Charlotte Brooks: A poignant & powerful firsthand history of slavery

I had the pleasure of a long chat last week with one of my newly found cousins, Donya. She and I share a myriad of ancestors and relations in Edgefield County, South Carolina.

And no conversation with Donya is complete without touching base about one of our shared ancestors, Martha Ann Brooks, who was born in Virginia and lived out the rest of her life in Edgefield. Martha Ann’s is quite the story, one that I’m leaving to Donya to tell when she’s ready.

So, while Martha Ann Brooks isn’t the subject of this post, a conversation about her lead to a book that is the subject of this post. As difficult a read as this book has been, I am eternally grateful to Donya for putting this book on my radar.

So…what book is this?

Cover image for The House of Bondage by Octavia Albert

The House of Bondage, or, Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves, Original and Life Like, As They Appeared in Their Old Plantation and City Slave Life; Together with Pen-Pictures of the Peculiar Institution, with Sights and Insights into Their New Relations as Freedmen, Freemen, and Citizens written by Octavia V. Rogers Albert (Octavia Victoria Rogers, 1853-1889). Aye, that is quite some title! I’m shortening it to The House of Bondage.  The Book was published in 1890 by Hunt & Eaton (New York).

This book is powerful and poignant in equal measures. It is filled with equally beautiful and brutal life experiences.

What I love about this book is its simplicity. At its heart is a conversation between two women, the author, Octavia Albert, and former slave, Charlotte Brooks. This isn’t fiction. It’s non-fiction relayed in the form of conversations had during various interview sessions. The language is simple enough for a 12 year old to understand – and grasp the significance of the world being discussed.

Charlotte’s fortitude is formidable. The word ‘unbreakable’ springs to mind. Charlotte’s collective life experience during her enslavement – and the experiences of those she knew – is unflinchingly relayed. It is honest. It is stark. And at times, the experiences she relays are brutal. Charlotte doesn’t use overblown language. It’s the homespun delivery of the world she knew that is the real power behind the story of Charlotte’s life and the world she reveals.

One completely unexpected historical nugget came to light. It touches on the religious tensions that existed between slaves who were raised as Christians in Virginia, sold and sent down to Louisiana – and their Catholic Louisiana slave owners. I’ll let Charlotte’s words speak for themselves.

She never asks for sympathy. I have the feeling that even if she had, she wouldn’t have expected to receive any. Nothing in her life, or the lives of those she knew, would have authored that expectation. Two short paragraphs about the fate of all her children is evidence enough of that. I’ll be honest, this is one of two points in the book when I had to stop reading and set it aside for a while.

Yes, there are plenty of short first hand slave narratives that were gathered as part of the WPA effort. Where Octavia Albert’s book differs is Albert’s decision to focus on one former slave’s story. In doing so, the author struck a rich seam of every day slave life. Charlotte pulls no punches in talking about her life and the lives of those she knew. And Albert pays her the ultimate respect any author can give his or her subject – she pulls no punches in relaying Charlotte’s story.

This book is even more special to Donya and I. We’re in the midst of trying to determine if Charlotte Brooks was related to our ancestor Martha Ann Brooks. We’re trying to determine if Charlotte was owned by the same Virginia Brooks family that owned (and were relations of) our ancestor Martha Ann. Was Martha Ann one of the siblings Charlotte left behind in Virginia when she was sold and taken to Louisiana? Or could she and Martha Ann be cousins? We’re sifting through the available records to determine one way or another if there was a blood connection between the two women.

I’ve said it before and I will repeat it once more: American’s aren’t taught the true, unbiased, unvarnished history of the United States. We’re only taught the ‘best’ parts. The bits and selective pieces that are the easiest to be proud of. We never get taught the other side of the coin, those dark chapters, the ones that any nation ought to have seared into its collective memory in order to never make such mistakes again. And to learn from them. I know this because my genealogical research has unearthed all manner of historical truths that I was never taught in school – and I was blessed to attend one of the best schools in my state. From the history of the Quakers and their contribution to Colonial America, to the importation of Southeast Asians and Chinese in the early colonial era (and use as indentured servants), to the fact that Maryland was established as the only Catholic colony, to the practice of slavery being entrenched in all 13 colonies… I have learned more about American history through genealogy than I have through any other means.

