The enslavement of a third of my ancestors forced me to develop a skillset that would enable me to research and find ancestors who left no direct trace of their existence. Considered human property, the enslaved produced no records of their own. The only way to research these ancestors is through indirect means and sources via records that others could have conceivably left that referenced the enslaved. Each enslaved ancestor is the mother of brick walls.
For clarity, records such as birth certificates or announcements; christening and baptism records; marriage contracts, marriage deeds or marriage certificates; bastardy bonds; death records; family bibles; property deeds; and the like are direct means of finding vital information about your ancestors which satisfy genealogical standards of proof.
Problems arise when the ancestors we are researching never possessed or left records that would satisfy the genealogical standards of proof.
When it comes to ancestors who were enslaved – or were pioneers / frontier people, traders – or simply illiterate – finding evidence of their existence is problematic. This is especially true if you are seeking to make connections between poorly documented people who share the same surname in the same county or region. When it comes to these ancestors, your research will require you to think outside of the box.
You might strike gold through indirect means. You may come across references to the family you are researching via:
- Court cases, if your ancestors were involved in law suits; and
- Historical accounts that have been covered by local or regional historians; and
- Ship manifests for immigrant ancestors;
- Indenture contracts;
- Colonial muster rolls;
- Tax records;
- Circuit riders religious records;
- Naming patterns; and
- Native American oral history (especially for ancestors who traded with Native Americans or were taken away by Native Americans during periods of warfare)
Some of my Irish, Scottish, and German ancestors are perfect examples of poorly documented ancestors in the early American colonial period. Those who were indentured tend to be fairly straightforward in terms of documentation. It’s when their contract of indenture ends that the research problems begin. Those who lived in towns and cities are easier to find and document. Those who went to the frontier, or removed themselves to Native American territory? Well, that’s where the fun begins. Remember, this latter group were literally living in the wilderness.
There was no government for our ancestors living in the back of beyond in colonial America. Which means they didn’t pay taxes, which is one of the most basic ways a genealogist can track an ancestor. There were no court houses or churches – so no registry of marriages, births, deaths, etc. Nor were there any land registries. If they were literate, and a had a bible, they may have written births, marriages, and deaths in that bible. However, if their log cabin went up in flames, and they couldn’t save that bible, then all of that family information went up in flames.
For enslaved ancestors, indirect sources of information could include:
- Court cases – heirs within an enslaving family may have sued one another over the dispersal of enslaved people in a parent’s Will;
- Historical accounts that have been covered by local or regional historians;
- Enslavers’ Wills and estate inventories
- An enslaver’s Farm Book, Day Book, or journal;
- Slave insurance policies and mortgages;
- Slave sales deeds;
- Parish christening & baptismal records;
- Slave marriage records (rare);
- Enslavers’ compensation claims;
- Slave mortality schedules;
- Naming patterns; and
- Freedmen’s Bureau Records
Enter the Beyond Kin approach to genealogy (https://beyondkin.org/). The BK approach was developed specifically to encourage and facilitate the documentation of enslaved populations, particularly by recruiting the resources and efforts of the descendants of slaveholders. While it was devised to solve one very specific genealogical problem – genealogy for enslaved ancestors – it is a highly adaptable approach that can be used to solve other genealogical problems and challenges. It is an ideal means of working on poorly documented ancestral family groups.
A quick overview of the Beyond Kin Methodology
The Beyond Kin approach works like this:
- Add an enslaver to your family tree. Let’s call our enslaver Joe Bloggs;
- Instead of adding a traditional spouse, let’s say Jane Doe for instance, we add a label as a spouse. For instance, we can add a “spouse” labelled: 1715 Henrico County, VA Will of Joe Bloggs;
- We then add each of the enslaved people mentioned in his Will, along with their family members, if known;
- You trace the enslaved person and his or her family from slave record to slave record until you reach the 1870 US Census, when traditional genealogy kicks in.
The above is a really brief overview. For more information, you can watch the video below as well as visit tps://beyondkin.org/).
Using the Beyond Kin approach to make connections between poorly documented ancestors
I am currently on my African American Roane family in King William, King and Queen, and Essex Counties in Virginia. Fellow Roane researchers and I know that the Roanes we have found in the 1870 Census, in the above-listed counties, were related to one another. DNA test results, naming conventions, and proximity to one another within their respective counties highlight those lost family connections. In one way, shape, or form, they all also go back to one enslaver in King William County: Col. William Roane (1701-1757).
We know this lost connection to Col. William Roane through the DNA test results myself and so many of my African American Roane cousins have taken over the years. these results connect us to him down different lines of descent on the white side of our family. In other words, we are the children of Col. William Roane’s sons, grandsons, and great grandsons.
Our challenge is twofold. First we have to understand how the different Roane lines in King William, Essex, and King and Queen Counties are related to one another, if they share a common black or mulatto ancestor. Secondly, we have to work back through time to identify the white descendant of Col. William Roane fathered the different African American Roane family line.
