This article covers how having a robust enslaved genealogy research strategy can help achieve genealogy research goals and aims.
I have spent the past few months doing a deep dive into the early colonial enslavement of my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia Bates line. My connection to this family is via my great-grandmother, Julia Ella Bates Roane, the mother of my paternal grandmother, Susan Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey.
DNA tells a story of a genetic connection to many of the oldest enslaving families in Henrico – as well as up and down the James River: Bates, Bolling, Christian, Fleming, Jordan, Piersey, Pleasants, Price, and Woodson. Julia’s DNA also connects me to some of the known and unknown 20-and-odd Africans who were brought to this part of colonial Virginia in 1621 such as Cornish, Johnson, and Gowen/Goins/Goings. This makes sense through the prisms of time and location. My Bates and allied family lines were in Varina from the beginning of the colonial period of Virginia…and never left. Their DNA mixed with the DNA from the other old Varina and James River families down the centuries.
I know the where, how, and why behind my connections to these families: slavery. Centimorgans (cMs) and SNPs have provided a solid glimpse into when this DNA became part of my genetic makeup (mid-to-late 17th Century and early 18th Century).
In some instances, I even know who contributed this DNA to my genetic inheritance. Not enough, however. Too few instances, if I’m honest. Hence the past few months have been spent trying to unravel the story behind the forgotten individuals who form this part of my ancestry. This has meant delving into and stitching together a patchy paper trail of probate records for the enslaving families tied to this family history and ancestry, deeds of sale and deeds of gifts, letters, farm books, journals – any available puzzle piece that could shed light on this research.
You should expect a few detours when you do research of this nature. Detours are part and parcel of the work we do as genealogists and family historians. In my experience, I’ve rarely found these detours to be a waste of time. Typically, for me, they reveal something important. This is one of those instances.
There I was, chipping away at adding Bolling family enslaved people (EPs) to my tree when I came across deeds of sale between John Bolling and Thomas Jefferson. John Bolling married Thomas’s sister, Martha. It made sense that EPs would pass between the two of them.
Again, the purpose of this article is how to apply different strategies in researching enslaved ancestors. It isn’t a commentary on the selling of human beings. If I use language that may seem insensitive, just know I don’t mean it to be. Trust me, I have plenty of skin in the game. I can only write about researching enslaved people because I have ancestors who were enslaved. So please, don’t get hung up on the language. It’s the research methodology that’s the subject.
In order to understand the history of the EPs Thomas Jefferson sold to his brother-in-law, John Bolling, I needed to find out more about them while they were with Jefferson. I was able to achieve this by discovering a digitized copy of Jefferson’s Farm Book: a ledger where he noted all manner of things about the EPs held by him. It is genuinely a genealogical goldmine in terms of Jefferson EP family research.
It was time to add Jefferson’s hundreds of EPs to my family tree. Their details came straight from his Farm Book. Sally Hemings’ immediate and extended family were already in my tree as they were a known family from our common Wayles link. She and her Fossett, Brown, Bell, and Colbert kin have been exceedingly well documented. There were no new revelations to be found there with regard to her family.
This time around, I was focused on Jefferson’s EPs who worked the land. These are the lesser-known and infrequently researched people among his EPs. Some of these EPs were my kin via transactions with other enslaving families who were my ancestors or kin. Families like Christian and Woodson.
The first thing I had to tackle where numerous EPs with the same first name. When you’re dealing with one-name ancestors, this is a nightmare.
Take the name Suckey, for instance. There were around two dozen entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book for different Suckeys. Thankfully, Jefferson was pretty consistent in the details he provided for many of the Suckeys in this book. It appears there are at least 6 Suckeys covering three generations. There may be a seventh and an eighth Suckey – I’m still trying to work out if these last two Suckeys are different women from the 6 known Suckeys or just poorly notated Suckeys from the 6 who are known.
Were all of the known Suckeys related? Four of them were: a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, and a niece. I suspect the other two Suckeys are related to this family group based on what they named their children. However, Jefferson didn’t provide information about either of these two Suckey’s parents or siblings. I suspect both are additional nieces to the eldest Suckey (“Old Suckey”) via unknown or undocumented siblings of Old Suckey.
When it comes to this kind of research, naming patterns matter.
I’ll give you another example. It’s an example I’m currently working on.
While reading about Jefferson and his EPs, I came across some accounts in history books about how the British stole a number of Jefferson’s EPs in Cumberland County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War. It turns out these EPs weren’t stolen. They actually fled to the British in a bid for freedom. But more on that at another time.
Once I entered the details of the EPs who fled to the British to my tree, the relationship between a number of them was immediately apparent. One of Jefferson’s enslaved families made a bid for freedom:
Emanuel and Patt’s bid for freedom, along with their children’s, did not end well. With the exception of Isabel and her brother Peter, the rest of the family died in the British encampment. Emanuel died of cholera – one of the hazards of military camps of the time. The other being typhus. I can only presume cholera is what killed Patt and most of the children.
