Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Looking Back: Garret Buster purchased his freedom in 1845

For nearly a year, I [Michael J. Denis] have been working with an African American researcher, extracting the facts out of an historical novel written about the Buster family.
Brighter Sun was published in 1954 by Greene B. Buster, the grandson of the enslaved Garret Buster of Monticello, Wayne County, KY to Boyle County, KY, then on to Xenia, Greene County, OH.
The family’s story is not that unusual – Garret purchased his freedom, then his wife, then all his children but one, who managed to escape. Two sons enlisted in the Union Army, many children and grandchildren attended college, etc.
What IS unusual is that this family has a novel written about it – facts are off, dates are off, names, especially of whites, have been changed. YET, we have managed to reconstruct a very detailed history of the family from about 1810 to the present.
Current descendants now hope to be able to contact white descendants to either prove or disprove the family legend of white ancestry.

CONTACT: Michael J Denis

President, Boyle County Genealogical Association, Inc


*Sidenote: Because Garret was racial mixed, and there are a couple of speculations of who his father might have been.

I hope this information below can help shed some light for Garret's descendants:  

Who was Garret’s biological father? Unfortunately this is a difficult question to answer, and often answers are lost in the highly dysfunctional relationships between people intertwined in an inhumane system. To start, we need to go through the process of elimination. According to Garret’s obituary, he was born in 1804 in Monticello, Kentucky.  In Greene’s book, although fiction yet inspired by his family’s true story, Garret was the son of a Colonel Jim Warring and his wife Sarah, implying that Gen. Joshua A. Buster or perhaps his father, Charles, could have been Garret’s real life father. The timeline doesn’t add up even though by 1830 Gen. Joshua owned four people. If Garret was indeed born in 1804, Charles had been dead for two years and Joshua would have been only eleven years old. And Charles did not actually inherit any land or enslaved people from his father, William Jr., because all of it went to Charles' mother, Jane, who outlived him by ten years. Also, during the time of Garret's birth in Monticello, the only other Buster who moved to Wayne County was Charles' sister, Mary Buster Jones. Now his brother, William Woods Buster, had moved to neighboring county, Pulaski, according to the 1810 census, but it’s uncertain whether William W. had lived in Monticello prior and had not included his nephew, Gen. Joshua into his will, so it’s likely that Garret's Anglo genes may not have come from the Busters. Meanwhile in 1804, Joshua’s mother, Sarah, married John Sanders whom all continued to live in Wayne County.  Now to imply that Sanders may have fathered Garret would almost work, however, in 1810 he did not own enslaved people, not until the 1820-1830’s before Garret’s birth, and he was engaged in a land deed lawsuit to which he was unable to pass along his inheritance to any of his children, let alone step-children.  

The last possibility, if we were to assume that Gen. Joshua had purchased Garret from a family member, is to look at an uncle who lived in the same town: James Jones. Although Grandfather Jones had nine children, three of his six sons owned enslaved servants. James, unlike his two brothers who only seem to have use for one domestic, owned four in 1820, and three by 1830 with three free people of color, two of which were children, according to the U.S. Census.  Now it could be possible that the one “free” male could have been the father of the two children, as parents tried to purchase their children’s freedom, or the children could have been fathered by James.  The complexity of social order in a culture mandated by slavery is a difficult one to dissect, because many layers of deceit make it near impossible to find biological family members. The reason James may be a suspect for Garret’s biological father is the fact that he had a mixture of enslaved people and free people on his property. And he had several. The next conclusion one may interpret is the connection between Gen. Joshua and his uncle, who became a colonel during the War of 1812, hence forth the implication of Colonel Warring in the book as really Colonel Jones. One could tie in the liability that Gen. Joshua may have purchased his enslaved cousin as a means to keep family close by, and later, allowed Garret to purchase his own freedom, and later, may have helped Garret to purchase his immediate family from his son-in-law, James Cecil, by gentle persuasion. White masters were more inclined to allow enslaved people their freedom if they were their descendants.  Again, this is all hypothetical, otherwise, Gen. Joshua simply had purchased Garret from someone else in Wayne County, Kentucky.

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2014 9:19 am
By BRENDA S. EDWARDS Contributing writer |

Research on the family of Garret Buster, a slave in the early 1800s, began in Wayne County, continued in Boyle County, and into Ohio and Illinois. Mike Denis, a local genealogist and president of the Boyle County Genealogical Association, did the research for Kelli Weaver-Miner of Champaign, Ill, who was looking for her ancestor. Kelli had information on the Busters and a copy of a historical novel, Brighter Sun, written by Garret's grandson, Greene Berry (“G.B.”) Buster after he visited Danville in the 1940s or 1950s. He published the fictionalized novel in 1954 about his grandparents, their children, and their escape from enslavement and move to Xenia, Ohio. After reading the book, Denis began to separate fact from fiction by searching court records in Wayne and Boyle counties.

Garret was a slave who belonged to Gen. Joshua Buster of Monticello. The general's daughter, Sarah Buster, married James Granville Cecil of Wayne County. Cecil was a successful businessman in Wayne County before he moved about 1848 to land on Salt River Road, west of Danville. Cecil became one of the largest landowners in the county, and with his sons, raised champion race horses and other farm animals.

Melrose and Cambus Kenneth farms on U.S. 127 North also were owned by Cecil descendants. Denis said the description of the Elijah Harlan house and an old stone house on Salt River Road fit the plantation described in the novel, but he could not connect the places with the Waring and Benson families mentioned in the novel. His research shows “the old stone house” was built in 1785 by James Harlan at the end of Salt River Road. His grandson, John Marshall Harlan, a Supreme Court Justice,was born there in 1833. The Elijah Harlan House was built about 1828. Elijah, a son of James, built a brick house, painted white, and a two-story stone slave house.

Freedom Paper
Gen. Buster apparently remained in Wayne County. He died there in 1861. In 1845, Garret paid $500 to Gen. Buster for his freedom. A deed of emancipation from Gen. Buster to Garret was recorded Dec. 6, 1845, in the Wayne County Court, releasing Garret “from the obligations of slavery and servitude forever.” Garret worked in a tannery near Danville and later bought the business.

In 1855, he bought the freedom of his son, Greene, who attended school in Danville. Son Lewis escaped to Canada in 1857 after his father was unable to purchase him. After purchasing his wife Sophia and other children from James G. Cecil in March 1853, Garret moved the family prior to 1860 to Boyle County. They had eight children, Greene Berry, Lewis, Nancy, Clark, Sarah, James, Mary and Milton. Busters listed in 1860 Boyle Census are: Garret, 52, and his wife, Sophia, 42, and their children, Greene, 20; Nancy, 14; Sarah, 7; Clark, 9; and James, 3.

The 1860 Slave Schedule lists him as owner of one female mulatto, 42; and five mulattos the same age as his children listed in the census. Lewis was not listed as he was apparently was still owned by James G. Cecil before he escaped in 1862, and Greene was serving in the Civil War. Greene and Lewis Buster enlisted in 1864 in the Ohio Colored Infantry, and later were in the 101st Ohio Volunteer Colored Troops. Greene was a member of the “Black Brigade” in Cincinnati, formed to defend the city against a Confederate attack. The soldiers built fortifications all over northern Kentucky over a three-week period. A memorial was recently erected in Cincinnati to honor the Black Brigade.

In 1865, Greene married Mildred Johnson in Clarksville, Tenn. They moved to Xenia, Ohio. Garret made a will in 1854 saying that he had purchased Sophia and two of their children from Cecil, but it was never probated as he lived another 49 years. He willed his wife, Sophia, all that he owned, and at her death, it would go to the children. He also set his wife and all their children and any slave he owned free and “released from bondage” and entitled to the rights of a free person of color, according to a Boyle County deed recorded in 1862.