I highly recommend this book.

The House of Bondage is available from all major online book sellers.

It is also available to read online for free via:

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Genealogy family relationship chart

If you’re like me, there are times you get the ocassional brain freeze when it comes to cousins who are ‘X’ times removed. Here’s a handy chart that tells you what’s what with those tricky family relationship definitions…


Click for larger imsge

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Researching African-American Ancestors: A Cheat Sheet – The Root

An article from The Root with tips for tracing black ancestors before emancipation:


Generic image via THINKSTOCK

Article link:

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, searching census records, slave census

Isaiah Francis Grubb & Melinda Straw: a tale of love across 19th Century colour lines

I’ve been spending some time researching my distant Sheffey relations in Wythe County, Virginia. Specifically, I’ve been researching the free families of colour these relations married into. My research gave me a genuine ‘wait, what?’ moment the other day.

This moment came via an 1870 Census return for Isaiah Francis Grubb and Melinda Straw, which you can see below:

1870 census image showing Isaiah Francis Grubb, Melinda Straw and their family in 1870

Isaiah Francis Grubb, & Melinda Straw with some of their children and grandchildren in 1870.  Source Citation:
Year: 1870; Census Place: Black Lick, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M593_1682; Page: 406B; Image: 192; Family History Library Film: 553181 |  Source Information: 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line].

I did a double take when I saw Isaiah’s race listed as ‘white’. Everyone else in this household is listed as mulatto. While I can’t find a marriage certificate for Isaiah and Melinda, they were clearly openly living as man and wife. This was illegal in the Virginia of 1870.

If they weren’t legally married, Isaiah clearly acknowledged his children by Melinda. All bear the name of Grubb. To date, I’ve found very little about Melinda Straw in the official records prior to 1860. Most bearing the Straw surname in Wythe County between 1800 and 1870 were white. How she is related to the handful of other mulatto Straws in the same county remains unclear.

A union that broke long-standing state laws.

I won’t go into the history of anti-miscegenation laws in the US. There’s a great Wikipedia article that covers this: . Suffice to say that from the 1660s onwards, it didn’t matter whether two people from different races were officially married or not – unions between two people f different races was illegal. It was punishable by flogging, fines, imprisonment or a combination of all 3.

I recall Henry Louis Gates, Jr covering his own family tree in his TV series Finding Your Roots. He shared the story of a white male ancestor with a black wife and mulatto children in a census return. This wasn’t as uncommon as it sounds. Like others in similar circumstances, white men and women living with spouses of colour most likely adopted a false mulatto identity to live peaceably and without threat of prosecution from the authorities.

Isaiah Grubb, then, would be appear to be openly defiant in this regard. And that was no small feat for a man breaking the law in the Wythe County of the early to mid 1800s. It was a very rural community. Everyone knew everyone else. And no matter how fair his mulatto common law wife may have been, she was still not white. They were breaking the law. And everyone in this community would have been aware of this.

image of Isaiah Francis Grubb family treeGoing back in time, his tale grew even more interesting. The first known child of Isaiah and Melinda was Alfred Grubb, born in 1836. This gives an indication of just how long Isaiah and Melinda had been together. However, in 1860, Isaiah isn’t living with Melinda, although all 11 of their children had been born by this point. Instead, Isaiah is living in his father Lewis’s household. Interesting there is a James Jackson, a free mulatto, also living in this household. James Jackson would go on to father at least one child with one of Isaiah and Melinda’s daughters, Frances “Fanny” Grubb.

James Jackson is am mystery. How he came to be in Lewis Grubb’s household is a mystery. Was he related to the Grubbs or did he work for them? The census return provides no answers. Lewis Grubb and his family, it would seem, was pretty relaxed when it come to race relations. It’s pretty remarkable.

