The Surprising People-Finder in The Book of Lost Friends

Lisa Wingate's use of historical artifacts to craft a story


1875: Ten years after the Civil War Imagine yourself smack-dab in 1875. You travel by horseback, on foot, or in wagons. No radio. No television. No internet. No social media. The telephone, just introduced four years ago, is in its infancy and exists only in the homes of a few wealthy people. You get news from a few wanderers who come through town, or possibly from old newspapers that circulate from hand to hand.

Recently freed from slavery, you’re desperately searching for people lost to you for decades and scattered in states throughout the entire South.

How could you ever hope to find family members who frequently move from place to place without official record-keeping? How do you track people whose very names have been changed so that even their identities are altered? What do you do to determine whether a friend is alive or dead?

This is the central question of The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate, a novel that uses real historical artifacts to illustrate a surprising kind of “people-finder” in a world before computers, G.P.S., and social media.

After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and the eventual adoption of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery, between 3.5 and 3.9 million freed slaves began to search for their loved ones. Their method of “people-finding” was to place an advertisement for “Lost Friends” in the Southwestern Christian Advocate and have those letters read by pastors in churches all over the South.

The Lost Friends Page of the Southwestern Christian Advocate


Lost Friends page in the Southwestern Christian Advocate: Photo: The Historic New Orleans Collection Exhibit, “Purchased Lives”

The Southwestern Christian Advocate was a newspaper published by the Methodist Book Concern out of New Orleans. Anyone who paid $2.00 per year for a subscription could post a Lost Friends advertisement, free of charge. Non-subscribers had to pay fifty cents to publish an ad, an amount approximate to $12.65 in today’s money, and a hefty sum in Reconstruction-era America.

The newspaper was distributed to 4000 subscribers in the South: Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas. More than 800 post offices and 500 preachers also received copies.

Almost fifteen years after the Civil War, from November of 1879 to December of 1900, the Southwestern Christian Advocate published these ads. The letters looking for Lost Friends have been found, indexed, and digitized by The Historic New Orleans Collection and exhibited as part of the “Purchased Lives”: New Orleans and Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865 Exhibit.

Lost Friends advertisements are the hook for Lisa Wingate’s most recent novel, The Book of Lost Friends.

The Plot: Past and Present The Book of Lost Friends is a dual-timeline book. The contemporary story focuses on Benny Silva, a first-year teacher in tiny, impoverished Augustine, Louisiana working there for five years as a way to pay off her student debts.

Benny is young and enthusiastic, trying to motivate downtrodden students in 1987. When she lands on an idea for a kind of local history project, the students get emotionally involved, expand the project into a town-centered event, and stir up controversy in the process. (I loved the part of the novel that focused on a teacher’s dedication to her students. I, too, once embarked on an extensive oral history project with my kids, and one semester, we hosted a cross-campus Literary Tea where the students portrayed an author or a character we studied in American Literature that year. I GOT what Benny Silva was trying to do!)

The intertwining plot takes three characters from 1875 and uses them to illustrate the dangers after the Civil War when the roads were rife with carpetbaggers and nefarious characters. Miss Lavinia is the plantation owner’s daughter that Hannie, a freed slave cared for. Juneau Jane is Miss Lavinia’s half-sister by a French Creole mistress. The half-sisters are searching for their missing father so they can retain control of their rightful inheritance. Hannie was acting as their driver, but as the group moved toward Texas, she begins to think about finding the family that was sold away from her decades before.

As the three young women travel, they find “ Lost Friend” advertisements tacked on the walls of a church. They begin to collect names of lost friends from other travelers, promising to ask after these people as they travel on. Hannie and Juneau Jane compile their own book of Lost Friends as they journey on and establish a deep and abiding friendship themselves. Lisa Wingate’s audiobook sprinkles actual “Lost Friend” ads throughout the book, bringing to life through distinct voices the personality and the pain of each speaker.

But it’s not the fictional story that got me. Lisa Wingate’s book includes actual “Lost Friend” ads interspersed with the narrative action. Those real-life, historical-artifact Lost Friends ads clearly show the terror and trauma of slavery. They illustrate the pain of lost identity, the random forced movement to new locations, and the horrific pain of splintered families.

Real people looking for Lost Friends

“I desire to inquire through your valuable paper about my relations. I was bred and born in Virginia, but am unable to name the county, for I was so young that I don’t recollect it; but I remember I lived 12 miles from a town called Danville. My master was James Ferrill and my mistress, Martha Ferrill. I was sold to his brother, a speculator, whose name was Wm. Ferrill, and was brought to Mobile at the age of 10 years. To my recollection, my father’s name was Joseph, and my mother’s Milly, my brother’s Anthony, and my sister’s Maria. We belonged to James Ferrill, except one sister, Julia, and I don’t know who she belonged to. Any information about the above-named persons will be thankfully received. My name was Annie Ferrill, but my owners changed my name to Caroline Rodes. All Christian papers please copy, and all preachers in charge will please assist me in finding my long lost friends.” (December 4, 1879).
“Miss Sallie Crump, of Marshall, Texas, desires information of her children Amelia Baker, Harriet and Eliza Hall, Thirza Matilda Rogers, owned and raised by John Baker of Abingdon, Washington County, VA. Sallie Crump was taken to Mississippi fifteen or twenty years before the surrender, by David Vance, and from there brought to Texas, and has since resided in Marshall. Any information leading to the discovery of these long-lost children will bring gladness to a worthy Mother’s heart. T. W. Lincoln” (July 1, 1880).

“I wish to inquire for my people. My first owner was Joe Ellis, in Green County, NC, and lived at Snow Hill. I was sold to Charley Croom. My mother’s name was Katy; my Father’s, Allan Miney. He belonged to Jim Miney. A sister named Beady and Clara; a brother named John — his wife’s name was Mary; a brother named Haywood, Howell, Peter, and Davey. All these is my people. My three first named brothers belonged to Redon Coley the last time I heard from them. My name was Ben Ellis at the time, but my name now is Ben Ivy. My last owner was Benjamin Ivy who was living at the time near Livington, Sumpter Co., Alabama. Ivy’s wife name was Mary Jane Ivy, and when Ivy died, I was sold to a man by the name of McGowan. Address me at Marion, MI. Ben Ivy” (August 25, 1881).

Those were just three of the more than 2500 advertisements.

Learning history by reading fiction

I love historical fiction, and The Book of Lost Friends certainly is a dandy. But it’s not the “fiction” that turns me on. It’s the history included in the plot that teaches and touches me.

Lost Friend advertisements and the Southwestern Christian Advocate tried to reunite loved ones after too many hardships to count.

I can only hope they succeeded in bringing families and friends together, and in making lost friends — found.

***


Lisa Wingate is also the author of the bestselling book, Before We Were Yours, which uses the historical escapades of Georgia Tann, child-trafficker, to fuel the plot.

Both Before We Were Yours and The Book of Lost Friends have achieved bestseller status on the New York Times Book List.


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