VACAVILLE — The deed of sale lists Peter Hughes, his wife and seven children as the slaves that South Carolina landowner Thomas Hughes was selling to his daughter on Aug. 6, 1838.
The 175-year-old document found in a deed book in Union County, S.C., is a flash of light into the darkness that envelopes the early history of Vacaville resident Gerald Gordon’s family in America – when blacks were considered property, rather than people.
That is shown in a bill of estate that lists the sheep, cattle, guns, tools “and then all of his slaves” that the owner of Gordon’s ancestors possessed.
A copy of the deed document from the era of slavery in America is now framed on the wall next to a plentiful crop of pictures of the Gordon family and their ancestors.
Aside from discovering the 1882 death date of the “about 100 years old” Rev. Peter Hughes on his gravestone next to the church he founded, the deed is the oldest piece of family history that Gordon has found.
“It was the first black church in the county,” Gordon said.
The deed has created as many questions as answers. Prior to six months ago, when he got an email from a man who found the deed, Gordon did not know his great-great-grandfather had seven children. He is now trying to find out what happened to most of them.
Gordon said he is not chronicling his family’s heritage for himself. He said he is doing it so the Gordon family’s younger generation, such as 12-year-old grandson Drake Claxton, have knowledge of their past that will help them make a better future.
“He has to go through this for himself, and I want to make sure we will be there for him,” Gordon said, pointing to a picture of Drake on the mantlepiece of his Vacaville home.
Gordon speaks of his regret that his own father and grandfather never talked about their family history when they were alive. He said what they knew could have shed more light on his family’s past.
“Our parents never talked about slavery,” Gordon said.
Gordon’s family has been involved in collecting records, pictures and documents of its history for the past 50 years – for as long as the family has gathered for reunions. Gordon got actively involved in the 1980s.
“My grandmother said, ‘You need to know where you came from,’ and that inspired me to get involved,” Gordon said.
Gordon’s great-grandfather, Charles Gordon, was later sold to a Mississippi man named Gordon who took the family to Chickasaw County, Miss. The slave owner’s name stuck.
In Mississippi, the family won its freedom after the Union Army swept through the area during the latter days of the Civil War. The Gordons actually managed to get ownership of some of the land, which they managed to keep until just after World War I, when the bank purportedly cheated the family out of their property.
The seizure was successfully fought in the courts, but when Gordon’s great-uncle was told on the courthouse steps that he could either get out of town or be killed, the family decided to leave.
“The whole family went to Wisconsin,” Gordon said.
His grandfather and father found work in a foundry in Beliot, Wis., that made engines for locomotives.
“It is still there today, and if you see a diesel locomotive, it was probably made there,” Gordon said.
Gordon joined the U.S. Air Force because he didn’t want to go to work in the foundry, and settled in Vacaville.
Tracing his heritage prior to the Civil War is daunting, since black slaves are simply listed in documents as property. Only those who were freed are somewhat easier to trace.
“Most black people can’t trace this far back,” Gordon said.
Modern technology gave Gordon one more insight into his past after his brother had his DNA checked, and it showed a common paternal genetic ancestry shared with the Yoruba people in Nigeria.
Gordon spends much of his free time at the computer and is a member of the Solano County African-American Genealogy Society and the Chickasaw County Genealogy Society.
He is now trying to find out more about one ancestor who served in one of the Union Army’s black regiments and was killed during the Battle of New Market Heights in late September 1864.
“I would like to know where he is buried,” Gordon said.
Gordon is a firm believer that everyone should know about their past. He contends it helps them become a better person.
“You don’t know who you really are until you know your past,” Gordon said. “We all come from somewhere.”
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.