The 1850 census also shows Isaiah in his father’s household, cited by his middle name, Francis. He resides with his father all the way back to 1820.

I ask myself what changed between 1860 and 1870 for Isaiah to leave his father’s house to set up house with Melinda. Channeling my inner romantic, I figure he was a man getting on in his years who simply wanted to live with the woman he had loved all his adult life. He wanted to finally live with the mother of his children. His father Lewis died in 1861. perhaps he wanted until the passing of his father to live the life he wanted.  I’m guessing that not hiding his race in the 1870 Census was an act of quiet defiance.

If anyone didn’t like it, that was just their tough luck. That’s my guess. Right or wrong, I like him for it.

Trying to put American miscegenation laws into an overall context

an illustrative image showing an American interacial cople in the mid 1880s

This is an illustrative image. The picture shows James William Evans (1814-1883), his wife Mary Eliza Hoggard, and their children William, John and Mary Evans. Mary Eliza Hoggard was a descendant of the free African American Cobb and Bazemore families of Bertie County, North Carolina. James William Evans was from Dorchester County, Maryland. Source:

I’ve tried, in vain, to find a ball-park figure for the number of couples in America charged with marrying someone from a different race or living as common law man and wife from the mid- to late 1600s (the period when universal passage of miscegenation laws were passed in all 13 colonies) until the landmark Lovings vs Virginia Supreme Court case in 1967. I haven’t been able to unearth a number. I haven’t been able to even find a ballpark figure – or an educated guess. That’s not to say that I haven’t found plenty of cases and instances. I just haven’t been able to find a definitive figure that says between 1690 and 1967 ‘X’ number of people were charged and indicted under American miscegenation laws. Without a figure, I can’t gauge how widespread or commonplace miscegenation prosecutions were.

So I’m struggling to put Isaiah and Melinda into an overall context. They weren’t unique. The degree of their lack of uniqueness, however, remains elusive and unquantifiable.

So to round things off, I’ve compiled a couple of factoids about miscegenation laws in the US:

  • Maryland was the first colony to pass a miscegenation law in 1664. It was pretty draconian. Any white woman who married a man of colour faced being enslaved herself. The children of such a union were also to be enslaved. The law failed to state what would happen to white men who married black women.
  • Virginia banned interracial marriages in 1691. Those charged under its law face banishment, death and heavy fines.
  • Pennsylvania becomes the first state to repeal its miscegenation laws in 1780
  • Massachusetts becomes the second state to repeal its miscegenation laws in 1843.
  • 1871: Missouri Representative Andrew King proposes a Constitutional Amendment banning all interracial marriages. It’s the first of 3 attempts. Georgia Representative Seaborn Roddenbery would try in 1912 and South Carolina Representative Coleman Blease would try in 1928. All 3 Representatives were Democrats. This must be the ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule. Blease’s attempt was the last attempt at a miscegenation Constitutional Amendment.
  • 1998: South Carolina officially removes its state constitutional ban on interracial marriage.
  • Alabama is the last state to officially remove its miscegenation laws…in 2000.
  • An April 2011 poll of Mississippi Republican primary voters asked “Do you think interracial marriage should be legal or illegal?”. The responses were “Legal” 40%, “Illegal” 46%, and “Not Sure” 14%

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, Race & Diversity, Sheffey family, virginia, wythe

A Little-Known Government Genealogy Service that is a Family History Goldmine

I will be the first to raise my hand and admit I never thought about accessing immigration records via the US Citizenship & Immigration Services website. I read a post on the Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter site and had a genuine Homer Simpson ‘Doh!’ moment.

A little-known program of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides genealogy information that may be difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere. The records include naturalization files, visa applications, and citizenship tests, and may reveal family secrets and mysteries. In addition to relatives, historians or researchers can also request files.

