Journey to Freedom: Jack and Calfurnia Carter

Research by Kristi Farrow
Article by Elizabeth Harbin

Originally published in the Battlefield Dispatch Vol. 7 No. 1 Winter 2019 - read the rest of the issue here.

The enslaved individuals at the Carter farm were the backbone of the operation, but their lives and legacies extend far beyond their legal identity as slaves. They established families and communities that defied their status as property and formed bonds that lasted generations. Many experienced emancipation firsthand in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. Some, born as slaves, welcomed children into a new world of freedom. It is difficult to interpret their lives from cold, statistical data. However, through careful and detailed research, Battle of Franklin Trust staff has learned more about the lives of two Carter slaves – and later freed people – in particular: Calfurnia and Jack Carter.

Calfurnia “Callie” Carter was born into slavery about 1823. She was the property of a widow, Susan Parrish, who allowed Calfurnia and another female slave to live as free women of color. Parrish was indicted by the State of Tennessee in 1843 for this very allowance, which, according to the record, went against the “peace and dignity of the State.” When Parrish died in 1845, Calfurnia's experience of relative freedom ended; the executors of the estate rented her out for two months and ten days for the sum of $5.85.

By 1847, Calfurnia was the property of Fountain Branch Carter. The exact date of purchase by Fountain Branch is unknown.1 However, she came to live at the Carter farm between 1845 and 1847 when she gave birth to her first child with Jackson “Jack” Carter, another of Fountain Branch’s slaves. Jack and Calfurnia had at least six children together: Clara, Charles, Frank, Sarah, Petronella, and Horace.

Little is known about Jack’s childhood, though he was born about 1830. His name was first referenced in public record in 1860 when charges were brought against a neighbor who "beat and abused the slave of F. B. Carter.” The depositions of the witnesses illustrate a violent event in which Jack, working on a fence, was verbally and physically attacked by the man. Fountain Branch’s personal medical ledger records multiple visits from a local doctor to tend Jack’s wounds.2

The war years greatly impacted all at the Carter farm. The total number of slaves in 1860 was twenty-eight. By 1864, only a few remained, including Jack and Calfurnia.3 On the afternoon of November 30, 1864, Fountain Branch, his children, grandchildren, slaves, and neighbors took refuge in the basement of the house as the Battle of Franklin raged outside. Just months later, the long war was over.

The ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 made slavery illegal in the United States. This new birth of freedom for Jack and Calfurnia led them down two very different paths.

Following the war, Jack was a “hired hand” at the Carter farm.4 In October 1866, Jack was found guilty of larceny, though later pardoned for this crime. Jack was in trouble with the law again in 1870 when he was charged with stealing cows. Fountain Branch paid a bond of $1,000 to release Jack from jail. Fountain Branch then served as a witness and most likely hired Jack a lawyer. This case was never prosecuted.5 While the nature of Jack’s relationship with his former owner is unclear, Fountain Branch’s financial and personal commitment to Jack in this event is significant. Just over a year later, Jack was among the four people in the room when Fountain Branch passed away.

In his will, Fountain Branch bequeathed Jack, Calfurnia, Eliza and her son William6 200 acres of land. In 1879, Jack sold the land for $25, leaving the others with nothing. Later that same year, Jack was arrested again for theft and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. Even when discharged from prison early in 1887, he continued his life of crime, and, unfortunately, his name eventually faded from the records. Jack’s death date and burial location are unknown.

By the end of 1879, Calfurnia was left to raise her children on her own. Though little is known about her later years, she raised her children in freedom. Her daughters, Clara, Petronella, and Dilsey,7 married prominent farmers who owned their own homes and properties. Calfurnia’s son Frank, an adolescent in 1865, became famous as a champion bear fighter and worked in Nashville where he owned his own home. Calfurnia’s children created their own opportunities in a rapidly changing world, and she lived long enough to see them prosper. Calfurnia died in 1902, and was buried in Toussaint L’Ouverture Cemetery in Franklin, TN.

Freedom in 1865 led to countless opportunities for former slaves. Some prospered; others were not as fortunate. The decades after the Civil War brought new challenges of integrating nearly four million formerly enslaved people into a fragmented society heavily damaged by war. Through the hardships, however, the Union was preserved, and these men, women, and children were free. The lives of Jack and Calfurnia – and the others enslaved at the Carter farm – are vital to understanding this transformative period in history. We hope to learn more and to preserve their stories for generations to come.

Jack and Calfurnia’s names were added to the collection of names in the Carter basement in October 2018. These names rest on chairs that represent the men, women, and children who took refuge in the basement during the Battle of Franklin. Thanks to Kristi’s research, we are now confident that Jack and Calfurnia were in the basement the night of November 30, 1864.

Jack and Calfurnia’s names were added to the collection of names in the Carter basement in October 2018. These names rest on chairs that represent the men, women, and children who took refuge in the basement during the Battle of Franklin. Thanks to Kristi’s research, we are now confident that Jack and Calfurnia were in the basement the night of November 30, 1864.

We would like to thank Kristi Farrow, Executive Assistant and Genealogist for BOFT, for her research on Jack, Calfurnia, and all the enslaved men and women who lived and worked at the Carter and McGavock farms.

Kristi elaborates on researching enslaved stories:

What are the greatest challenges in researching enslaved men, women, and children?

Black History is often oral, and oral histories are infamous for their inaccuracies. Combine this with the fact that freedmen wanted to forget the past, set it aside, create a new life for themselves, move forward and leave the ugly past behind them. Most oral histories begin with a grain of truth. Finding the grain of truth is the key. I find the most difficult aspect, not from a technical standpoint but a human one, is not becoming overwhelmed with the inhumanity of the experience.

What are – by contrast – the greatest rewards?

Finding a human story and bringing that human story to view. It is an incredible adrenaline rush. Knowing that this person and their story could have been lost forever and I had even a small part in reintroducing it? That makes my heart happy.

What do you hope to learn more about in the future?

This is hard. Because there is just so much we don’t know yet. I want to learn more about every aspect of the slavery and freedom journey for the McGavock and Carter slaves: the individuals, their experiences, their connections, their daily life on each farm, and their successes.