1898: William Bell to Sheriff of Fayette County, Kentucky

In this letter, former slave William Bell, now living in Amite Co., MS, writes the Sheriff of Fayette County, Kentucky in 1898, inquiring about his relatives, whom he is seeking after over 30 years have passed. He notes that he has already written his family’s primary slave owner, John Breckinridge Payne, to no avail, and requests the Sheriff’s assistance.

According to 1900 and later U. S. Census data, William Bell, born Nov. 1832 in Kentucky, resided in Beat 4, Amite Co., Mississippi (probably died 1900-1910); wife Jane (b. 1826 in AL; illiterate—still alive in 1910); children, Seaborn (b. 1880; wife Lena), Benjamin (b. 1883; wife Janie, b. 1880; stepson: Able Brown, b. 1894), Lucus (b. 1884), Ridley (b. 1887; wife Victoria, b. 1884), Myrtis (b. 1881), Maria (b. 1890), and Pinkey (b. 1890).

William Bell’s former owner was John Breckinridge Payne (1830-1891), the son of Daniel McCarty Payne (17954-1865) and Zelinda Ann Smith (1809-1883) of Lexington, Fayette county, Kentucky. Paine graduated from Transylvania Law School in 1851 and entered into his father’s law practice in Lexington, Kentucky. He was married to Ellen Douglas Woolley on 25 June 1861. According to the 1850 Slave Schedules, at age 20, John owned 9 slaves ranging in age from 3 to 90 years old, most of the young slaves being female. In the 1860 Slave Schedules, 30 year-old John owned 15 slaves, ranging in age from 50 to 9 years old. The males were ages 32, 25, 24, 7, and 4; the females were 50, 32, 25, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 9, and 3.

There was a Francis (“Frank”) Key Hunt (1817-1879)—a lawyer— who resided in Lexington, Kentucky in 1860. At the time of the 1860 Census, he was enumerated with one slave, a 30 year-old male. In the 1870 Census, this same Frank Hunt is, age 53, was enumerated with his wife, Julia Warfield Hunt (1819-1895), and a their daughter Maria Barr Hunt.

The only record I can find for a Mariah Payne, a Black woman born in 1817, was a mortuary record dated 16 June 1899 in Jefferson, Kentucky. She was 82 years old when she died of malarial typhoid fever in Louisville, Kentucky. If this was William’s mother, it’s sad to think that he was trying to find her a little more than a year before she died.

[This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published by express consent.]


March 8, 1898
Hustler, Mississippi 

To the sheriff of Fayette Co., Lexington Ky. 
Dear Sir,

I wrote a letter about a month ago making inquiry of a man by the name of John Breckinridge Payne, of whom I used to belong before the war. I wrote to him to know where my people were still living in Lexington and if he could tell me anything about them, but did not receive an answer. Please write and let me know if you know of any of the Payne family and give me their name. I had a brother by the name of Scott Payne & one by the name of Louis. My mother’s name [was] Mariah. She was sold to a man by the name of Frank Hunt. My name is William. They used to call Monday Payne, but now go by the name of William Bell of the name of my late Master. If you can find out about my people & let me know, [you] will oblige me very much. 

Yours Respectfully, — William Bell

Address Hustler, Amite, Miss Co. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s