Keep the names Sam and Sall in the back of your mind.
Two other family groups who lived among Emanuel and Patt’s family also fled to the British in Cumberland County at the same time. Note their names:
So…we have Sall (“Black Sall”) and a Sam who also fled to the British. Emanuel and Patt had children by these names. Is there a connection between these 3 family groups? My instincts say yes. What does the paper trail say? The jury is out. So far, nothing on paper proves or disproves a family connection.
Looking at this logically, fleeing to the British as an enslaved person wasn’t easy. Add the fact you were taking young children with you. On the one hand, Emanuel and Patt probably thought the disruption of war would provide the best chance of escape, and ultimately, freedom. They may have thought this was their only, best hope for freedom. So they planned. And planned some more. What they were planning, if they were caught planning it, would have landed them in a world of hurt. At worst, if discovered, their entire family could have been split up and sold away from each other. My cousin Thomas Jefferson had form for this. So it was a genuine possibility and a reasonable fear.
With stakes this high, Emanuel and Patt wouldn’t have told just anyone. The risk of someone alerting Jefferson or the overseers was just too great. If you were bound to disclose such plans at all, you’d only do such a thing with people you trusted with your life, which would include family.
It’s for this reason I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Black Sall and Sam joined Emanuel and Patt when they fled their bondage. Little Sally and little Sam were named for an aunt and an uncle – a naming practice that is entrenched in this part of my ancestry.
The question remains who, precisely, Black Sall and Sam were related to. Were they Emanuel’s siblings or Patt’s. I don’t have an answer for that yet.
The elder Sall, Black Sall, may be the answer to a question that I have. Little Isabel and Peter lost their entire immediate family while encamped with the British. They were young, both under the age of 12. So how did they get back to Jefferson? I believe that the elder Sall brought them back along with her surviving children. Sall’s two youngest daughters died in the British army camp. Little Jamey was ill. Perhaps some of her surviving children were ill too. She was ill. Weighing her options, perhaps she believed returning to Jefferson was the best chance for the survival of her remaining children, and possible niece and nephew. At this stage, I have no doubts that she was the person who brought Isabel and Peter back to Monticello. Truly, Sall was faced with a dire choice.
Sall died of cholera herself shortly after her return. Her surviving children would all be passed to Jefferson’s son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes. I’m still researching them to find their descendants in order to see the surnames they went by. Seeing the surnames used by the descendants of her son, Billy Warny (I believe his surname was actually Warner, not Warny), if he had any, would shed some light on how this family group would have identified itself.
Emanuel and Patt’s surviving son, Peter, will also provide clues in this regard. His trail has been difficult to pick up once he returned to Jefferson. There are too many indistinguishable Peters for me to be certain if he’s the Peter who went to Thomas Mann Randolph, the one who went to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, or the one who went to John Wayles Eppes. Or the Peter who was sold outside the family. He may be one of these Peters – or none of them.
Researching EPs means working with limited information in more cases than I’d like to think about. It means working from the known to the unknown…and then using critical thinking to bridge gaps. Which this article illustrates.
So what are the next steps?:
Finding the estate inventory for Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father). I have his Will, which cites a scant few EPs. What I need is his complete estate inventory which would list all of his EPs, with possible ages and family relationships cited. This will hopefully show how Black Sall and Sam were related to either Emanuel or Patt;
Finding the estate inventories for Jane Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s mother, for the reasons provided in Point #1. Again, I have her Will, it’s the estate inventory that’s needed;
The 1823 estate inventory for John Wayles Eppes, to pick up the story of the EPs he received from Jefferson; and
- The estate inventories for John Blair Bolling (aka John William Bolling), and his wife, Martha Jefferson, to pick up the trail of the EPs they received from Jefferson.
All this to figure out how, exactly, my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia family is genetically connected to some of the EP families coming from Jefferson’s various farms and properties. Deeds between Jefferson, the Bollings, the Christians, and the Woodsons are the hows. Now, it’s a matter of tackling the who.
It may be the mother of all detours, however, I see how it leads back to Varina. Time, perseverance, and patience will reveal the specifics. In that, I have absolute faith.
We are available for your genealogy research project!
Whether you’re new to genealogy, don’t have the time to pursue your own research, or have a stubborn brick wall you just can’t break through: you can hire one of our experienced research team who will happily work with you to achieve your genealogy research goals. As the first Black-owned genealogy research company, our African American genealogists excel at African American genealogy! As African Americans with caucasian ancestors – our genealogists are just as experienced in researching European-descended American ancestry.
The short video below covers what we do and how we do it:
How to contact us
For more information about our genealogy research services, our contact form, and our research service contact, please visit: https://genealogyadventures.net/research