[Image by Kari Petersen, 2010]
Jerry Thompson was born in Missouri on August 21, 1831. 1 This is what his death certificate says. Whether that was the date that he was actually born or the day that he celebrated his birth is unclear. The reason I have cause to question the date is that he was born into slavery. In my daily life, I need to be reminded of the date by my computer and by my calendars. These were not available to slaves, even those who could read. Keeping dates doesn't seem like it would have been too possible.
It is little things like not being able to keep track of dates that often bring the total impact of slavery to bear on my mind that has never known anything like it.
Jerry Thompson, also called Jeremiah in at least one census record, would have been a young man of 29 when the first shots of the war were fired. It is unclear if he was living in Missouri at the time, but that state faced a turbulent time at the beginning of the war. As a slave state, many of its citizens were firmly pro-secession; however, there was also a strong pro-union contingency which, along with the US Army, stood their ground. It had one state government identified as Union, and another identified as Confederate.
Wherever he lived, he was clearly free to fight with the Colored troops at some point during the war. His records do not show a date or a state of service. He is simply listed as serving in Company K of the 68th Regiment, US Colored Infantry. 2 This regiment was mustered into service in St. Louis in the spring of 1864, and saw service primarily in the western theater of the war. They were mustered out in Texas in February 1866. 3
Mr. Thompson is next found in 1870 living with his wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Williana, in Quincy, Illinois. 4 While he initially worked as a general laborer, by 1880 he was a teamster. 5 What brought the family to Oakland, is unclear, but by 1900, he is living there in the household of his son-in-law, Daniel Young. Daniel and Williana had married in the 1890s. 6
Mr. Thompson was considered quite old when he died in 1901. He was 70 years old. 7 Not only was this an advanced age for the population in general, but doubly so for a man who had been born into slavery. The cause of death for him was Septicemia, an infection of the blood, not an unexpected cause of death for an elderly gentleman living in an age before antibiotics. 8
He was survived by his wife and daughter. Until I receive pension documents about him, I will not know for certain who long his wife survived him. However, I do know that his daughter died within the next several years, as Daniel Young is listed as a widower in the 1910 Federal Census. 9
It is for men such as Jerry Thompson I feel so compelled to write these bios. His name would have gently faded from memory with no descendants to care. But it is the slaves, the laborers, the unremembered dead, that built the future that is our present, and they must never be entirely forgotten.
1 Jeremiah Thompson, death certificate (1901), Oakland, Alameda County, California. Accessed at the Oakland Public Library, Main Branch, History Room.
2 Historical Data Systems, comp.. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009.
3 "68th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry" online
4 Year: 1870; Census Place: Quincy Ward 6, Adams, Illinois; Roll: M593_187; Page: 639A; Image: 528; Family History Library Film: 545686. Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
5 Year: 1880; Census Place: Quincy, Adams, Illinois; Roll: 174; Page: 366D; Image: 0734; Family History Library Film: 1254174. Ancestry.com. 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
6 Year: 1900; Census Place: Oakland Ward 1, Alameda, California; Roll: T623_81; Page: 6A. Ancestry.com. 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2004.
7 Jerry Thompson obituary, Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, Oakland, CA, 23 August 1901, pg. 2.
8 Jeremiah Thompson, death certificate (1901), Oakland, Alameda County, California. Accessed at the Oakland Public Library, Main Branch, History Room.
9 Year: 1910; Census Place: Oakland Ward 1, Alameda, California; Roll: T624_69; Page: 14A; Image: 1649; Family History Library Film: 1374082. Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2006.