The death of James Slavens.

Thought I’d start the blog by writing about a member of my own family, my somewhat mysterious great-great-grandfather James Slavens.

There’s not a lot of information available about James, and frankly, a lot of what you see in the online trees is wrong. It’s likely most of the trees are simply copies of other trees, and it’s also likely the original source for much of the information was the research published years ago by Thomas H. Slavens and Finas Lee Slaven. We’re greatly indebted to the work done by these men, and other family researchers in the days before online databases, message boards, email, and all those other research and communication aids we take for granted. So while their research forms the backbone for many family trees, their work is not without errors. (No one’s is!) And several of the errors affect my “Grandpa Jim.”

James Slavens is usually listed as the son of Isaiah and Barbara (Perks Leaton) Slavens, born in Mount Sterling, Montgomery County, Kentucky on 18 August 1818… although sometimes his mother is listed as Isaiah’s first wife, Martha “Patsy” Stuart, or even Isaiah Jr.’s wife Nancy McGill/Magill. James is normally listed as a twin of Phillip T. Slavens.

Amazingly, many of these trees also correctly have James’s first marriage to Mary Davis on 10 May 1829 in Bath County, Kentucky, making him a married man at 10 years old. James and Mary had their first child in February 1831, so those trees would have him a dad by 12!

Obviously, either the birth information or the marriage information is wrong. Considering that Enoch Davis deeded his daughter Mary Slavens and the heirs of her body the land in Hendricks County where the family was living, and the children were heirs to Enoch’s estate, it’s not the marriage information that’s faulty.

In a future blog I’ll share my thoughts about James’s birth, and how he’s quite possibly a twin, but not a twin a Phillip. The focus of this blog will be on the end of James’s life, and the treasure trove of information you can find if you look beyond census records, or whatever records are available on Ancestry or FamilySearch.

When I visited Hendricks County 10+ years ago, I knew from research that James had a probate packet in the basement of the Hendicks County courthouse in Danville. If you ever have a chance to look at a 19th century probate packet, do so. They are wondrous collections of scraps of paper containing statements from those indebted to, or having claims against, the estate; appraisals of the personal property, and the proceeds from the sale, and sundry other proceedings. While the papers may be summarized by a line item in a probate order book, the original papers in the probate packet often contain more details.

While I knew the probate packet existed, I didn’t get to see it. The basement was too dangerous to have the general public traipsing around, the officials said, and the offices couldn’t spare staff to accompany visitors on what could be an extended archeological expedition to the basement. Disappointing, but quite understandable.

But in a wild stroke of luck, the Indiana Genealogical Society a few years ago began photographing the contents of the probate packets, creating Adobe .pdf files of the images, and placing them online. Every month after the project started I’d check the website, in hopes that James’s file had been added. Then one day when I put Slavens in the search box, there it was!

Thanks to a couple bills submitted to the estate, we can be reasonably certain that James died on 15 August 1851. Reese Trowbridge, a physician of Marion Township (immediately south of Eel River Township, where the Slavens family lived), submitted a bill for “medical attendance upon the deceased in his last sickness.” (Page 23 of the file.) The dates of service range from August 5 to 15. On August 7, it appears that the bill lists a vesicatory as a part of the treatment. A vesicatory was a blistering agent, like a mustard plaster, that was believed to draw the infection out of the lungs and up to the skin. Is the “dressing” mentioned a few times in the bill the application of the vesicatory plaster? It also appears that a febrifuge– a medication to reduce fever– was given. From online research on 19th century medicine and diseases, I suspect that James had pneumonia or some other respiratory infection.

Drs. A. Kelly and G.W. Miller of Clark Township, Montgomery County, just west of Eel River Township, also made visits in early August for “his (James’s) last illness.” (Page 29.) We can conclude that James died from disease, and not from an accident. August 15 is likely his date of death, as there are no doctor visits after that date. On his final visit, Dr. Trowbridge ominously lists a charge for “dressing of Slavens when his son, nor Brother, would do it.” We can assume that James had died and son Harvey and brother Benjamin refused to dress the body for burial.

Another bill, from merchant Jacob C. Faught, lists eight yards of shrouding at 25 cents a yard, and two spools of thread, sold on August 15– another strong indication that James had died and his body was being prepared for burial. (There’s a third item on the bill that I can’t make out, what looks like 25 cents for “1 p half hoes.” Anyone have an idea what that may be? Perhaps socks (hose)?) (Page 27.)

So thanks to the probate file, we have a likely date of death– August 15, 1851– from an unknown disease at his home.

This isn’t the only gem the probate file contains! But that revelation will wait until the next blog.

Copyright © 2015 Larry Slavens. All rights reserved.