While I am specifically discussing enslaved ancestors, think about how you can apply this approach for your own poorly documented ancestors who were not enslaved. I have used the approach I am about to delve into to great effect for some of my Scots-Irish ancestors who were in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
In the image below, I have attached a spousal label to my 7x great grandfather, Col. William Roane, that I have labelled Descendants of enslaved Roanes in King & Queen, King William & Essex Counties who connect back to Col William Roane. The specificity of this label helps anyone who comes across Col. Roane on the pubic Genealogy Adventures tree on Ancestry.com. These label spouses leave no doubt about who the individuals are within this list of people – and why they are attached to Col. Roane.
This is also an adaptation of cluster genealogy. Clustering family surnames in a specific place during a specific time period. The end game is to fill i the blanks to determine if they were part of the same family or not.
I literally went through the whole of the 1870 Censuses for the three counties in question and added the Roanes who appeared in those census. I grouped them by specific place. In the image above, you can see a small group of people who were in Mangohick in King William – a core place for Col. Roane’s family. You will also see I added Mangohick as a spouse of Descendants of enslaved Roanes in King & Queen, King William & Essex Counties who connect back to Col William Roane.
Using this approach made something immediately clear about the African American Mangohick Roanes: there are three generations listed here. At this time, I can’t definitely state that Sarah is the matriarch, with a daughter or daughter-in-law, Nancy, with grandchildren, Abbie and Arthur. However, what it does do is give me a generational chronology to work with to see what the relationships actually was between these four people.
I am a visual person when it comes to information processing. This methodology is perfect for researchers who also process information visually.
Grouping and seeing people in this manner has another strength. I know roughly when Sarah was born. I know she was enslaved by the Roane family. Knowing where she was in 1870 – knowing whose land she was living on in 1870 – enables me to work out a route from her back to Col.William Roane. It limits the number of his enslaving Roane descendants I have to look at in order to work out who enslaved Sarah earlier in her life, as well as enslaved her parents…and so on and so forth back to Col. William Roane.
It is a slow and time-staking process. However, it is a process in which I excel. Beyond Kin has given me an approach that better enables me to do the thing that I do: find the history of my enslaved family and push the envelop for a number of my poorly documented ancestors.
In the image below, you can see the individuals who have been added under Newtown and Stevensville in King and Queen County, Virginia. Again, you will see a clear generation split. In Newtown, Thomas and Jacob are the eldest generation. William, Robert, and John are the second generation. Walker, Robert and Henry are the youngest generation.
While you can’t see it in this image, the “unknown fathers” were of Thomas and Jacob’s generation. I’ve added these unknown fathers like this so I did not lose the sibling relationships between their children. Jacob and Thomas may be the “unknown father”. They equally might not be. For now, I know I’m working with three distinct generations within the Newtown group. The challenge is to find the missing puzzle pieces to determine how these individuals were related to one another.
Frustratingly, there are too few Wills and estate inventories that have been digitized for Col. Roane’s descendants. Those are crucial documents for researchers of enslaved people. They are critical indirect records. A trip to King and Queen’s historical archives will tell me if said Wills and estate inventories exist at all. In the meantime, we can only work with the other main puzzle pieces we have at our disposal: DNA, DNA segmentation, and DNA triangulation.
In the image above, you can see where I have added Roanes in Essex County, Virginia. Lastly, we have Frances Roane from West Point in King William. At the moment, we have no idea how this Roane, whose descendants match me and other African American Roanes, wound up in West Point.
The image above is an end result of using this approach. This group previously started out under a King & Queen County heading. Oral family history already defined them as siblings, so we were spared having to try and determine how this group of African American Roanes were related to one another. Oral family history also said that John Jones Roane III was the father of most, if not all, of these enslaved Roanes. DNA is certainly strongly indicating that John or his brother, Newman Brockenbrough Roane, was their father. We know that Newman fathered two sons by his enslaved love, Biney (Newman Brockenbrough Roane: a historic & unconventional divorce in 19th Century Virginia). The names of Newman Roane’s sons have been lost to us. So we have to taken extra care in identifying his two sons from among this list of individuals.
In the meantime, there was enough evidence of a familiar blood relationship between these African American Roanes, John Jones Roane III, and Newman Brockenbrough Roane, to add them to John Jones Roane III in the manner that I have done, with the usual caveats as noted in the image above. A substantial amount of work remains. However, we are chipping away at the unknown bit by bit. This approach supports that chipping away process.
I don’t say this nearly enough. This is a prime example of why much can be gained by black and white genealogists working together. Genealogy of enslaved ancestors requires out of the box approaches and solutions for tracing and researching enslaved ancestors – who are the very definition of poorly documented ancestors – as well as ancestors who lives were indirectly recorded. We know the challenges and barriers that are faced in documenting and researching poorly documented ancestors. We face them every day. The genealogical problem solving approaches slave genealogy has produced in breaking down seemingly impossible brick walls are adaptable for anyone researching their own poorly documented ancestors.
Please come back and let us know in a comment if this approach goes on to help you break down your own brick walls for your poorly documented family members.