I highly recommend reading the post, which contains an overview of the database as well as a link to the service online:

US Citizenship and Immigration Services logo

Article link:

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Martha Ann Fowler Hill: Smashing genealogy walls with the correct maiden name

Martha Fowler Hill is an important linchpin in my black Wythe Sheffey family story in the township of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. And while this post is really about her daughter, Martha Ann, Martha certainly had her role to play in this interesting discovery.

Image of map location for Speedwell Township, Wythe County, Virginia

The red pointer marks the location of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. It is a very, rural and sparsely populated area of southwest Virginia.

Two of her daughters had children by two of my 2x great grand uncles. Mary Ellen Hill married Iazwell Sheffey. And her sister, Martha Ann, had William Royal Sheffey Hill with Iazwell’s brother, James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey.

Martha Fowler Hill’s son, John Joseph Hill, also married a Sheffey cousin, Laura Elizabeth Carpenter.

Suffice to say that roughly half of Martha Fowler Hill’s children married Sheffey family relations in Speedwell. Discovering her ancestry shed some interesting light on the Sheffey story in that part of Wythe County,

When it came to researching one Martha Ann Hill, I kept coming up against one very formidable wall. I just couldn’t find any information about her. Not for love nor money. And there was a very good reason for that. Her maiden name wasn’t Hill. It was Fowler. That Fowler name was like a sledgehammer, no, more of a battering ram, which obliterated that wall of silence…and allowed me to sprint past 1849 (the year of Martha Ann Hill’s birth) back to 1760, the year her grandfather, Granville Fowler, was born.

So why had I spent years looking for a Martha Hill? That was how she was listed on two of her children’s marriage certificates. And a child’s death certificate. Her children weren’t wrong. Far from it.

image of William Royal Sheffey Hill's marriage index record

William Royal Sheffey Hill’s marriage index record. His mother is listed as Martha Ann Hill. Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

And this is pretty much where I remained with her for the past five years. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of Angela, a distant cousin of mine, she uncovered additional marriage certificates which shed some light on Martha Ann. It all had to do with her mother, who was another Martha (just to make things that touch more confusing).

Martha Fowler gave Martha Ann her rightful maiden name – Fowler.

I had long suspected, but had no proof, that Martha Ann Fowler was a free woman of color. Armed with her correct maiden name, there she was in the 1860 census (although the name is spelled incorrectly) with her mother, her siblings, an aunt and two cousins.

An image of the 1860 Census with Mary Ann Fowler

Mary Ann Fowler in the 1860 Census. Source Citation Year: 1860; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M653_1385; Page: 968; Image: 327; Family History Library Film: 805385 Source Information 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Mary Ann most definitely started life as a Fowler. And a child of a free woman.

While Martha Ann is absent in the 1850 census (which leads me to question her actual year of birth), her mother, Martha Fowler, is certainly accounted for.

An image of Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census

Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census.
Source Citation Year: 1850; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M432_982; Page: 251B;      Image: 99 | Source Information 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

The image above shows Martha Fowler (Martha Ann’s mother), with her mother Rosanah Dicy Fowler, as well as her siblings (Martha Ann’s aunts and uncles) and her oldest children.

Martha Fowler’s mother, Rosanah Fowler, born around 1792, had also been born free.

Martha Fowler would come to marry Joseph James Hill from Cripple Creek, Wythe County, Virginia. Whether they were married or we common law husband and wife is unclear. I can’t find a marriage certificate for them. However, with African American genealogy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t married. It only means that if they were officially married, it wasn’t registered. Or the record simply became lost over time. or hasn’t been digitized. This presents an issue.

All of Martha Fowler’s children were born with the surname of Fowler. However, at some point after 1860 and before 1870, all of her children took the Hill name.  Was Joseph Hill their biological father? Or did he unofficially (or even officially) adopt them?

He appears on more than one marriage certificate for Martha Fowler’s children. Below is the marriage record for daughter Malvina Hill:

Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.  Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014. Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.
Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

If he wasn’t the biological father of Martha Fowler’s children – or at least the father of all of them – her children certainly thought of him as their father. Only a DNA test from this family line can confirm a biological link.

