SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A family death in 1858 left Ben Affleck's great-great-great grandfather with legal custody of his mother-in-law's most valuable property — her slaves.
There was Cuffey, whose value was estimated at $500 in handwritten estate records still on file with the Chatham County Probate Court. There were Henry and James, valued at $1,000 apiece. And Robert and Becky, worth $600 as a couple. They were among 24 slaves willed to Benjamin L. Cole with instructions to turn them over to his three sons once they reached adulthood.
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Records offer murky view into Affleck's ancestor and slavery
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 26: Actor Ben Affleck, founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, listens to testimony during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill March 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on diplomacy, development, and national security in regards to Africa. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Actor Ben Affleck testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 26, 2015, before the Senate State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs subcommittee hearing on diplomacy, development and national. security. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
US actor Ben Affleck testifies on issues in the Republic of Congo during a US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Capitol Hill, on February 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07: (EDITORS NOTE: This Image was taken in B/W color not availabe). Actor Ben Affleck, backstage during The 41st Annual People's Choice Awards at Nokia Theatre LA Live on January 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The People's Choice Awards)
Actor and Eastern Congo Initiative Founder Ben Affleck listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Congo. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
CENTURY CITY, CA - FEBRUARY 14: Honoree Ben Affleck accepts the Valentine Davies Award onstage at the 2015 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 14, 2015 in Century City, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for WGAw)
Actor, filmmaker and Eastern Congo Initiative founder, Ben Affleck and wife actress Jennifer Garner attend the 2nd Annual Save the Children Illumination Gala at The Plaza Hotel on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Ben Affleck poses in the press room at the 71st annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 26: Actors Ben Affleck (L) and Henry Cavill attend the Warner Bros. Pictures panel and presentation during Comic-Con International 2014 at San Diego Convention Center on July 26, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Actor Ben Affleck accepts the Hollywood Film Award for 'Gone Girl' onstage during the 18th Annual Hollywood Film Awards at The Palladium on November 14, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: Ben Affleck, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak during a photo op at The State Department on February 26, 2014 in Washington, DC. Affleck, founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the war torn African country. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
CENTURY CITY, CA - JANUARY 25: Director Alfonso Cuaron (L), winner of the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for 2013 award for ÂGravity,Â and actor-director Ben Affleck pose in the press room during the 66th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on January 25, 2014 in Century City, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Actor and director Ben Affleck reacts as he receives an honorary degree at Brown University's commencement in Providence, R.I., Sunday, May 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Ben Affleck arrives at Project Greenlight Season Four Winner Revealed on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Ben Affleck at UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television's 22nd Annual Film Festival DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT HONORING BEN AFFLECK on Thursday, June, 13, 2013 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for UCLA TFT/AP Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 18: (L-R) Singer/actor Justin Timberlake, actress Gemma Arterton and actor/director Ben Affleck introduce the world premiere of Twentieth Century Fox and New Regency's film 'Runner Runner' at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on September 18, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
CULVER CITY, CA - JUNE 08: Actor/director Ben Affleck poses with members of the American armed forces at Spike TV's Guys Choice 2013 at Sony Pictures Studios on June 8, 2013 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Spike TV)
Ben Affleck arrives for the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. Affleck's Iran hostage drama 'Argo' won the coveted best film Oscar late Sunday, while Daniel Day-Lewis took a record third best actor prize at the 85th Academy Awards, Hollywood's biggest night. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ (Photo credit should read ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
CULVER CITY, CA - JUNE 08: Actor/director Ben Affleck sits in the audience during Spike TV's Guys Choice 2013 at Sony Pictures Studios on June 8, 2013 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Spike TV)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Actors Jennifer Garner(L) and Ben Affleck arrive at the Oscars at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 02: Ben Affleck is seen at 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' on December 02, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by RB/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
Palisades CA - Sept 20: Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck take the kids out on a Sunday to the farmers market in Palisades California on September 20 2015 Credit: Jon Misa / MediaPunch/IPX
Cary Fukunaga, right, director of the film "Beasts of No Nation," poses with cast member Abraham Attah, center, and special host Ben Affleck before a screening of the film at the Directors Guild of America on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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Nineteenth century documents offer a window into the life of the Hollywood star's ancestor and put Benjamin Cole right at the center of the South's reckoning with slavery. He had the personal ties — his family's at least two dozen slaves. But as sheriff of Chatham County, which includes Savannah, he had deep public ties as well.
