Raw Roots

Excavations for plantation artifacts - and the real truth - are unraveling the genteel gloss covering Texans' old notions about the slave era here

Jeanette Livingston began her quest for roots, she says, with just the name of her great grandfather, Daniel Garrett. She discovered that Daniel's father was Henry Garrett, whose name she had found in a slave manifold indicating he had "belonged" to the Pattons. She traced the Garretts back to a white slave owner in North Carolina named Thomas Garrett, who, she says, "just about populated the earth."

She has found several white Garrett descendants who helped her in the research. "It's an incredibly extended family," she says. Her elation over discovering descendants has turned to tears when she learned the fate of some of them. She traced Henry Garrett after emancipation to Wood County, where he appeared in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. The next record she uncovered about him, however, was a mention of his lynching, at age 86, in Smith County.

Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.
Courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Museum
Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.

She is not bitter, though, because she's found plenty to be proud of in her ancestry. "From what I know of my ancestors, they were a strong people," she says. "The Garretts are a proud people, proud to wear the Garrett name. And a lot of us may have started out poor, but we've done pretty well. We've 'moved on down the road,' as my uncle says."

Livingston plans to visit Varner Hogg this summer, but she doesn't know quite how she'll react when she gets there. "My daughter doesn't understand why I'd want to go, but it's something I have to do. I need to put a face on the facts." What she doesn't want to happen, she says, is to have a guide "dressed up looking pretty and not telling me the true history of what happened there."

Levi Jordan: The Shackle and the Cameo

Those who stop at the Levi Jordan plantation historical marker, on Highway 521 outside Brazoria, hardly find a scene of romantic grandeur. The Jordan mansion, constructed of durable long-leaf pine planks, now looks more like a rather plain old haunted house, complete with a seven-foot Brazos water snake that sometimes coils under the front steps. Researchers described some strange goings-on in the house, which dates back to 1854, such as an eerie knocking from a vacant upstairs bedroom. What can't be seen yet at Levi Jordan, though, is the treasure trove of slave artifacts -- and the vision of those who have tried so hard over the years to save the place.

African-American leader Morris Richardson, a member of the Levi Jordan Historical Society, looks at the Jordan mansion and sees an education center, a place where people can learn about the lives of enslaved people. "I envision a resource center for family histories," he says. I can see artifacts being displayed, lectures and meetings being held, more research being done."

It's a vision shared by Andrew Sansom, director of Texas Parks and Wildlife. He believes Levi Jordan can be the center of a revival of African-American history in the lower Brazos, and part of a more broadly themed historical area that would include Varner Hogg and the newly acquired pioneer McCrosky cabin, a landmark from the old Austin Colony dating to 1824. "If this is successful," he says, "this could put Texas at the forefront in interpreting antebellum history."

Those images, says Rodney Ellis, enlisted him in the cause. If the bond issue that would affect Levi Jordan is approved by Texas voters next November -- it will require a constitutional amendment -- Ellis says he's committed to get the project going. "I want to make sure it gives an accurate portrayal of slavery -- the good, the bad and the ugly. I think it will help us understand some of the wounds from our past and to deal with some of the things that have divided us over the years."

It would be "poetic justice," as Morris Richardson puts it, if a plantation with such a haunted past became a place where Texans come to learn the real story about slavery. And it's certainly not a fate Levi Jordan could ever have envisioned for his estate.

Jordan came from Georgia in 1848, a hard-driving, self-made man. He decided to settle on the stretch of land near the old Austin Colony where he claimed to have killed a black panther. According to family legend, the plantation operator once boasted to his wife that although they barely owned a frying pan when they married, they now owned a slave for every day of the year. There is evidence that Jordan may have traded in slaves to increase his revenues, although some historians question that theory.

There's another story -- not verified by his descendants -- that Jordan sent out invitations for neighbors to come and view his new chandelier, which he claimed was the most valuable in the county. It was a strange boast for such a penny-pincher, his neighbors thought. When guests arrived, perhaps looking for a French-made source of illumination, they instead saw four scantily clad slaves standing in a circle in the middle of the parlor, holding candles.

The Jordan place also comes with its share of mysteries and bitter family feuds. When Jordan's granddaughter Anna married Robert Martin, of whom he heartily disapproved, he disinherited Anna in his will, although he left a bequest to provide for her children's education. Anna died young, leaving four rowdy young boys -- four "juvenile delinquents" who "terrorized most of Brazoria County," says Dorothy Cotton, a descendant of one of those sons, Will Martin. Levi Jordan's favorite grandson was to inherit the estate, but he died from an accidental self-inflicted shotgun blast that blew his leg off.

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