So now I have Martha Ann’s family tree:

Martha Ann Fowler Hill's family tree

Martha Ann Fowler Hill’s family tree

I had to laugh at this point. Black American genealogy is difficult enough. Name -swapping to this degree made a challenging task even more challenging. I’m happy I stuck with it. And I’m even happier that I have cousins just as keen as I am in unraveling family history…and sharing their discoveries. I owe Angela quite a bit for this stunning lead.

The story of these women didn’t end there.

What I soon discovered was a history of generations of free mulatto women who, while not married to them, raised children with white men. It’s been kind of interesting to see these men listed in one census return with their wives and children – and then listed again in another census return for the same year with their mistress and the children they had by them.

Uncovering Martha Fowler’s correct maiden name is also shedding light on the community of free people of colour in and around Speedwell, Wythe, VA. At this stage in my research, it looks as though this community had been long established by the 1790s. Within it were names from other branches of my Sheffey family tree that I knew very well: Carpenter, Brown, Robinson, and Gannaway. All of these families were free people of color and had been since at least the 1750s (for the Browns and Carpenters) and the 1680s (for the Gannaways).

At this stage in researching this line, I do have one fundamental question. How did a relationship between a free woman of color and enslaved men work?  Iazwell and his brother James were both enslaved. Mary Ellen Hill and Iazwell Sheffey married in 1870, a few years after the close of the Civil War. However, there are hints that they had a relationship before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Her sister Martha Ann Hill had one child with James ZM Sheffey before the end of the Civil War – William Royal Sheffey Hill (born 1864). With a free-born mother, William would not have been born a slave, unlike the majority of his half-siblings. James ZM Sheffey had a number of children with women who were also slaves. All of these children were born enslaved.

It was a situation that must have made for a challenging family dynamic. And this was by no means a unique situation. It was a family dynamic repeated throughout the southern states.

How would a relationship between a free woman of colour and an enslaved male work? Did they have visitation rights? Probably so, if the years of birth of their children are anything to go by. I also suppose it was completely at the enslaved person’s owner whether or not these visits could happen, as well as their frequency and duration. How much access to their fathers did the children of such unions have? And what did they think of the situation? Did it shape how they viewed their fathers?

Did it really matter? Given the number of mulatto children with absentee white fathers, would it have been materially any different to have had a father who was absent due to his slave status?

I have a lot of social as well as practical questions where this arrangement is concerned. As if you couldn’t guess. ;)

My take-away is this: Finding women’s (true and correct) maiden names can be tricky but essential. It’s worth bearing in mind that the name you see for a female relation on a child’s marriage or death certificate may be a name by a new marriage – and not her maiden name. Ultimately, a woman’s death certificate and/or marriage certificate will (hopefully!) provide the necessary details about her parents.


Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, Sheffey family, virginia, wythe

Ancestry DNA’s genetic genealogy tools are failing to deliver’s DNA Circles. Like many others, I’m still grappling with this one. Boiled down, a DNA Circle on Ancestry is like a collaborative family research group. Only this group is created through shared ancestry from a common shared ancestor. Only genealogical research can determine how individuals within a Circle are related. The Circle, generated by DNA results and family trees, can only indicate shared genetics.

Now, I have an extensive family tree with over 26,000 individuals. Now no, size doesn’t matter, however, in this instance, it raises questions with regards to my DNA Circle results. You see, the fact of the matter is, I’m a member of zero circles. Yep, that’s right.

Not. A. Single. One.

Have a gander at the image below:

cropped screengrab of my Ancestry DNA landing page

click for larger image

Anything strike you as odd about the distinct lack of circles? Even after Ancestry’s ‘improvement’ to its DNA matching algorithm – which saw the number of my genetic matches decimated – I’m still left with 75 individuals who are identified as 1st to 4th Cousins. There’s probably another 100 or so who are identified as 5th – 8th cousins.

