Hollywood movie star Ben Affleck has two additional slaveholding ancestors. S.L. Speisseger, who owned 3 slaves in Chatham County Georgia in 1840, according to 1840 U.S. Census, and Georgia A. Speissegger Cole, who owned 1 slave in 1863 and 1864, according to Savannah and Chatham County, Georgia tax digests found by the Daily Beast.
This brings the total number of Affleck’s known slaveholding ancestors to 14, and the number of slaves either owned or “held” as a trustee or on behalf of an estate by these ancestors to 242.
This number includes the 23 slaves Benjamin L. Cole, Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather, held in 1860 on behalf of the estate of Ann Norton, his mother-in-law by his first wife, and the 8 slaves he held as a trustee for S. L. Speissegger, his father-in-law by his second wife. It also includes the 25 slaves he owned in 1850, according the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, which the Daily Beast suggested on Tuesday he may have held on behalf of an estate or trust rather than owned.
Cole is the Affleck ancestor at the center of the public relations scandal involving Affleck, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” Gates serves as an executive producer and host of that series.
Affleck admits that he successfully lobbied Gates to edit his slaveholding ancestor Cole out of an episode of “Finding Your Roots,” which featured his family history.
Previously, Breitbart News reported that Affleck had 12 slaveholding ancestors who owned 214 slaves.
S.L. Speissegger, Affleck’s 4 times great-grandfather, was born in South Carolina in 1792, and was the father of Affleck’s great-great-great grandmother Georgia A. Speissegger Cole, who became the second wife of Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather Benjamin L. Cole in 1857.
S.L. Speissegger died in 1867, which would explain why Cole held those 8 slaves “in trust” as opposed to “on behalf of the estate of.”
Recent research published by the Daily Beast on Tuesday suggests that Benjamin Cole may have been a slaveholder but not a slaveowner, a distinction that may not seem to be a difference to those of us in the modern era, but which would have been significant back in the 1850s.
Writing in ‘The Accidental Slaveowner,’ a book published by the University of Georgia Press in 2011 about a true story of slavery in Georgia during the 1840s, Professor Mark Auslander of Eastern Washington University said that he “used the term ‘slaveholder’ when characterizing a situation in which a person had legal control of another human being, for example as a trustee or administrator, without full legal ownership, [and] the term ‘slaveowner’ instances where legal possession was unambiguous.”
The Daily Beast cites an argument made by genealogist Barbara Stock that accurately explains Cole’s 1860 status as a slaveholder, and suggests that he may also have been a slaveholder, not a slave owner, in 1850 as well:
Using Georgia tax digests from Chatham County and Savannah—which give an annual account of wealth, including slave ownership—in conjunction with the census, which took a count only once a decade, Stock found evidence that while Affleck’s ancestor was the executor of estates that included slaves, he owned none himself.
Stock found that the 1850 federal census slave schedule—used by PBS, Breitbart, and others to show Cole’s wealth and slave-holding status—is in conflict with the tax digests. Though the 1850 census record doesn’t indicate Cole was simply a trustee, the tax digests show he owned no slaves or land at that point. . . .
Breitbart News can confirm that the Chatham County, Georgia tax records of 1850 do not show Benjamin L. Cole, aged 36 at the time, as an owner of slaves. Those same Chatham County tax records of 1850 show that his mother-in-law, Anne S. Norton, aged 65, who, according to the 1850 U.S. Census, resided with Cole and his wife, her daughter, owned 21 slaves.
The 1840 U.S. Census records show that Anne S. Norton owned 8 slaves in Chatham County, Georgia. According to the 1845 Chatham County tax records, she owned 15 slaves, but according to the Chatham County tax records of 1846, the following year, she owned no slaves.
This suggests that the Chatham County tax records of this period may not always have been the most reliable indicator of slave owner status.
There is no evidence that the slaves Cole owned in 1850, according to the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedules, were held in his capacity as the executor of an estate, and particularly the estate of his mother-in-law Anne S. Norton, as she was still alive and living with him and his first wife, Catherine Norton at that time.