Garret was born in 1808, in Kentucky, and his wife, Sophia Sisten, born in 1821, apparently stayed in Ohio. He died in 1903, leaving many descendants in Ohio and Illinois. Sophia died in 1894 in Xenia. Lewis, who was married to Sarah Conrad, died in 1918, according to a death certificate in Chicago. The death certificate showed his mother's maiden name as Sisten.

Jay hawk Blvd, May 1925
G.B. Buster author of the Brighter Sun, graduated at Wilberforce University in 1902 and earned a master's degree in 1925 at University of Kansas. He was founder in 1931 and longtime principal of Sumner High School, the first high school in Kansas for black students. He died in 1965 in Los Angeles, Calif. The Buster descendants were nurses, ministers and members of other learned professions. Education apparently was vital to the Buster family's future and continues to be.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 20, 1955
Garret Buster was a slave owned by Gen. Joshua Buster, of Monticello, Ky, and was apparently the son of “Jim” and “Sarah, slaves owned by “Colonel Waring”, in reality, General Joshua Buster or his father, Charles Buster.  Though Garret and his family were never as wealthy or famous as the Harlans and the Cecils, theirs is a story of common people striving to better themselves despite all the odds being against them, and as such, is a story that needs to be told.

Sophia Cecil was also enslaved, and owned by James Granville Cecil, originally of Monticello, but of Boyle County by 1848.  The Buster story is not as well-known as either the Harlan or even the Cecil story, but it is a story of family, faith, hard work, and a longing for freedom at any cost.

When I responded to Kelli’s request for the name “Buster” on the Beers 1876 map of Boyle and Mercer Counties,[24] I began the search.  I found Nimrod Buster on the map, but Kelli told me that the person she was looking for was Garret Buster, a slave, who apparently lived in Boyle County, and Nimrod was white.  She sent me information describing the house where Garret and his family lived, on the Salt River Road.

In 1937, after visiting the Salt River Road in 1935,[25] Greene Berry Buster (G. B.) wrote a fictionalized novel, Brighter Sun,[26] (published in 1954) about his grandparents’ years as enslaved African Americans, and their long, difficult struggle to end that enslavement.  The novel contained bits of truth, though the names of nearly all the Whites were changed.  It took a great deal of solid research, speculation, testing, and writing back and forth between me and Kelli Weaver-Miner, a descendant of the family, to strip away the 95% which was fiction, and to replace it with what we believe is fact.  We started out with an hypothesis that G. B.’s slave ancestors were owned by the Harlans, but the pieces didn’t fit.  However, the connection with James Granville Cecil and General Joshua Buster of Monticello, Wayne Co, Ky, did fit the puzzle nearly perfectly.  “The Old Stone House” and the Elijah Harlan house were the keys.

The Old Stone house, c. 1967- before the 1974 tornado
My friend, Barry Sanborn, and I believed the house to be the “Old Stone House,” built by the Harlan family.  At the Mercer County Public Library, we were looking for any records of the slaves belonging to the Harlans, when Barry just picked up David Sheet’s,Slave genealogy – a research guide with case studies (Bowie, Md: Heritage Books, 1986) and began browsing.  Totally by accident, he came across our first breakthrough on page 80,[27] a transcript of a document showing that Garret Buster was emancipated by his owner, General Joshua Buster, of Monticello, Wayne County.

Now that we knew Garret’s owner until 1845[28] we had our first clue.  The novel intimated that Garret’s father, “Jim,” was the son of “Colonel Waring” whom we believe to be General Buster, but this is not possible, though the general’s father or an uncle may be Jim’s father.

We found Garret Buster’s wife’s supposed surname through the death certificate of her son, Lewis.  General Buster’s son-in-law, James Granville Cecil, we speculated, was her owner.  The “Cecil” surname is listed (though the spelling is horribly mangled) on Lewis’s death certificate in Chicago in 1918.[29]  The connection became apparent when we proved G. B.’s story about HIS father, also Greene Berry Buster, visiting the “old place” on Salt River Road in 1865.  G. B.’s descriptions in the novel, as well as his own visit in 1937, fit the Elijah Harlan house perfectly; his description of the spring house fits the description of the “Old Stone House,” and the fact that these houses were used as hospitals following the Battle of Perryville also fits.