So I have  roughly 175 genetic matches. I have 7 shared family hints. At first I thought this had to do with the number of people who either don’t have family trees, or family trees with less than 50 or so people. This characterizes approximately 75% of my Ancestry DNA matches.

And, of course, locked trees present research issues as well.

Harlan DNA matchesDNA matches just for the Harlan name.

DNA matches just for the Harlan name. User names have been obscured for privacy reasons. Click for larger image.

And then I began researching my Quaker Harling-Harlan family. By that, I mean tracing all of its branches from the 1500s onwards; including the female lines. As I’ve recently mentioned…this is one huge family. And it’s a family that connects with both my maternal and paternal lines.

So I started to search my DNA matches for specific Harlan-Harling related names: Blackburn, Bailey, Hollingsworth, Peele, Cooke, Pike, Leonard, White, Heald and Calvert – just to name a few.

And there they were in a number of family trees. Over and over again there appeared the names of great-grandparents, grand uncles and aunts and cousins. Shared ancestors, in other words.

The tree below is a perfect example:

screen grab of George Harlan's family tree in Ancestry DNA

A Harlan family group form one of my DNA match’s family trees. click for larger image

Using the tree above:

  • Elizabeth Harlan is my 5th cousin 5x removed
  • George Harlan is my 2nd cousin 8x removed
  • James Harlan is my 4th cousin 6x removed
  • Samuel Harlan is my 3rd cousin 7x removed

Here’s the same group of Harlan cousins in my family tree:

Screengrab of Harlan cousins in my family tree

click for larger image

I’ve located other trees with the same individuals. Yet, I have no shared family tree hints with any of them. And it’s not a ‘me’ thing either. Others with these family members also don’t have any Harlan related circles. Most don’t have any Harlan-related shared family tree hints either. We’ve had to work out how we’re related by looking at each other’s tree.  Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s always great making contact with newly found cousins. However, this is something that Ancestry DNA advertizes that its service can do…with all the usual caveats, of course.

I think part of the problem is the complicated genealogy for the Harlan family. Like a number of Quaker families, one Harlan family feature is 3th or 4th cousins marrying other 3rd and 4th cousins since the 1540s. So you can have a woman who is both a [however-many-times] grand aunt and a cousin. It’s a pickle. It’s a pickle I think Ancestry should be able to figure out, especially in light of its DNA service and DNA tools like Circles.

So I think I have a partial answer where the Harlans are concerned.

I know I have Matthews family DNA matches. The Matthews lineage is pretty simple and straightforward. Again, no DNA circles and no shared family tree matches. So I kind of have to ask myself what’s up with these two aspects of Ancestry DNA. I’m hoping the much-publicized pending upgrade to these tools will address this. I’m managing my expectations.

Ancestry DNA’s genetic genealogy tools remain promising. For me, at the moment, this aspect of the service fails to deliver.


Filed under ancestry, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, Genetics, South Carolina

When writing about an ancestor ‘outs’ their race: can there ever be an etiquette for this?

I’m sitting on the horns of dilemma. As you’d suspect, it’s not a comfortable place to sit. It all has to do with two late 18th Century marriages on my maternal line between white men and free women of colour in one of America’s southern states. And the the years that followed these marriages; which is to say their children and descendants claiming, and then having, a white identity.

Writing about these two couples would mean disclosing that the racial identity of these two mulatto women. So where’s the dilemma?

  1. There is a chance that the descendants of these 2 couples have no idea that (however many) great grandma Jane Doe wasn’t white;
  2. Continuing on from Point #1, this may cause upset; and
  3. Some descendants many know this but not want it publicly disclosed.

Publicly writing about family ancestry and history carries certain burdens. This is one of them. Well, okay, this specific burden largely applies  if you’re writing about American genealogy and family history and your audience is, not unsurprisingly, American.

Which brings me to my question. What is the etiquette in writing about inter-racial marriages in America in general and the Antebellum South in particular?