Anne S. Norton died in 1858. Catherine Norton died some time between 1850 and 1857.
The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that upon her death “Cole’s mother-in-law [Anne S. Norton] left 11 slaves to him [when she died in 1858] to hold in trust for her three grandsons until they reached age 21. Their names were Buffy, John, Betty, Robert, Lydia, Caroline, Alfred, Ned, Susan, Tommy, and Harry.”
It is possible that the 25 slaves listed as owned by Benjamin Cole in the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule included the 21 slaves owned in 1850 by his mother-in-law Anne Norton, according to the Chatham County tax records, though there is no indication of a formal establishment of Benjamin Cole as the legal trustee of these 21 slaves at this time.
However, there is no historical evidence that accounts for the additional 4 slaves listed as owned by Cole in the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedules were held in an estate or trustee capacity.
There’s also another bit of confusion here.
Since the 1840 U.S. Census showed Ann Norton as the owner of 8 slaves, it seems hard to understand why her ownership, if it continued, was not recognized as such in the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule.
The bottom line on Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather Benjamin Cole is this: he was a slaveholder in 1860, and may have been either a slaveholder or slave owner in 1850, and possibly both.
Ironically, the controversy surrounding Affleck’s successful lobbying efforts to edit slaveholding ancestor Cole out of the episode of “Finding Your Roots” has led to the discovery of his additional 13 slaveholding ancestors.
Here’s the complete list of Affleck’s 14 known slaveholding ancestors:
Benjamin L. Cole, Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather from Georgia, the owner of 25 slaves in the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, and “holder” of 31 slaves in the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule.
Georgia A. Speissegger Cole, Affleck’s great-great-great grandmother from Georgia, the owner of 1 slave according to the 1863 Chatham County, Georgia tax records.
S.L. Speissegger, Affleck’s 4 times great grandfather, the owner of 3 slaves according to the 1840 U.S. Census.
James Henry Alexander, Affleck’s 4 times great grandfather, the owner of 50 slaves in Mississippi, according to the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules.
Adam Rankin Alexander, Affleck’s 5 times great grandfather, the owner of 23 slaves in Tennessee, according to the 1830 U.S. Census Slave Schedules.
Levi Roberts, Affleck’s great-great-great grandfather, the owner of 7 slaves in Mississippi, according to the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules.
Thomas Nelson McClain, Affleck’s 4 times great grandfather, who owned 11 slaves in Arkansas 1850, according to the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedules.
David Boxley, Affleck’s 4 times great grandfather, who owned 23 slaves in Mississippi in 1840, according to the 1840 U.S. Census.
Charles Smith, Affleck’s 5 times great grandfather, who owned 16 slaves in Tennessee in 1830, according to the 1830 U.S. Census.
John Pryor Smith, Affleck’s 6 times great grandfather, who owned 23 slaves in North Carolina in 1820, according to the 1820 U.S. Census.
Lemuel Smith, Affleck’s 6 times great grandfather, who also owned 24 slaves in North Carolina in 1820, according to the 1820 U.S. Census.
Charles Smith, Affleck’s 7 times great grandfather, who owned 3 slaves in Virginia in 1761, according to his will.
Bernard Hanlon, Affleck’s 8 times great grandfather who owned at least 1 slave, in New Jersey in the 1790s. Breitbart News has obtained a copy of the hand-written 1795 manumission document in which Hanlon emancipated his slave named “Guy.”
Nathaniel Stanley, Affleck’s 8 times great grandfather, who owned 1 slave in Connecticut in the 1728, according to genealogical research conducted by the Daily Mail.
Reports of a 15th slaveholding ancestor, identified by the Daily Mail as James McGuire, can not be confirmed. The Daily Mail has reported that McGuire owned 8 slaves on his farm in New Jersey during the 1840s. The problem with this report is that New Jersey abolished slavery in the 1820s.
As genealogical research continues, the number of Affleck’s known slaveholding ancestors may continue to rise.