“Finding Your Roots”: Tracing African-American Slave Ancestors

“Finding Your Roots”: Tracing African-American Slave Ancestors

Last night's "Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr." focused on the challenge of tracing African-American ancestors before slavery in the family trees of actress Angela Bassett, political adviser Valerie Bowman Jarrett and rapper Nas. One reason I was especially interested in this topic is that we're planning...

Last night’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” focused on the challenge of tracing African-American ancestors before slavery in the family trees of actress Angela Bassett, political adviser Valerie Bowman Jarrett and rapper Nas.

One reason I was especially interested in this topic is that we’re planning an article on tracing enslaved ancestors for the January/February 2014 Family Tree Magazine. Gates’ research team used the same strategy our experts recommend to identify potential slaveowners, whose records can shed light on who their slaves were: Compare an African-American family’s 1870 census listing—the first census to list the former slaves by name—to the 1860 census for the same area, looking for white families there with the former slaves’ surname. This is based on the fact that freed slaves often took the surnames of their most recent owners, usually stayed in the same area, and sometimes even worked for the same family.

Although the strategy worked for all three of Gates’ guests, it doesn’t always. A freed person could take any name he or she wanted. This is a great episode, though, for seeing what types of records might contain details on the enslaved.

Here are some highlights for each guest:

  • Angela Bassett: Bassett’s great-grandfather William Henry Bassett was born into slavery and later became a preacher. His death certificate mysteriously gave his father’s last name as Ingram. Researchers found an Elizabeth Ingram who was a neighbor of William’s parents, George and Jinney, in the 1870 census. Researching Ingram’s family, they discovered her father-in-law had bequeathed Bassett’s great-great-grandparents to his children. They had grown up on the same plantation. Sometime between the age of 3 and 14, their son William Henry was sold to the Bassetts.
  • Valerie Bowman Jarrett: Jarrett’s great-grandfather Robert Robinson Taylor, born in 1868, was the first African-American to graduate from MIT, and he later became a professional architect. He wrote a letter claiming that his father, Henry, was a slave who had a white father. A passage Booker T. Washington wrote stated that Henry was given unusual freedom. He received a sum of money when he finally became free.

    In another of Jarrett’s lines, her great-great-grandfather Victor Rochon was among the first black men elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1888. Victor was named in the 1850 census, meaning he was free. Slaveowner Pierre Rochon had filed manumission papers to free Victor’s mother (likely his mistress) and her children.

  • Nas: Nas’ great-grandparents had the same last name, Little, and so did their parents. Five generations of his family tree had couples in which both had the Little surname. Researchers learned that generations of a white Little family in North Carolina had owned generations of Nas’ family, all of whom took the name. One of the slaveowners, Benjamin Little, actually kept detailed records of how much cotton Nas’ ancestor picked each day, a very rare glimpse into an enslaved ancestor’s life.

    In court records, researchers also uncovered a receipt for the purchase of Nas’ third-great-grandmother, Pocahontas Little. You can see Nas’ interactive family tree here.

Watch the full episode featuring Nas, Angela Bassett and Valerie Bowman Jarrett, on the “Finding Your Roots” website.

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  1. I’d really like to strongly caution against disseminating the following info: "Compare an African-American family’s 1870 census listing—the first census to list the former slaves by name—to the 1860 census for the same area, looking for white families there with the former slaves’ surname. This is based on the fact that freed slaves often took the surnames of their most recent owners, usually stayed in the same area, and sometimes even worked for the same family."

    As someone who has been focused on primarily African American genealogy for the last 15 years, this piece of advice is extremely risky to introduce, even with a word of deviation below. This has NEVER been the case for any of my 2x great grandparents who were almost all formerly enslaved. Please take the time to reach out to African American genealogists and family historians and ask them for tips and tricks on successfully tracing their formerly enslaved ancestors. It would make a HUGE difference in what you publish online and in your magazine.

  2. Hi, Nicka, you’re correct that this strategy doesn’t always work, as we noted in the blog post. But the fact is that many African-American researchers have had success with this approach, including those portrayed on "Finding Your Roots," and I’d be leaving out potentially helpful information if I didn’t mention it in this post. This strategy is recommended by experts and scholars in African-American genealogy and history, and it’s a relatively simple first step for those beginning to trace enslaved ancestors.