I know my motivations. There are 2 stories that I would like to share because they offer a very interesting glimpse into an aspect of American history that really isn’t discussed. Why interesting? Well, is the standard view that such marriages were as poorly received by society as we’ve been taught/led to believe? Were they as uncommon as we’ve been led to believe?

Then there is the legal side with inter-racial marriages up to and including the early 1960s. I’m still not certain when inter-racial marriages became illegal in the US. The second marriage in my wider family tree certainly happened when such marriages were illegal. This second couple didn’t hide it – their marriage certificate is proof enough of that. Nor did they immediately leave the town they were born and raised in to get married either – so everyone knew the racial identity of the woman, including the groom’s family (so what on earth did they think and feel about it?).

I’d also like to write about these women simply because their respective families have very interesting histories. Both come from mid 17th Century African American lineages that were indentured servants (and not enslaved) and then free thereafter.

I’m also a professional marketer. And I diligently measure the analytics for this site. I know what stories and themes are  popular and which ones aren’t. My all-time top two posts cover inter-racial relationships and ‘passing’ (Beyond the Pale: Interracial Relations in Colonial America and Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line . To quantify ‘popular, each of the posts cited above get read around 350 times a week. Combined, that’s a lot of reading on these two subjects.

So there’s an obvious interest in both topics. I have two stories that cover both. Naturally, I’d like to add these to the canon of posts I’ve already written on the subjects. Both would provide deeper insights and a new take on both subjects.

Now if I were back home in the UK, and this involved black British ancestors, I’d write these stories in a heartbeat. Believe it or not, there is a healthy segment of British society that would wear black ancestry as a badge of honour. Amongst Millennial, it’s something that would give them ‘street cred’. In short, they’d embrace it. Not everyone. I know that.  However, on the whole, the British are far more chilled on the subject of diversity than Americans.

But I’m in the US. And in the 16 months since I’ve been on this side of The Pond, a ceaseless flow of news stories involving race has stayed my virtual pen when it comes to publishing these two stories. My experience with a few white relations from my maternal family lines  on and Gedmatch have definitely stayed my hand . To be fair, a small handful of newly discovered white relations from my maternal lines have been superb, stellar human beings; accepting, fun and helpful with my family history questions. The majority, however, have not. They were not pleased to discover a blood connection with African Americans. Could you imagine what others from the another branch of the same family would feel if they were to discover that they were actually descended from a person of colour? These are the things I have to be mindful of.

And before this looks like bashing southern people, I’m merely relaying my own experience. The numerous white relations I’ve met from my paternal Virginian lines have all been incredibly positive and brilliant people.

I suppose if those from my maternal lines had been as overwhelming positive as those from my father’s lines, I’d have my answer. I’d just go ahead and write and publish what I think would be two more interesting and positive stories that provide a glimpse into America’s past.

So what do you think? When sharing family history stories in America, what is the etiquette in outing an ancestor’s race? Leave a comment below.

Note:  We have to screen comments before approving & publishing them. Sadly, suffice to say it’s a necessary policy. So don’t panic if you submit a comment and there’s a delay in it appearing.


Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, Race & Diversity

DNA traces origins of 17th century African slaves › News in Science (ABC Science)

Image of slave wrist shackles

The 17th century bones of three African slaves have been traced to their countries of origin for the first time.

Until now, uncovering the precise origins of the 12 million African slaves sent to the New World between 1500 and 1850 has been challenging, since few historical records exist from the time. Often, the ports from which the slaves were shipped is known, but not the nations from which they came.

Read the rest of the article from ABC Scioence here: DNA traces origins of 17th century African slaves › News in Science (ABC Science).

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The one where I give Sir Archibald Roane a demotion

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks diligently researching my Scots-Irish ancestor, Archibald Gilbert Roane. Put another way, I’ve been trying to sift fact from well intentioned fiction. With a myriad of uncited information about him online, that’s been a monumental task.

