The Family of Sojourner Truth
This article originally appeared in Michigan Heritage, published by the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society, summer 1962. and represents the first attempt to trace Truth's family relationships. References in this article refer to that publication.
Sojourner Truth came to the Kalamazoo Valley about 1856. She was the first nationally-known person to locate in the Battle Creek area. Two books about her had already been written. She was still to meet Presidents Lincoln and Grant, but she was then a friend of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Parker Pillsbury and other reformers. Like them, she strode across American lecture platforms, piercing the hearts of men with arrows of scorn against oppression, primarily slavery.
For several years she felt old and tired and longed to have a little house of her own. (2, p. 121) The first known deed in her name is dated July 28, 1857, for a lot in Harmonia, a village six miles west of Battle Creek. That property, including a small house, remained in her name and was occupied by her heirs, until sold by them September 15, 1896.
Sojourner was born Isabella, slave of the Hardenburghs, Dutch land owners of Ulster Country, New York. This was about 1797. (2) Her mother, Betsy (nickname Mau-mau-Bett), was believed to have pure Guinea Coast ancestry . Because Isabella was very tall, a legend sprang up (apparently only in Battle Creek) that her parternal grandmother was a Mohawk Indian. Although Indians were all about the Hudson valley and somewhat friendly towards the slaves, even as late as Isabella's childhood, it is hardly possible that a squaw would have voluntarily become a slave. "Isabella's father was very tall and straight, when young, which gave him the name of 'Bomefree' - low Dutch for tree," (2, p.15) There is no indication that Sojourner was anything but "pure African."
After her master's death, when Isabella was about nine years old, she was sold for one hundred dollars to a sadistic master, then at a profit to a fisherman, and finally in 1810, to the Isaac Dumont family with whom she stayed until the fall of 1827. While with Dumont, about 1815, she was given as wife to Thomas, a man considerably older than she, whose other two wives had been sold away from him. By 1826-27 she had five children, four girls and one boy.
Diana was the eldest and daughter best known in Battle Creek.
She was born about 1816. (2, pp. 22, 23) She had two sisters, Elizabeth and Sophia, who lived in Battle Creek and Harmonia in the houses owned by Sojourner. A fourth daughter has not been traced. A letter from her son, Peter, in 1840, includes, "I should like to know how Sophia, and Betsey, and Hannah, come on." Was Hannah the fourth daughter's name? Or was the fourth daughter dead and his intention to inquire after Diana deciphered as Hannah? One biographer has found a single reference to "Nancy" and to "Thomas who died in infancy." (6-i )
Sojourner's only son, Peter, went with his mother to New York City about 1830-32, where he fell into mischief as he grew older. A benefactor helped him go to sea in the summer of 1839. Isabella had only three letters from him before 1850: October 1840, and March and September 1841. (2) A letter from Olive Gilbert in 1870 indicates that Sojourner's mind has at last been set at rest about her son Peter. (3, p. 276) (Olive Gilbert's correspondence cannot be located and evidently was not saved).
In 1843 Isabella announced to a former employer in New York City that she was leaving to do the Lord's work and henceforth would have the name Sojourner. Later, when she was told she must have a second name, she chose Truth, because she was declaring the Lord's truth.
In the last paragraphs of herNarrative (1850), Olive Gilbert states,
"In the spring of 1849, Sojourner made a visit to her eldest daughter, Diana, who . . . remained with Mr. Dumont . . . She received a letter from her daughter, Diana, dated Hyde Park, December 19, 1849." These statements prove that Diana was in the east until 1850 at least.
Sojourner appears in the 1860 census in Harmonia (Town of Bedford, Calhoun County). She gives her age as 70 years. With her are her daughter Elizabeth Banks, 35 years, Sam Banks, age 8, attending school, and James Colvin (age not clear, 7 or 17?), not checked as having attended school the previous year. This may have been James Caldwell, who gave his age as 19 when enlisting in the army in 1863 and his birthplace as Battle Creek. (The Scottish name Caldwell was pronounced "Call-well." Sojourner's Dutch accent may have made it "Call-vell," interpreted Colvin by the enumerator.)
By November 1867, Sojourner was building a house on College Street in Battle Creek. (6-e) Living here for the 1870 census are William Boyd, 45, Elizabeth Boyd, 46, William, 8, born in Michigan, and Samuel Banks, 19, born in Connecticut. Samuel Banks was Sojourner's grandchild who traveled with her at least in 1873-4. (James Caldwell was the grandson with her when she visited Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852-3). There is much proof that Elizabeth Boyd was Sojourner 's daughter. Elizabeth Banks married William Boyd, then, after the 1860 census. The younger William Boyd died in the College Street house and is buried on the Oak Hill Cemetery lot with Sojourner, his mother, Aunt Diana, and half-brother Samuel Banks. His newspaper obituary states that he was the grandson of Sojourner Truth. (The Sojourner Truth Memorial Association of Battle Creek erected a historical marker on the Oak Hill lot, in May 1969, in memory of the other relatives of Sojourner who were buried near her).