Our hypothesis became a theory — Garret was owned by Gen. Joshua Buster, though Gen. Buster allowed Garret to buy himself, partly for cash, partly on credit,[30] and Sophia was owned by James Granville Cecil, first in Monticello, then possibly in Boyle County.  We believe that when the Cecils moved to Boyle County in 1848, they took Sophia and her children (all slaves) with them, and that Garret went as well, having “married” Sophia about 1836.  An unprobated will found in the William Crenshaw Kennedy, Jr. Memorial Museum in Monticello, Wayne County, mentions that Garret had purchased Sophia and two of their children in 1853 from Cecil,[31] though Cecil had probably moved to Boyle County by then.  Another mystery?

Enslaved people at Monticello
Though there is documentary evidence of Garret Buster in Monticello as late as 1854, we believe he may have, as a freeman, simply gone back to Monticello from Boyle County to “clean up” some loose ends.  Interestingly however, he does not show up in the 1850 census as far as we can find. First by working as hired labor in a tannery, and ultimately purchasing the tannery from its former owner (according to Brighter Sun), Garret Buster was emancipated 27 February 1845 in Monticello, Wayne County.  Sophia’s owner, James Granville Cecil, sold her and two of her children to Garret Buster[32].  Brighter Sun describes in detail, Garret’s unceasing efforts to purchase their children who were still slaves, probably Greene Berry (father of Greene B., the author of Brighter Sun) and Lewis.  We find there are other children, though we have found no record yet that these children were born free, with the exception of Sarah, born after 1853, and James, who was born 11 Dec 1857 to father Garret Buster, “f.m.c.) or “free man of color”.[33]  On page 193, the novel quotes an emancipation document for Greene in 1855, though we have yet to find an actual document stating such:

“Wiliam Hodson to Garret Buster, State of Kentucky, Boyle County

“Know all men by these presents that I, William Hodson, fo the county and state aforesaid, in consideration of the sum of five hundred dollars paid to me cash in hand, do set free Greene, the son of Garret Buster.  The said Greene is to enjoy and possess now, henceforth and forever, the full exercise of all rights, benefits and privileges of a free man of color, free of all or any claim to servitude, slavery, or service of the said William Hodson, his heirs, executors, and assigns forver.

“Signed:  William Hodson

“Given under my hand and seal this twenty-fifth day of November, 1855

“Boyle County Recorder’s office, James C. Lyle, Recorder”[34]

The 1850 Boyle County Slave Census [35], prior to Garret’s purchase of Sophia, Nancy and Clark, has James Granville Cecil, with twelve slaves, including one male 13 (Greene?); one male 11 (Lewis?); one female 4 (Sarah?); and one female 2 (Eizabeth?).  Garret’s children in 1850 would have been one male, 12 years old, one male 11 years old, and one female, 4 years old.  Cecil owned no slaves matching the age and gender of Sophia, however, and we can not find Garret anywhere in any 1850 record.

The 1860 Boyle County Slave Census[36] shows Garret Buster, mulatto, as the owner of one female, age forty-two (probably Sophia), three males (probably Greene Berry, Clark and James) and two females (Nancy and Sarah) — all these children are the right gender and approximately the right age as given in the Census.  Strangely enough, Garret and his family are also shown as “free blacks” in Boyle County, Perryville P.O., in the 1860 Census (1860, p147); the list includes wife Sophia, and children Green, Nancy, Sarah, Clark and James, that is, all his children except Lewis, which may indicate these family members were commonly considered to be free by 1860, yet at the same time, they are Garret’s slaves.  Why is his family is listed as “free” in one census, and as “slaves” in the same year?