Archibald may or may not have been born in Argyllshire, Scotland around the year 1680. He may have been born in northern Ireland to Scottish parents. He may or may not have fought in the Battle of the Boyne. While he did live in northern Ireland, I’m not 100% certain where. All of the information online cite a place called Grenshaw or Greenshaw in County Antrim. As far as I can tell, no such place has existed. Grenshaw and Greenshaw might be a misspelling or Anglicization of Gransha, which is in County Down, in northern Ireland.

a map showing the location of Gransha, in County Down, northern Ireland

Gransha, in County Down, northern Ireland

His surname may have been Roan, Roane or Rowan. I’ve found Archibalds with all of these surnames born around 1680 in northern Ireland with Scottish origins. Each is from a distinctly different family. Pinpointing the correct gentleman as being my Archibald Roane has been a challenge that I’m still working on solving.

Which quite nicely brings me to the whole ‘Sir Archibald’ question. Online family lore states that Archibald was granted the honorific of Sir (which isn’t a title – for some deed or service carried out for William III during the Battle of the Boyne. This is something that would definitely have left a paper trail. No such paper trail exists. I’ve searched the length and breadth of the UK’s National Archives ( )…and there is nothing. There are Roans and Rowans mentioned, but no Archibald Gilbert Roan(e)/Rowan.

screen grab of the National Archive's home page

I’ve searched the honor roles for the Battle of the Boyne, including land grants made. Again, there are Roan(e) and Rowans to be found. There are none by the name of Archibald Gilbert Roane.

I dashed off an email to the Royal College of Arms ( The Royal College of Arms is responsible for the granting of new coats of arms. It also maintains registers of arms, pedigrees, genealogies, Royal Licences, etc. If anyone would know whether Archibald was a Sir or not, it would be the College.

screengrab of the Royal College of Arms homepage

I received a very nice, and equally informative, reply from one of the College’s Officers of Arms:

On Thu, Feb 12, 2015 at 8:48 AM, York Herald <[redacted for privacy]> wrote:

12 February 2015

Dear Mr Sheffey,

Thank you for your e-mail of 10 February regarding Archibald Gilbert Roane.

The standard reference work for knights is Knights of England by William Shaw (London 1906), which lists Scottish and Irish knights as well as English. It is probably not complete but is as exhaustive as possible and the best guide available. It contains no reference to anyone with the surname Roane or Rowan being knighted. This does not necessarily mean that it did not happen, but we should certainly assume so until shown otherwise.

An examination of the Scottish and Irish heraldic records revealed no reference to the surname Roane or Rowan. The records of grants of Arms by the Kings of Arms at the College of Arms for this period, which covered England and Wales, and the overseas colonies and empire, revealed no indication that a grant of Arms was made to this person.

These preliminary results suggest that the individual in whom you are interested never established a right to Arms by grant or descent. It is quite possible that he assumed the Arms of another family of the same name, as quite often happened.

I hope that this is helpful.

Yours sincerely,

[name withheld for privacy]

York Herald

College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4BT

It’s not looking good for Archibald on the heraldic front; so much so that I’ve demoted him on my Family tree. Sir Archibald Gilbert Roane is now Archibald Gilbert Roane.

image of Archibald Himlton-Rowan

Archibald Hamilton-Rowan

That’s not to say that his story is fully told. Is he related to the prominent, wealthy, land-owning Rowan family of County Antrim? By that, I mean is he related to the Reverend Andrew Roane or the Irish Libertarian, Archibald Hamilton-Rowan? If he wasn’t born to money he certainly acquired it. If he wasn’t born to it, how did he acquire his wealth? I do know this: where there’s money, there are records. So somewhere out there is more information about this mysterious ancestor.

At least two of his sons, William Roane (1701-1757) and James Roane (1707-1757) certainly arrived in Virginia with wealth which they used to buy large tracts of land and slaves. While he lived a more modest life than his older brothers, the Rev John Roane (1717-1775) lived a comfortable life in Derry, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. John too did not want for money. The origins of the family money remain a mystery.

With or without family heraldry, Archibald Gilbert Roane remains an interesting character. My writer’s instinct tells me that the truth of his story will be far more interesting than the fiction.

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