her name as it was unique to the time, it could have been a french translation of the name” cher”Cherie” or something different front which was complicated when trying to trace her story. We also discussed our values and mission for this dataset and why it is essential to give back to personhood.

After the symposium, our research began to wind down. I started adding the names of previous volumes to continue the dataset. Next semester, however, I will continue going through the following letter and its volumes so that, hopefully, we can have a fully published dataset by next year.

This internship project has been a transformative experience, allowing me to delve into the depths of history and give voice to the voiceless. While the journey has been challenging, the opportunity to uncover forgotten stories and contribute to a more inclusive narrative of our past has been enriching. Much work is still being done, but I am committed to continuing this important work and ensuring that the legacy of those who came before us lives on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *