As a work of genealogy, Slaves is impressive. In his research, Ball pored over more than ten thousand pages of family documents that had survived the Civil War and been collected in several Southern libraries. From newspaper clippings, ledgers, deeds, correspondence, receipts, and lists of slaves, he began to reconstruct a family history stretching back to the arrival in the Colonies of Elias "Red Cap" Ball, a 22-year old from Stokeinteignhead, England, who had come to claim Comingtee, a small plantation left him by his uncle John Coming.
The documents revealed that, over the subsequent nine generations, Red Cap's original farm grew into an agricultural empire that included 20 plantations along South Carolina's Cooper River and more than 4,000 slaves. This was no surprise; the oral tradition and family history Edward Ball had been raised hearing included many stories of the Ball family's plantation grandeur.
There were other cherished family claims, however, that were not borne out by documentary evidence. Claims, for example, that the Ball family never sold slave children away from their families, or that Ball men never had sex with the women they owned. Family members Ball interviewed were convinced —like most descendants of slave-owning families— that these assertions were true; but sales records, wills, photographs, and other documents proved otherwise.