Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sarah Gilbert Johnson: A Trip to Kansas, A Step Forward

One of the most elusive of all my ancestors is Sarah Gilbert Johnson. Here's what I know about her: according to the marriage records of Clay County, Missouri, she married Ezekiel Johnson in September 1867. She appears only in the 1880 census of Jackson County [Kansas City], Missouri. There her age is given as 31 years old. Her birthplace is said to be Missouri. It appears that her father's birthplace originally was written down as "U.S." and then stricken through and corrected to read "Mo." Her mother's birthplace is listed as "U.S."

The 1920 census of Jackson County describes Zeke Johnson as widowed, so Sarah apparently died before 1920. I can't find a death certificate for her in the excellent Missouri State Archives.

For awhile, I knew so little about her that I believed her surname was "Gibson." I asked Aunt Delorise about her and she said, "I don't know . . . that's back when someone was an Indian." The story has circulated for decades in the family that Sarah Gilbert was an Indian. That's never been substantiated in any way.

In trying to find Sarah Gilbert Johnson, I've concentrated on Clay County, Missouri. There are several reasons for this. First, that's where she was married. Second, her husband Ezekiel Johnson lived for awhile.

Clay County was a complex place to reside in the mid-1800's. It was known as "Little Dixie" because a lot of Southerners lived there with slaves. Many of these people came from Kentucky, which may explain why the county was named for Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay. There seems to have been a virtual "sister county" relationship between Clay County, Missouri, and Mason County, Kentucky. Just to the southwest of Clay County, across the Missouri River, is Wyandotte County, Kansas (which under a unified government, is now also Kansas City, Kansas.)

Kansas was not a slave territory--indeed, Kansas was a hotbed of abolitionist activity. Slaves were known to escape Missouri by simply wading a cross the Missouri river. So perhaps it would make sense to look for Sarah Gilbert's original family in Kansas.

First, however, a couple of preliminary matters: I think for the purpose of this research, we should assume that Sarah Gilbert was not an Indian. And I think before we cross the river, we should check the slave schedules for Missouri.

The 1850 slave schedule show just one Gilbert in northwest Missouri. That's Abel Gilbert of Weston, Platte County, Missouri. Platte County is adjacent to Clay County on the north and also is just across the Missouri from Kansas. Abel Gilbert has one slave, an 18 year old female. We note this fact; we also casually note that Abel is from Kentucky's wife's name is Hannah. We now move on to Kansas.

On the 1880 census in Wyandotte County, we find William Gilbert, age 52; his wife, Hannah, age 55; and their daughter, Magdalen, age 10. William and Hannah are from Kentucky.

On the 1900 census in Wyandotte County, Hannah Gilbert is the head of a household; William seems to have passed away during the intervening two decades. Hannah is described as widowed at age 67; she is said to be fro Missouri. She lives with a daughter, Mary Perkins, who is 49 years old, and two boarders, Charles Frye and Rada Frye, whose father is said to be from Kentucky.

The 1895 Kansas state census shows Kentucky-born Hannah Gilbert, 65 years old. The 1905 Kansas state census enumerated Hannah Gilbert, 73, from Kentucky, with Mary Perkins, 48.

The other Kansas state censuses tell an interesting tale:

Peace Gilbert 38 M M Labor Ky
Hannah " 38 F B Domest. Ky
Mary F. " 14 F B Mo
Lourella " 13 F B "
Anna " 2 F B "


Wm Gilbert 60 M B Labor Ky Mo (where from to Kansas
Hannah J do 60 F " do
WH do 28 M " Laborer do
Mary Perkins 21 F " servant do
MA Gilbert 7 " " Kansas
Maggie do 3 " ' do
Mimi Read 94 " " Kentucky Kentucky

I'm inclined to believe that Hannah Gilbert was born around 1832 0r 1833. In any event, she would have been old enough to have been Sarah Gilbert's mother. I think we have a good working hypothesis that this may be Sarah Gilbert's original family. The rest of the hypothesis is that the family came to Missouri with slaveowners from Kentucky and at some point, made their way to Kansas from northwest Missouri.

But where is Sarah Gilbert herself? Well, by the time of the 1870 federal census, she was married to Ezekiel Johnson. By the time of the 1865 Kansas state census, she may have been living with the Johnson family in Missouri.

In any event, this is a step forward; now let's work with the hypothesis and see where we get.

UPDATE (4/1/07, 6:35 am PDT): I've just examined the 1870 census and found the family discussed above listed as "Gelbert." The family is enumerated as follows:

Isaac Gelbert, 53, Laborer, Kentucky
Hannah J., 58, Keeping house, Kentucky
Mary Perkins, 20, Cook, Kentucky
Luella Gelbert, 19, Servant, Missouri
Elbella, 5, Kansas
Minta Ann, 1, Kansas

The family in 1870 is found in Quindaro, Kansas. According to historian and law professor Harriet C. Frazier, Quindaro was "a haven for runaway slaves from places such as Platte County, Missouri." Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them, 1783-1865 (McFarland & C0., 2004), p. 147. Professor Frazier also notes that Quindaro, once a town of 5,000 persons, hosted a stop on the Underground Railroad. Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves, at 176. Today, Quindaro has been overtaken by the city of Kansas City, Kansas. In her book, Professor Frazier includes a photograph of a statue of John Brown at 27th and Sewell streets in the section of Kansas City, Kansas, that once was Quindaro.

1 comment:

The footnoteMaven said...


I found some extremely well done material that may be of interest to you at IN MOTION - The African American Migration Experience.

In images there are posters advertising the move to Kansas, and in texts, books regarding the movement to Kansas.

Good background material! I hope it is of some benefit.