DO YOU BELONG TO PRISCILLA’S FAMILY?
Take a Journey through the Ball Family Records to Find Out
In July, 1756, a ten year old girl – an enslaved child from Sierra Leone – was sold at auction in Charleston, South Carolina. She was brought across the Atlantic on the slave ship Hare, sold to the rice planter Elias Ball, and then taken to his Comingtee plantation. Ball recorded his purchase of the little girl in his “blanket book,” the ledger containing information on his slaves, where he gave her the name “Priscilla.” We know from Ball family records that Priscilla was moved to various Ball family plantations during her lifetime, that she married a man named Jeffrey, that she had ten children, and that she lived until about the age of sixty-five. Genealogists estimate that Priscilla has about 25,000 living descendants.
Priscilla’s life story is no different from that of thousands of other enslaved African women, except for one thing: We have an unbroken document trail linking Priscilla back to her ancestral home in Sierra Leone, and forward to her living descendants today. As far as we know, Priscilla’s known descendants – a family living in Charleston South Carolina -- are the only African Americans of slavery descent who have this remarkable distinction. They can trace their ancestry back to Africa for more than 250 years with a chain of documents that includes slave ship records, slave sale records, plantation records, and government records after 1870, all miraculously dovetailing into a family history in paper documents.
Two researchers assembled this unprecedented document trail. The first was Edward Ball, author of the prize-winning book Slaves in the Family (1998). A descendant of the Ball family plantation owners, Edward Ball researched the history of his own family’s slaves through several generations using family records, and in the process he found references to Priscilla. He was able to trace one line of her descendants to her 4th great grandson, an African American man, named Thomas Martin, a school administrator in Charleston. By chance, Ball already knew Martin, and one of the most dramatic moments in the book is when he took the family tree he assembled to Martin’s house and showed it to his family. There was Priscilla on one side of the page, and Thomas and his daughter Thomalind on the other – an African American family and a particular ancestor from Africa over two centuries in the past. Ball says:
Thinking about Priscilla, the Martin family began to smile at one another in a bewildered way. Suddenly there was a wave of laughter around the room, and everyone was talking at once.
The second researcher was Joseph Opala, an historian known for his study of Bunce Island, an 18th century British slave castle in Sierra Leone. Opala discovered that the records of the slave ship Hare – on the very voyage that brought Priscilla to America – still existed in the New-York Historical Society Library; and when he went through the documents, he found a letter the Hare’s captain wrote to the ship owner before he left Sierra Leone, and another, soon after he arrived in Charleston. To his surprise, he also found a detailed record of the sale of slaves from the Hare, listing every buyer, including Elias Ball who bought three boys and two girls for £460. One of those girls was Priscilla. Thus, Opala finished compiling the document trail that Edward Ball had already begun.
Specialists in African American genealogy point to what they call the “1870 Brick Wall,” the seemingly insurmountable barrier between what African Americans can learn about their family history from government records after the Civil War, and the void before then when only private plantation records existed. In Professor Henry Louis Gates’ acclaimed PBS series “African American Lives,” he researched the families of black celebrities, starting with official records, and then shifting to DNA tests when those records petered out in 1870. Researchers have assumed for a long time that the 1870 Brick Wall was an unbreachable divide.
But the story of Priscilla and her descendants is the one exception to the rule, the only case we know of today where the 1870 Brick Wall has been shattered and a 257-year document trail connects a living descendant to an African ancestor. Indeed, Professor Gates was so taken with the story of Priscilla that he gave it a prominent place in Episode 1 of his new documentary series on PBS, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” Professor Gates talks to Thomalind Polite – the 5th great granddaughter of Priscilla – in Charleston, and meets with Edward Ball, who helped uncover her family’s unique story.
But Thomalind Polite and her family are not the only descendants of Priscilla. There are many other lines of descent beyond the one that Edward Ball happened to encounter in his own research. There are undoubtedly thousands more of her descendants alive today, and we can identify them through careful research in the Ball family records and in public records that link to them after 1870.
This project gives African Americans the opportunity to learn Priscilla’s story in all its interesting detail, including an amazing homecoming journey she took to Sierra Leone in 2005. It also provides them an opportunity to link their own family histories to Priscilla’s, by giving easy access to the same records that Edward Ball used to research Slaves in the Family. Those who succeed at making the link to Priscilla will have the satisfaction that Thomalind Polite and her family have of being able to connect to a particular African ancestor and a particular place in Africa by means of a unique and unbroken chain of historical documents.
But there is another possibility: Some African Americans may not be able to link to Priscilla, but they may be able to connect to other enslaved people on the Ball family plantations. A woman named “Angola Amy,” for instance, produced more children than Priscilla and will, thus, have even more modern descendants. And if you can link your family tree to Angola Amy, that brings up other fascinating possibilities. Can it be shown that Amy was, in fact, from Angola? And is it possible, as with Priscilla, to identify the ship that brought her, and its name, and the date of its arrival in Charleston? These amazing records – brought together in one place for the first time – afford many possibilities for African Americans.
Lowcountry Africana has spent almost ten years bringing the Ball family records together from several archives and libraries. We decided to undertake that enormous task after we took part in “Priscilla’s Homecoming” to Sierra Leone in 2005. We saw the ecstatic reception Sierra Leoneans gave Thomalind Polite on her return to Africa, and her tearful disbelief at being welcomed home as family by thousands eager to meet her and surround her with familial love. And knowing that many thousands of African Americans can theoretically make the same connection to Sierra Leone through Priscilla if they have access to the records Edward Ball used, we began compiling the massive number of wills, estate inventories and bills of sale in the Ball family records that are essential pieces of the puzzle for descendants searching for their roots on the Ball plantations.
So, we invite you to take a journey through the Ball family records to see if you belong to Priscilla’s family. Click on the images below to learn more about Priscilla's remarkable story, to share in the amazing events that took place during Priscilla’s Homecoming, and to explore the extensive Ball family records.