His nearly a decade as the top law enforcement official in one of the South's most important cities started before the Civil War, when slavery was a way of life, continued throughout the war, when its citizens were fighting to maintain slavery, and ended years after the Confederates surrendered, when tensions between newly freed slaves and whites desperate to maintain control coursed through the city.
"Slavery touched everything. Everybody had some kind of a connection to it in some way," said W. Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society.
Evidence that Cole owned slaves drove Affleck to ask PBS and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates to remove his relative from a TV program exploring Affleck's family tree. After Affleck's actions became public in April, the "Argo" actor and director identified the relative as Benjamin Cole on Twitter. A publicist for Affleck reached by The Associated Press offered no further comment. The AP used historical public records to independently confirm that Cole was Affleck's ancestor.
"I didn't want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves," Affleck said in a Facebook post April 21. "I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth."
Nearly 144 years before he was dismissed by his great-great-great grandson as an embarrassment, Cole was praised as a "universally respected" citizen by the Savannah Morning News after he died on Nov. 16, 1871.
When Cole became sheriff in 1860, after briefly holding the job in 1856, slaves made up roughly a third of Savannah's 22,000 people. Many labored on vast rice plantations south of the city. Others worked as house servants, wagon drivers, hotel waiters and messengers.
Cole himself had a modest farm with about 100 acres of cleared land. Census records from 1850 identify Cole as the owner of 25 slaves.
City and county tax digests paint a different picture. They show Cole paid taxes on his land, a dog, a horse and a carriage. But he never paid for any slaves, which were also taxed as personal property.
The 1860 census offers a possible explanation. It shows Cole held 31 slaves as an estate executor and trustee for Ann S. Norton and S.L. Speissegger, Cole's in-laws from two marriages. It was Norton who left her slaves to Cole's sons from a previous marriage. In 1857 he married Georgia A. Cole, Speissegger's daughter. She was Affleck's great-great-great grandmother.
Benjamin and Georgia Cole had at least one slave of their own. Cole's wife paid taxes on a single slave in 1863 and 1864. It's not clear if the slaves Cole held in trust worked for him.
"You can pretty much count on him not letting them sit around," said Jacqueline Jones, history department chair at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book "Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War." ''If he's going to feed and clothe them, he wants them to be productive."
But the end was near. Savannah surrendered to the Union in December 1864 and the Confederate army itself surrendered the following April, forcing the South to yield to the abolition of slavery. Sheriff Cole was left to keep the peace between fearful, resentful whites and freed blacks demanding access to the ballot and other citizenship rights.
In April 1867, in the yard of the county jail, the sheriff presided over the hanging of two black men condemned for murder. The Savannah Daily News and Herald reported Cole personally placed white caps over the men's faces before releasing the trapdoor beneath their feet.
A year later, during Cole's final months as sheriff, the newspaper reported a courthouse clash between Cole's men and military authorities as crowds of freed blacks tried to vote in an election. "Sheriff Cole's Bailiff, who was there by virtue of orders from Headquarters, was thrust out at the point of a bayonet in the hands of an irate corporal," the newspaper said. It's not clear why.
Cole still served as a deputy sheriff at the time of his 1871 death, which newspapers attributed to "consumption of the bowels." Though his birth date isn't precisely known, Cole lived about 57 years.
Ending slavery had a devastating effect on the wealth of many white Southerners. Public records suggest Cole's family fortunes may have suffered too.
In 1858, Cole held in trust slaves worth an estimated $13,100. Thirteen years later, he died with $575 in the bank and $543 worth of land and household furniture. Estate records show Cole's heirs received another $1,000 from the Georgia Legislature as compensation for unpaid services during Cole's time as sheriff.
Cole's body now lies buried in an unmarked grave at Laurel Grove Cemetery, where he had purchased a family plot for $10.