In a deed in the Boyle County courthouse[37], Garret Buster “emancipated” his wife and children as of December 1862 (coincidentally, the same month that Sarah (Buster) Cecil died), though we have some sources that say he was in Ohio before that time, probably moving in 1861.  Did he come back to Danville to tie up loose ends and guarantee his family’s freedom?  There are still many facts to uncover about this family, and some may well never be found.  After leaving Boyle County, the family settled in Xenia, Greene Co, OH (1870, Xenia, p1, and 1880, Ward 4, Xenia, p13A) and Garret, a widower, resided with his son, Greene Berry Buster, in Clark Twp; Clinton Co, OH (1900 Census, Clark Twp; p6A).

The family of Garret and Sophia (Cecil) Buster, as best we can assemble, includes children Greene Berry (1838-1925), Lewis (1839-1918), Nancy Virginia (1846-1876), Clark (1851-?), Sarah Jane (1853-?), James Robert (1857-1907), Mary Alice (1860-1879) and Milton (1862-?).  Brighter Sun refers to another daughter, Elizabeth who died prior to the Buster family leaving Boyle County for Ohio, but other than that reference, nothing has been found.  Also, one Charles Buster, b 1849, who died in Xenia, Greene Co, Ohio 20 May 1869, may have been the child of Garret and Sophia.

Lewis Buster, according to Brighter Sun, escaped enslavement through Maysville, and on to
Xenixa, OH
Ohio, where he was once again forced to leave for safety in Canada.  Eventually, he returned to his family in Xenia, Greene Co., OH, where his father and at least one brother had purchased land, becoming credits to the community.  Lewis must have escaped from Kentucky before the end of the Civil War because he and his brother Greene both served in the 101
st Ohio volunteer “colored” infantry, enlisting in September 1864.[38]

Greene Berry Buster, in his manuscript for Brighter Sun, page iv, describes seeing the “plantation” where his family lived.  For the longest while, we were confused, trying to make sense of his description of a brick house, when we were assuming we should be looking for a stone house.  But having the manuscript, not just the final book, may clear that up.  He writes, “Leaving the main highway, we turned into what proved to be a semi-private road which crossed Salt creek three times on the way up to the “mansion” seated at the crest of the hill.  As we approached the ancient ‘pile’, we saw evidence of a ‘glory that had departed’.  Built of red brick more than a century ago, it had since been painted white…”  It may well be that the “ancient pile” was the stone house, which was in great disrepair by that time, and that the “evidence of a glory that had departed” was the Elijah Harlan house, which was still standing and still occupied at the time.[39]

Garret Buster must have wondered at times if he could ever work hard enough to accomplish his goals, which often changed, as the value of his children as slaves increased.  When the family left for Ohio, the only regret he apparently had was that he could not earn enough money to free Lewis. However, the family never lost faith in God and the idea of freedom, no matter how hard the situation was, no matter what they had to go through, no matter what obstacles stood in their way. Their children were educated, and their grandchildren became ministers, teachers and pursued other educated professions.  Education was, and still is, vitally important to the descendants of Garret Buster.

Again, coincidentally, the historic “Great Tornado Outbreak” of 3 April 1974 which spawned a tornado that nearly destroyed “The Old Stone House” also spawned, about four hours earlier,[40] an F-5 tornado which virtually began at the Cherry Grove Cemetery in Xenia, Ohio, killing 36, and destroying the gravestones of Garret and Sophia Buster, 170 miles away.[41]


  1. Sarah Buster (b.1848 KY) 1880 Census: Baxter Springs, KS
  2. Nelson Buster (1830) 1870 Census Kansas City, MO
  3. Mary Ellen Buster (1834) 1870 census Somerset, KY
  4. Lewis Buster (1837 KY) 1910 census Chicago, IL, listed as literare
  5. Louis Buster (1860 KY) 1910 census, Wayne, MI
  6. Jirn C Buster (1863 KY) 1940 census Russell, KY
  7. W.W. Buster (female 1820) 1860 slave roll census Washington, TX

1850 Slave Schedule for the Busters

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