This article walks you through a working example of researching enslaved people.
There is a growing wealth of information regarding enslaved people (EPs) in America for genealogists who identify as black, African American, or people of color. The trick is knowing how to use records such as slave inventories, deeds, slave insurance policies (yes, some enslavers took out insurance policies on EPs. It was quite the lucrative business for some American insurance companies), and similar slavery-based documents to:
Solve mysteries / answer questions;
Find missing family members for an enslaved ancestor;
Push the story of EP s in your family back further into earlier generations;
Retrace an EP’s life journey as s/he was passed from one generation to the next within the same enslaving family; or from one family to another via a sale – which includes movement from one town, county, or state to someplace new; and
Triangulate DNA results to see if the enslaving family who held an ancestor in bondage was also a blood relation.
There are more discoveries than these which you can make when working with American chattel slavery records. The above are the ones that immediately spring to mind.
I made an unexpected discovery when working with my enslaving Bolling ancestors in Goochland County, Virginia. While looking at my AncestryDNA cousin matches with the name ‘Bolling’ in their tree, a group of a dozen or so melinated Bollings appeared. Looking at the other surnames in their trees, there were other surnames that were significant in terms of my ancestry. However, at this stage, I was curious to see if there was a shared connection via white Bollings (spoiler alert: there was a connection, but more on that at another time).
In and amongst these dozen or so melinated Bollings with roots in Goochland County, an additional name kept popping out which piqued my curosity: Orange. Now Orange is a name I have never seen in my research. Yet, I matched 9 people – black, white, and mixed – who had Orange as a significant name in their tree; meaning they had a minimum of 10 or more individuals in their respective trees with that surname.
I was on to something. I couldn’t have told you what. I just ‘felt’ it. Sometimes that gut feeling is all a genealogist has to go on. So…it was record hunting time. It was also time to see where the records would take me.
Using critical thinking, I surmised the best place to start was by doing further research on my white enslaving Bollings who lived between 1690 and 1800. This meant tracking every last Will, probate record, slave insurance record, Bolling family court case involving EPs, and slave deed I could find.
I began with a general, open, Google search string “Bolling family +slaves.” I hit paydirt immediately in the form of the Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer website (https://unknownnolonger.virginiahistory.org).
It immediately led me to this:
It was only when I began to click on some of the individuals that my mouth kind of fell open:
Cousin Col. William Bolling had noted intra-family relations, dates of birth and death (or at the very least, years of birth and death), and new enslaver details. Not for everyone, mind, but he did so for the vast majority of EPs. This is genealogical gold dust for melanated genealogists researching Virginia EPs on their family tree.
I had to stop for a few moments to let a myriad of thoughts and emotions settle. Then…It was time for a game plan. The task ahead was going to be formidable.
Looking at an incredibly long list of names wasn’t going to yield the information I needed. I was catching significant glimpses. However, clicking through so many individuals, it was easy to lose the threads of any insights I was gaining. There was only one thing to do: turn these EPs into a new section of the Genealogy Adventures research tree on Ancestry.
Three days of slow, methodical work turned the above list of names into this:
Once everyone was in the tree, then – and only then – could I begin the task of researching these EPs. It’s worth noting that as I added each individual, and his/her respective family groups, I discovered duplicates. Not duplicate records per se. Different records for the same person, whose name appeared more than once in that long list of names. For instance, while it appears there were numerous Sukeys, it looks as though there were only 3 or 4 of them. I suspect these women were also related: mother, daughter, granddaughter, and neice.
Working with records in this manner also revealed naming patterns within the different EP family groups – a simple clue that’s oftentimes overlooked in genealogical research (S01 E06 Genealogy Adventures Live: Ancestral Naming Conventions & Smashing Genealogy Brick Walls (Video)
After 3 days of inputting these EPs in my tree, I was itching to get to work researching the different family groups. To date, I have traced one-third of the EPs listed in the first image set above down to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census. This gives me something that looks like:
The image below continues on from the Nellie (Nelly) above:
This isn’t to say Nelly is biologically connected to Col. William Bolling. In our research tree, William is given the relationship status of “foster parent”. Ancestry doesn’t give the option of ‘enslaver’, so this is the best we can do to add EPs enslaved by him without making a biological connection to him.
After all of that work, did I answer my initial research question? Do I know how I connect to the Orange family members enslaved by William Bolling and his father?
It turns out that an Orange listed among William’s EPs married an enslaved mulatto Bolling who was enslaved on the same plantation: “Yellow Sukey” to be precise. Well, to be even more precise, “Yellow Sukey Bolling.” Sukey, it appears, was most likely William Bolling’s half-sister. Which makes her my 3rd cousin. Which is on par with my new shared Orange family DNA matches.
One thing that has made it fairly straightforward to research some of these EP family groups. That would be location, location, and location. There were two main residential hot spots for these EPs in Goochland: Licking Hole and Byrd. Dover township also comes into play…but nowhere near as often as Licking Hole and Byrd townships. Narrowing a field of focus down to a town level makes this kind of research a relatively easier process. I was finding the EPs, or their descendants, in the 1870 Federal Census exactly where I expected to: in Bolling family land. By 1880, quite a few of the families formerly enslaved by William Bolling had moved to Richmond, Virginia. Not only that, they were living in close proximity to one another in the Richmond of 1880. Again, knowing where enslaved family groups collectively moved to makes it an easier process to find other EP family groups who were enslaved on the same farm or plantation.
I discovered more than this, however.
I was able to link some of the oldest of William’s EPs back to his father…where I found a mix of their parents and/or some of their siblings.
While researching some of the other EPs in that staggering list, certain surnames jumped out at me:
These names are significant in my white enslaver history. They are all kin on the white side of my ancestry. Not that it surprises me to see EPs, or descendants of EPs, with these surnames. The Bollings married into most, if not all, of these families; who already had a century or more worth of complex family inter-relations (yep, endogamy!). Given the movement of dowry EPs (EPs a woman brought with her when she married) and relocation via inheritance, if any were mulattos and relations to their enslavers, they brought the DNA from the above-listed families into the Bolling gene pool. They had children with the Bolling EPs, some of whom were William’s kin. It will take a while to prove this theory. In all honesty, I’m still working on researching William’s EPs from that Unknown No Longer list before I cycle off to trace this history of the EPs who weren’t biologically Bollings.
I already know two surnames are key to unlocking the connection between the EPs I have cited in that bullet list of names: my white Carter and Randolph ancestors. They are the common denominator that links every single surname in this article.
For now? I’m just appreciating accomplishing my initial research goal.
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