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First Families of Hilton Head: The Youngs

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Front row, from left: Renee Young, Xavier Major, Lania Frazer, Makel Lopez, Juan Lopez. Second row: Jerome Young, Harold Young Jr., Mary Young, Kendyll Miller, Harold Young Sr., Ida Mae Washington, Leon Young. Back row: Jada Rivers, Elizabeth Young, Jarmaine Miller, James Washington Jr., Alfred Young Jr., Jaquan Rivers, Jeron Rivers, Ethel Lee Young, Ania Frazer, Shania Young

Now 93, Hilton Head Island resident Harold “Mr. Moon” Young could be considered a living encyclopedia of Gullah history. He has known countless families who have called Hilton Head home, and see how they were bonded by love, a sense of community and survival. He has simple but powerful stories to share about the Gullah, with each story springing from aThey were simple, but powerful stories about the Gullah that help keep the culture alive and thriving.

Young doesn’t remember how he got his “Mr. Moon” nickname, but according to Morris Campbell, “it’s probably because he used to go fishing in the moonlight.” And there begins his story. Young grew up in historic Mitchelville, and remembers the hard but simple life growing up on Broad Creek and working in the fields. He remembers riding his bull, Joe, to school at Honey Horn every morning, and going hunting for raccoon, possum or rabbit in the afternoon. Hunting was not a sport; he said; you “run them to eat.”  Back then, once the animals were caught, the practice was to bury ice in the ground to keep the meat cold.

“We had grits every day, but rice was saved for Sunday,” he said. Colds were fought with turpentine and sugar, an empty rice sack could be turned into three diapers, soap was homemade, and all clothes were boiled to get them clean. Life was filled with daily chores; there wasn’t much time to reflect on the past. Raised by his grandmother, Ella Young, he said “she didn’t have time to tell stories about their lives [or of her parents], she had too much work to do.”

But the island’s first families who were also residents of Mitchelville is a relatively short list, and even despite the so-called “1865 Slave Wall” — the pivotal point in time before emancipation with black Americans’ lives were not officially documented, so little information about their heritage remains — the search for Young’s ancestors yielded four men who may have been his forefathers. And even if they are not part of the Young family tree, these men are part of the fabric of Hilton Head’s native island community, and part of the area’s Gullah family.

Young’s grandparents were Sammy and Ella Young, and his great-grandmother was Mariah Albright. Her parents were Paul Davis and Clarisa Davis. And that’s where the certainty ends. Examining Young’s family tree beyond 1863, there are four Young men who may be branches: Tecumsey, Thomas, Jerimiah and Benjamin.

Records show that Tecumsey Young and his wife, Maria, were savvy enough at the age of 26 to open a bank account with the Freedman’s Savings Bank in an effort to save the money that he earned from working for Clark & Early, “in shipping and with timber.” The bank was a private company that was sponsored by the U. S. government in an effort to provide economic stability to former slaves during Reconstruction. A lot of the newly freedman used the program to save money as well as to give them the opportunity to establish a primary source of documentation. Unfortunately, the bank failed, leaving many without their money; the company was only viable from 1865 to 1874. However, genealogically speaking, the Freedman’s Bank’s records are a good source of information about the area’s early families, as that data is sometimes attached to the bank registration.

More information could be found on the other three Youngs, who were not brothers. Each came to Hilton Head from different places, but all of them lived in Mitchelville and then the Spanish Wells area of the island. Pension records show that Jerimiah, Thomas and Benjamin were all soldiers in the Civil War. Benjamin and Jerimiah enlisted in the Union Army on the same day, and both were in the U. S. Colored Troops Company B. Both deserted their units at different times, returning to their regiments during a period of their enlistment. Neither, however, was charged with desertion, possibly because their absence was due to illness.      

Jerimiah, also known as Jerry, was the son of James Young, and both were slaves belonging to Squire Harrison of Possom Point. Jerimiah’s actual age cannot be determined, but his birth was sometime between 1836 and 1845. His military records don’t say much more, but after the war, his vision eventually became so impaired that he said, “I can hardly tell a white man from a colored man at a little distance.”

Thomas was the son of Thomas Young Sr. and was born a slave in about 1834 on Telfair Plantation, which eventually became known as Barnwell Plantation in Bluffton. On Aug. 31, 1864, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops Company H’s 21st Regiment. He was not wounded and did not experience any combat during the war, though many in his company were killed on Folly Island. Records show that he contracted rheumatism while his regiment was on Morris Island as a result of sleeping on the damp ground in wet clothes. He spent time in the hospital in Mitchelville.

After the war, Thomas settled down with his wife, Betsy, and opened a Freedman’s Bank account. He spent the rest of his life farming their 20 acres on Hilton Head.  Between the rheumatism and severe pains in his head, which were thought to have caused his impaired vision, he did the best that he could to work the land so that his family could survive.

Benjamin Young was born a slave around 1835—though throughout his whole life, he never knew his exact age. He enlisted in the Civil War and was sent to Knoxville for five years to fight. During his service, he said “that he became deaf from the booming of cannon fire” and only could “hear within one foot” while his regiment was shelling Charleston. After the war, he was entitled to a pension, which he partially received, but he was also a victim of U.S. government bureaucracy, and he spent the rest of his life fighting to receive the correct amount of funds that he was owed.

When he enlisted, Benjamin was not asked for any birth information, and this ultimately affected his ability to get a pension after the war. However, despite having been denied over and over and over again, Benjamin never gave up trying to get his due. The denials from the U.S. Department of Interior included memorandum stating that “surgeons should take extreme care in determining hearing power” and that they should “use any medically available tests” and remove all obstructions that “prevent imposition and exaggeration” of hearing capabilities.

To combat this, Benjamin submitted several surgical certificates from doctors to prove that he was disabled because of the war. Each time, he was told that his military records did not show proof of his age. Since he was born a slave, he did not have a birth certificate. Considered property, he was just listed as a male with an age. His birth was something that he could never accurately prove. The fact that it was even requested, and the rationale of the denials, was a cruel twist. He was so determined to get his pension that he went back to his former owners to see if they could help him prove his age — but they could not. After his death, his wife, Dianah, and son Solomon continued trying to resolve the issue, which clearly had become the fight of Benjamin’s life. Both Dianah and Solomon applied separately, petitioning for burial and sickness benefits, and both were also denied.

It may not be a complete picture, but it’s a good start at puzzling out Mr. Moon’s history. As frustrating as genealogy can be, it also can be rewarding. The missing pieces in the Young line might not be there today, but because information continues to be input daily into the various collections, who knows? In a few months or years, the story might suddenly be complete. Like any good mystery, the detective can’t walk away until it’s solved. Ancestral mysteries are part of our inheritance. Somehow it seems like our responsibility to look back and honor those who came before us by remembering them. And if we stop looking into the past, our families’ stories will simply fade away.