The first Calhoun Country directory appeared in 1869-70. Sojourner is listed in the College Street house but no one named Boyd or Banks is mentioned. It seems that only the head of the house and boarders are included in this publication. Jacob Corbin (known to be Diana's husband) resides on South Street near the Kalamzoo River dam and James Caldwell boards at the same address. This makes it possible that James Caldwell is the son of Diana by an earlier marriage; more probably he is the orphaned child of Sojourner's daughter whom we cannot locate. His army service has been authenticated (6-b; c), but he never applied for a pension and there is no known record of his mother's name. The 1870 census lists at this address Jacob Carbon, 53, Diana Carbon, 56, and Frank Carbon, 9, born in Michigan.
Reminiscences speak of Diana's son "Jake," (7-b; g) but no Frank.
A Frank Carbon appears in the 1883 directory, but he is not listed as colored. Two Jacob Corbins, colored, are in Oak Hill Cemetery. Data in the death certificate of the younger Jacob does not tally with other facts, but he died suddenly and a fellow worker supplied the information: born in Kentucky, parents unknown, etc. Our conclusion is that Frank became "Jake" after his father's death and was Diana's only son. He was a cook at the Williams House for several years. No wife or children are known.
In an undated clipping (about 1895), there is a reminiscence of Warren Shepherd's barn raising in 1846. It states that Diana Carbon, Sojourner's daughter, did the cooking for the crowd that day. Since Diana was still in the east in late 1849, either the barn raising was years later or the daughter of Sojourner who did the cooking was incorrectly named. One possibility is that the "lost" daughter (Hannah?) came west earlier than Sojourner . There were Ulster Country people who settled in Harmonia (7-f). Records for Harmonia Cemetery are lost. No Caldwell to be found . (Two white men by that name lived in Battle Creek. Both are buried in Oak Hill) . Why did Sojourner come out of her way to Battle Creek about 1856? One possibility is that she came to visit a daughter, perhaps to take care of her in a final illness, staying on to care for the orphaned son.
Sophia is probably the youngest child of Sojourner, the infant she carried when she left Dumont in the fall of 1827. (2) Sophia married Thomas Schuyler in Medina, New York. (7-a) Thomas and Sophia are in Sojourner's house in Harmonia for the 1880 census with one son (named Sojourner), born in Michigan. Sophia's age is given as 52, which is fairly accurate.
Sojourner's Battle Creek friends enjoyed dramatizing their lioness and are responsible for most of the inaccuracies which she accepted with ease. In the 1860 census she gave her age as 70 years; from a speech in Boston about 1870 she is quoted as saying, "If I am eighty-three . . ." In the 1880 census she glibly gave her age as 104 years
Mrs. Titus, her Battle Creek biographer, seemed convinced that Sojourner was freed in 1817. (All New York slaves over the age of 40 years received their freedom in 1818). This is impossible. Testimonials in Olive Gilbert's and Gilbert Vale's books state positively that Sojourner became a Dumont slave in 1810 and eighteen years later was freed by the State of New York. Sojourner was about 86 when she died in Battle Creek in 1883. Her tombstone gives her age as 105. The legend of her advanced age gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure - isn't that the purpose of "little white lies?"
A few years ago a family migrated to Battle Creek from New York State; they claimed Sojourner as an ancestor . No connection could be established. Sojourner doubtless has living descendants, but they are unknown.
Parents of Isabella (Sojourner Truth):
All children were born slaves of Dumont. New York State freed its slaves July 4, 1828.
1 Vale, Gilbert: Fanaticism, Its Source and Influence, illustrated by the simple narrative of Isabella, etc. New York. 1835.
2 Gilbert, Olive: Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, emancipated from bodily servitude by the State of New York in 1828. Boston. Printed for the author. 1850. Reprint with an introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe. 1853.
3 Titus, Frances W.: Narrative of Sojourner Truth; A Bondswoman of Olden Time, Emancipated by the New York Legislature in the early part of the present Century. with a history of her Labors and Correspondence drawn from Her Book of Life.Boston. Published for the Author. 1875. Battle Creek: 1878, 1881, 1884. (The 1884 edition, published by Review and Herald Office, includes a memorial chapter with details of Sojourner's last illness and death).
4 Battle Creek Journal on Microfilm at Willard Library, Battle Creek.
5 (a) Census (Federal) of Battle Creek and Bedford Twps. of Calhoun County - 1850; 1860; 1870; 1880. (b) Battle Creek, Michigan City Directories.
6 Correspondence with: