GA Live S02 E08: Special Guest Bernice Bennett

Episode 8: Bernice Bennett

Join Brian and Donya as we welcome a special guest, Bernice Bennett, to kick off our Black History month broadcast series.

Ms. Bennett is a genealogist, author, producer, and host of the popular Research at the National Archives and Beyond! BlogTalkRadio show. Her guests include nationally recognized historians, genealogist, book authors, and family researchers.

Ms. Bennett is also the recipient of the first Ida B. Wells Service Award from the Sons and Daughters of the U.S. Middle Passages for her dedication to broadcast the stories about enslaved and indentured ancestors of African descent.

Join us on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month at 4pm via

Research case study: My lost connection to Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian of Charles City County, Virginia

If you have been a regular follower of my recent genealogy adventures, you will know the past few months have seen me eyeball deep researching my father’s ancient maternal roots along the James River corridor in Virginia. I have previously written about this journey in the article Ghosts in the DNA: The lost diversity of early colonial Virginia (

Unravelling this tale has resulted in some side journeys as I research the enslavers, and their enslaved people, who lived along the James River. Both the enslaved, and their enslavers, are my ancestors. Researching either group of people informs how I piece together a robust research strategy in order to reveal more of my family’s history.

My journey has brought me to the Christian family of Henrico, Charles City, Goochland, and New Kent Counties in Virginia. I initially thought this part of my journey was an off-ramp or a cul-de-sac. By this I mean that it would be an interesting detour with no real implications for my ancestry – apart from a select few members of the Christian family who enslaved my 3x great grandfather, George Henry Roane, his wife, and their children. It turns out that this road is far from being an off-ramp taking me away from my core James River genealogical research. Nope. I’m on a parallel road that will connect back to my main research at some point.

I’ll explain.

So how did I get on this side journey?

My paternal grandmother, Susie Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey’s, older sister, Ella Bates Roane, married Thomas Matthew Christian of Charles City County, Virginia. 

Thomas’s Christian family were descended from a long line of free people of colour. Thanks to tax records, land records, freedom affidavits filed at court (free people of colour had to go to court to prove they were legally free), probate records, court cases, etc I built out Thomas’s family tree. 

Digging around in my Christian family DNA matches, I found matches who were descendants of Ella and Thomas. And then I began to find Christian DNA cousins, black and white, by the dozens who weren’t descendants of Ella and Matthew. These individuals should only be relations by marriage. And, as such, we shouldn’t share any DNA as we have no common ancestors. Yet, there they were…and so many of them!! 

Added to Christians, I had strong matches on descendants from families close allied to, and entangled with, the Christians, and resident in the same counties I’ve cited: Minge, Shields, Collier, and Warren, to name a few of the families.

Somewhere, in my father’s maternal direct line, there’s a Christian family member. The natural, initial question was who?

Developing a research strategy

When it comes to cracking a nut like this one, a supremely old DNA cold case, an informed, robust, and resilient research strategy is needed. My research strategy looks something like this:

  1. Return and interrogate Thomas Christian’s ancestry for any families linked to George Henry Roane’s ancestry. I found one. There was a marriage between a Christian and one of the sisters of my 7x great grandfather, Patrick Henry (George Henry Roane’s great grandfather).While this marriage explained why I matched a handful of white Christian descendants, it couldn’t explain most of them who, on paper, should still have been relations through marriage only ;
  2. Determine if Thomas Matthew Christian’s line descends from the white, British Christian family (this is currently ongoing);
  3. Review my DNA matches to see how they stack up to George Henry Roane in terms of cMs and SNPs shared to triangulate generational difference (Ancestry DNA already estimated matches from the 4th to ‘distant’ cousin level). Working with this data helps me to visualize the different degrees of relations. This work also points the way towards identifying the likeliest candidate(s) for shared ancestry;
  4. Examine the other surnames among my Christian DNA matches, paying particular attention to surnames I know we’re allied to the white and black Christian families. This stage of the process enables me to focus on specific Christian lines that are the most likely to lead back to our common ancestor. For instance, Christians married Shields in Virginia after they started marrying Colliers. Indeed, Christians and Colliers were marrying each other back in the Isle of Man in Great Britain (it’s believed that this is where the Christians hailed from at the time they began to arrive in the Virginia Colony). Therefore, Colliers should match me at a closer generational level than the Shields;
  5. Identify which white immigrant Christian whose family tree I should build. Who was the most likely white, male Christian to be my ancestor? There were at least 5 British Christian men who landed in Virginia in the 1600s: Thomas, Charles, Gabriel, Richard, and William. Only Thomas was in the right place: Charles City County. The core first names used within Thomas’s white line mirrored those in George Henry Roane’s line in a manner none of the other white Christian families of Virginia did. I was willing to roll the dice and begin the task of tree building with his line;
  6. Re-examine what I knew about George Henry Roane’s life, interrogating every repository and archive I could think of for more documents and information for him; and
  7. Re-examine George Henry Roane’s lineage for potential clues.

George Henry Roane’s history provides an overlooked clue

This part of the case study should really have the subtitle There’s Something about George Roane. Just for the simple reason that there is something about this man. His story really has only barely begun to be told.

After Emancipation, he was a farmer. His sons, would go on to become a Justice of the Peace, another a policeman, yet another a councilman, and yet another a successful entrepreneur. These achievements played out during the early Jim Crow Era.

I returned to the Will of the man who was his second-to-last enslaver: Edmund Christian. Yes, you read that surname correctly! Christian

Edmund Christian’s 1851 Varina, Henrico County, Virginia Will and Codocil:

Note: The George named in this will is my 3x great grandfather, George Henry Roane, with his wife and children. The Susan that’s mentioned is Susan Price, who married my 3x great grandfather Patrick Henry Roane (George’s son. Patrick is named in this will too). 

(???)= word(s) that are indecipherable in the original document.
I Edmund Christian of the County of Henrico in the State of Virginia make and declare the following as and for my last will and testament.

I give to my daughter CHRISTIANA in addition to what she has under my feed of the fifth of January 1844 all that she may owe me at the time of my death and all the property in her possession which I purchased at the sale of her husband’s estate of at any time since.

I give to my granddaughter JUDY MINGE CHRISTIAN a little girl named CAROLINE and one thousand dollars and also any increase the said Caroline may have to my grandson EDMUND C MINOR a little boy named WILLIAM and to my grandson GEORGE G MINOR a little boy named HENRY; the said CAROLINE, WILLIAM, and HENRY being children of a woman named HARRIET. And I give each child of my son WILLIAM that may be living at the time of my death of born within ten months thereafter a slave as near as may be to the age of the child that the slave will belong to.

I give to my daughter EDMONIA the following slaves to wit: ELIZA, the wife of GEORGE, and their six children to wit: PATRICK, GEORGE, PRISCILLA, ANTHONY, EDMUND, and JOE, and also a mulatto girl named SUSAN and the increase of the females of any of the said slaves whether born before or after my death.

I give to my daughter CAROLINE the following slaves to wit: KELLY, HARRIET, ABRAHAM and FANNY, and the increase of the females of any of them whether of (can’t read) other than her husband or his representatives.

And in further trust that at any time before the same shall so devolve on such next of him, the trustees or trustee may (???) The said sums of twenty thousand dollars, or either of them or any part thereof in stocks or other property or (???) so investing may well The whole of any part of such stocks or property, and invest the proceeds thereof or any surplus interest of profits in other stocks or property or land (???) or such proceeds of surplus on good security and whatever may be so invested or so level-out shall be upon the same trusts that are before disclosed and these may from time to time as often as to (???) trustees or trustee shall seem advisable be unchanged in the more of investment or the whole of any part of the trust – subject – provided the proceeds be invested on the same trusts.

I appoint my son WILLIAM, my friend LOFTON A ELLIOTT and my son-in-law GEORGE G MINOR executors of this my will and direct that they shall not be obliged to give security. I also direct my estate not to be appraised.

In witness whereof, this will is signed by me this tenth day of March 1851, after first striking out on Page three the words “while he sometimes (???)” and the words ” or marriage ” and after investing in Page 2 the words “or profits thereof and on Pages 2 and 3 the words “or profits” in 3 places.

(Signed by Edmund Christian, with Seal).

The foregoing will was acknowledged by Edmund Christian in the presence of us who were present at the same time and subscribed this will in his presence.

P G Bayly
John D Warren [husband of Edmonia Christian, and the last enslaved of George and his family]
William G Warren
H B Tomlin

It is my desire that my daughter EDMONIA may take from the furniture that I may leave what furniture she may require for chamber furniture; and that my carriage and horses may be for the use of my daughters Edmonia and Caroline.

Though my servant GEORGE ROANE who has been in mindance of me will be subject to the management of my son WILLIAM, yet I wish him exempt – so far as practicable – from any liability to be sold for my son’s debts. George has been a faithful servant and I wish my son to give him annually about thirty dollars.

Signed by me this eleventh day of March 1851.

(Acknowledged by Edmund Christian and witnessed by the same men who witnessed his will).

I have read and archives literally hundreds of enslaved-ancestors Wills and estate inventories. I have seen enslavers leaving bequests to some of their enslaved people: clothing, tools, trinkets, etc. –  even freedom. But never money, much less an annual annuity. 

Note too how differently George was treated in comparison to Harriet and her family…All while remember they were both enslaved.

It’s worth noting that $30 in 1851 was a significant amount of money. To put it into perspective, $30 in 1851 is equivalent in purchasing power to $866.32 in 2019. Was Edmund making a provision that would have enabled George to buy his freedom, and that of his family? Possibly. While it’s an intriguing notion, I haven’t found anything to support that.

Just what the neck was going on here?

Quick back story: George, his wife Eliza, and their eldest son Patrick were sold by George’s grandfather, Spencer Roane, to Edmund Christian right before Spencer Roane quit Virginia for Tennessee with his wife Anne Henry, a daughter of Patrick Henry. 

I’ve thought that Edmund was chosen because he was a kindly man (ok this is slavery we’re talking about, so I’m not comfortable with the word ‘kindly ‘, but can’t think of a suitable word to use). However kindly Edmund may have been, I think Spencer Roane had another motive for selling his grandson and great grandson to Edmund Christian. I believe Spencer was sending George from his white family on his father’s side his white relations in his mother’s side.

Pay particular attention to the codocil. I initially thought George was left this because he was the great grandson of Patrick Henry, and the grandson of Spencer Ball Roane, who was a leading American political figure in his own right. These were facts everyone in George’s sphere knew. 

However, now I’m thinking Edmund left this annuity to George because they were related to one another.

Did George go from one enslaving family member he was related to to another?

Image showing the only places in my dad’s part of the family tree that could directly connect with the Christian family. I am specifically seeking a Christian family male at the 4x grandfather level, resident in Henrico County, Virginia, and old enough to have fathered a child around 1790, with biological ties to families like Minge.

While there are other lines in my father’s ancestry that could be hiding a Christian ancestor, it makes sense to begin this part of the journey within George’s immediate family. After all, he was enslaved by a Christian family member who made an incredibly unusual bequest in his Will. 

George’s paternal line is done. A question mark hangs over his mother, Elizabeth’s, maiden name. Was she Elizabeth “Betsy” Christian? If so, she could be Edmund’s sister, making George his nephew. It would explain dozens upon dozens of white Christian, Jordan, Fleming, Pleasants, Woodson, Shields, and Minge DNA cousins who are my 4th, 5th and 6th cousins.

Eight weeks of wrangling with cMs, SNPs, and records consistently brings the team to the man below, William Christian of Cherry Bottom in Charles City County, Virginia. The manner in which the DNA is stacking up points to one of his son’s being my missing Christian ancestor – the man who would be George Roane’s grandfather via his mother.

I’ve been doing this kind of research for a long time. I have learned to listen to, and respect, my hunches. These hunches rarely let me down. Eventually, one way or another, my hunches are usually proven to be correct. Different research methodologies and records keep leading me back to this family line.

William Christian married twice. I’ve already ruled out the sons he had with his second wife, Sally Atkins. They were simply too young to have fathered any children around 1790, when George Roane’s mother Eliza was born.

Researching his sons by Elizabeth Collier, I have ruled out all but 4: William “Wicked Willie”, Henry, Jones Rivers, and Edmund. 

Wicked Willie is proving the most likely candidate, albeit for fairly superficial reasons. Of the 4 brothers, Willie was the right age and in the right place at the right time. According to local history and lineage books, Willie had quite the reputation for hard drinking, hard living, partying (18th Century Style), and sleeping around. An unmarried man, prone to excessive drinking, with a property filled with young enslaved women doesn’t require much in the way of math. However, conjecture isn’t proof. 

Willie never married and left no known white children. If he had other enslaved children, presuming he is indeed the father of Eliza, I have yet to come across their living descendants in my DNA matches. This is an unfortunate wrinkle. To-date, the team has identified white enslaving father’s of my mulatto answers by comparing my DNA to that of their white descendants, alongside a paper trail.

The best we can hope to achieve is triangulating matches with the white descendants of his siblings, which is going to be tricky at best. It’s always best to compare DNA to descendants of the individual you’re looking at.

Going further back in time, my DNA trail leads back to Thomas “The Immigrant” Christian – a man who has presented a centuries old brick wall. I’ll be writing about the research I’ve been doing in the Isle of Man Christian family in my next article. Yes indeed, the team is trying to smash through this most stubborn of brick walls.


This is yet another example of why it’s important to use a well-researched paper trail with DNA. DNA alone could never answer the research questionof how, exactly, I connect to the Christian family. The best DNA can do is point towards specific avenues to research. There’s rarely an “ah ha, this is your ancestor” moment when it comes to DNA alone. Without a well developed and researched Christian family tree in Virginia, I wouldn’t have a clue about which ancestral Christian family line to interrogate further, much less specific individuals to research. 

If there’s any central message to be taken from this case study, let it be that. DNA is but one hand, a paper trail is another. Both are needed.

The 1898 Phoenix Riot: Essex Harrison, Eliza Goode, and South Carolina’s black voter suppression

The current reports of black voter suppression in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have made me revisit two late 19th Century South Carolina voter suppression riots that had tragic and devasting impacts on my Old Ninety Six District, South Carolina kinsmen and women: The Parksville Riot (1884) and The Phoenix Riot (1889), which would see scores of extended family lynched, indiscriminately murdered, or run out the state.

I have already written about the Parksville Riot, and how that black voter supression-fuelled riot impacted on my Yeldell cousins. In this article, I will discuss how the Phoenix Riot led to the brutal death of one cousin, Essex Harrison, and the senseless killing of another cousin, Eliza Goode.
The Phoenix election riot, occurred on 8 November 1898, near Greenwood County, South Carolina. A group of local Democrats attempted to stop a Republican election official from taking the affidavits of African Americans who had been denied the right to vote. The race-based riot was the outcome of increasing tensions not only between the Republican and Democratic parties, but also White Americans and the area’s black population.

This is a complex history with numerous moving parts. Neither voter suppression riots appeared out of the ether. There was a clearly demarcated road with numerous signposts that led to both tragic events. I will briefly touch on the major signposts leading up to the Phoenix Riot in order to provide a fuller picture of how this riot happened, and the immediate results that followed in its aftermath.

Not the same parties we know today: Republicans, Democrats, and the 1968 Southern Strategy

In order to understand the tensions that existed between the 19th Century’s Republican and Democrat parties, we need to see the difference between the two parties as we experience them today – and the parties they once were. The year 1968 would see a radical shift in the political ethos of both parties .
In 1968, George Wallace ran as a third-party presidential candidate against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Wallace ran on an explicitly segregationist platform. Of the two main presidential candidates, Humphrey had been the main champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Senate. Nixon, while no civil rights activist, rejected an overtly racist platform. Southern white racists, who felt abandoned by both parties, flocked to Wallace’s cause, winning him the Deep South states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Kevin Phillips, a political analyst and Nixon campaigner, reviewed voting trends between 1948 and 1968. Phillips viewed the Southern voters in those five states as ripe for Republican picking. In The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969), he correctly predicted that the Republican party would shift its national base to the South by appealing to whites’ disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies.

President Nixon shrewdly played a Southern strategy by promoting affirmative action in employment, a wedge issue that later Republicans would exploit to split the Democratic coalition of white working class and black voters. (John Skrentny,The Ironies of Affirmative Action, University of Chicago Press, 1996). This strategy soon produced the racial party alignments that prevail today.

I would argue that the pre-1968 Republican party resembled the centrists and moderates of the post-1968 Democratic party; it most definitely did not bear any parity to the progressive wing of the modern Democratic party. In contrast, the pre-1968 Democratic party resembled the modern Tea Party and Evangelical strands within the post-1968 Republican party.

The contrast and distinction between the modern face of these two parties, and their earlier pre-Civil Rights Era iterations, is an important aspect to grasp in order to understand the genesis of the Phoenix Riot.

The Phoenix Riot: A quick synopsis

The riot ignited when white land-owner, Thomas Tolbert, began to take affidavits from African Americans who had been disenfranchised by the new 1895 Constitution of South Carolina. Thomas Tolbert, the brother of republican candidate Robert R. Tolbert, urged the African Americans to fill out and submit an affidavit if they were prevented from voting. Tolbert and his allies hoped to use the affidavits that they collected to challenge the legality of certain portions of the 1895 South Carolina state constitution that had enshrined in law the previously informal disfranchisement of African-Americans.

On 8 November 1898, Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the entrance of the Watson and Lake general store and began to collect the affidavits of African Americans. Thomas Tolbert was quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including Democratic party leader, J. I. “Bose” Ethridge, and his followers. Ethbridge and his supporters began to repeatedly beat and terrorize Tolbert for his audacious actions.

Violence and chaos ensued following the outbreak of the riot: an estimated twelve African-Americans were fatally shot or hung, one African-American lynched, hundreds injured by the white mob, and one white man murdered. Additionally, Tolbert’s home, property and personal belongings were all burned in the days to follow the riot, with many family members forced to leave the state – and compelled to sell their vast landholdings.

The altercation triggered four days of violence directed mainly at the black population.

The Phoenix Riot: Outbreak

Although much of the riot is still under speculation, the initial outbreak was a direct result of heightened political and racial tensions that resulted in physical violence. Increasing tensions between Republican and Democratic parties played a profound factor in the eruption of conflict.

Thomas Tolbert, during this time, did not follow the common beliefs that surrounded African-Americans during the time. Despite the fact that Tolbert was a white man, he believed that African-Americans deserved the right to vote, and disagrees with their disenfranchisement by the South Carolina State Constitution. It is not clear whether he held this view because he was aware that a number of black Tolberts and Talberts who lived in close proximity to his family, and/or worked for his family, were his blood relations. I have seen no first or second hand accounts to prove whether or not this was a consideration for Tolbert. Then again, it does not appear that any research has been done on his connections to key black supporters of his apartment from citations that some lived on his family’s land and worked for them. Alternatively, he needed votes. As a Republican of the time, he needed black votes – and it could something as simple as that.

South Carolina’s Black Codes

The state’s Black Codes were passed by whites in late 1865. The Codes imposed a strict set of regulations on black labor and social life which plainly resembled a return to enslavement. Although the codes recognized abolition, blacks were expected to work as field hands or domestic servants, unless they had a license from a judge for a different occupation. They were required to work from sunrise to sunset and could be charged with vagrancy if caught unemployed by white officials. Fortunately for black Americans in the state, South Carolina’s military governor invalidated the laws by 1866. Yet, the codes clearly demonstrated white attempts to control black labor.

The federal government did equip black Americans with the means to protect themselves from such hostility by giving them full political rights. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867, later re-enforced by the Fifteenth Amendment, ensured that African-American men could vote and hold office, regardless of race or ancestry.

These new black voters overwhelmingly tended to vote for the Republican Party, which was not unusual considering the fact that Abraham Lincoln, the party’s first president, was seen by many former slaves as the “Great Emancipator.” At least ninety percent of 100,000 black voters were members of the Republican Party in 1869.

Black land ownership in 1868 South Carolina

In South Carolina – more than any other southern state – freed men took advantage of their newfound political rights. Constituting sixty percent of the state’s voting population, they elected 73 African Americans out of 124 total delegates to the 1868 Constitutional Convention.

Most of the black legislators in South Carolina owned land. This suggests a significant relationship between land ownership and political activism. In fact, black Americans who held onto land were more likely to register, vote, and run for office than those who did not. Black legislators in South Carolina therefore appreciated the powerful symbolism of land ownership and its potential for racial uplift. At the 1868 convention, delegate Richard Cain argued that, without owning land, freed men and women could not elevate themselves much higher than their status as former slaves. Despite having established strong black communities, they could “know nothing of what is good and best for mankind until they get homesteads and enjoy them.” His political comrades agreed with him.

Through the authority of the state government, they tried to extend the means for land ownership to their fellow freed men and women, creating what became known as the South Carolina Land Commission.

The South Carolina Land Commission

The Constitutional Convention met in Charleston on 14 January1868, to discuss among other pressing issues a land distribution program in the state of South Carolina. Seventy-six of the one hundred and twenty-four delegates were African American and they initially hoped to petition the United States Congress for a loan to purchase plantation lands for redistribution to landless people.

Little attention was paid to South Carolina’s request in Washington D. C. and no money was granted, but on 27 March 1869, the South Carolina legislature established the Land Commission on its own. The original appropriation from the legislature was $200,000, and in March of 1870, another $500,000 was appropriated for lands to be purchased by the Land Commission. This was made possible by the overwhelming presence and voice of black Americans in the legislature, and South Carolina would become the only southern state to promote the redistribution of land for the benefit of freed men and women, as well as landless whites (who largely refused to participate in the scheme due to racial animus towards blacks).

By 1890, as many as 14,000 African-American families had settled on Land Commission lands in South Carolina as a whole, but only 960 had received titles to 44,579 acres of the 118,436 acres available. The rest of land, now being sold in large parcels, was sold to whites, and by 1890 the sale of lands had ceased and the program was bankrupt.

Land ownership and political activism would become key issues a few years later when South Carolina passed a new state constitution in 1895.

The South Carolina State Constitution of 1895

The Constitution of 1895, which was ratified on 4 December 1895, essentially laid the ground work for Jim Crow in South Carolina, since almost the entire African American population was disenfranchised, which further strengthen the white control over the state of South Carolina. The disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws continued to thrive in the state until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

In Bleser’s book, The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869–1890, black farmers in America have had a long and arduous struggle to own land and to operate independently from whites. For more than a century after the Civil War, deficient civil rights and various economic and social barriers were applied to maintaining a system where many blacks worked as farm operators with a limited and often total lack of opportunity to achieve ownership and operating independence. By 1880, in state after southern state, the statistics on black landownership were depressing — 100,000 acres in South Carolina, less than that in Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina.

Since emancipation, the wealth of former slaves and their descendants has greatly lagged behind that of whites. Higgs (1982; 1977) found that black total property holdings were just 1/36 those of whites in 1880. This ratio improved slightly to 1/26 by 1890. When income from ownership of land and capital is added to labor income, the average per capita income of blacks was 61 to 64 percent of white per capita income in the South. Given that blacks were emancipated for the most part without any assets beyond their own labor, it is not surprising that in 1880, whites derived more income from the ownship of land and capital.

Land ownership would provide South Carolina’s white legislators with an easy means of stripping voting rights from black men. Literacy would be another. The 1895 Constitution also contained an understanding clause: the basics of which acted like a reading comprehension test. In order to comprehend whatever paragraph the election officials chose for black men to read, one needed an ability to read it. The paragraph(s) were not read aloud to the black men registering to vote. No, they had to read the passage(s) under their own steam. If you couldn’t read because you had no access to even the most basic forms of education, you were hobbled. You were ineligible to vote.

After 1 January 1898, the understanding clause was revoked. In order to vote, one had to be able to read and write – or present proof of having paid taxes on three hundred dollars worth of property. In the South Carolina of the 1890s, blacks tender to own between 10 to 150 acres of land…which put such black landowners well below the 300 acre minimum. This was the intent of that 300 acre requirement. Overnight, vast swathes of black landowners, who were in the minority already when it came to owning any land at all, were summarily stripped of their right to vote. My 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews, who has inherited 200 acres from his white father-enslaver, Drury Cook Matthews, was one of the countless black men affected by the new provisions in the 1895 South Carolina Constitution.

This was the South Carolina suffrage law that put black control of the State beyond possibility, while still preserving suffrage for the illiterate whites of that generation.

The day of the riot

At around 9:00 in the morning on 8 November 1898, Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the polling office at Watson and Lake general store with Joe Circuit, Will White and a number of other African-Americans. He proceeded to encourage the black men of the community to submit affidavits documenting how they had been prevented from voting. Tolbert had hoped that the affidavits would help to expose the ongoing electoral fraud that had deprived African-Americans of the vote for the past twenty-two years.

Tolbert and his followers were quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including J. I. Ethridge, the local Democratic party boss. Ethridge and Robert Cheatham asked Tolbert to stop what he was doing. Upon his refusal, they overturned the box that he had been using to collect the affidavits with and began to beat him with the splintered wood and other various materials. Tolbert quickly responded to the violence by hitting Ethridge over the head multiple times with a wagon axle. Honestly, in terms of this part of South Carolina and violence was concerned, this was a typical exchange.

During the altercation, William White, one of Tolbert’s followers, was pushed to the ground. It is speculated that White grabbed a shotgun and fired the first shot, which hit Ethridge in the middle of the forehead, killing him on impact. Outraged by the murder of their leader, Etheridge’s followers promptly engaged in further escalating the conflict with Tolbert and his supporters. The gunshots, which were overheard by the white voters, prompted the majority of those who were at the polling stations inside the general store to engage in the conflict.
During the riot, Tolbert withstood several injuries and sustained gunshot wounds to the neck, arms, and his left side. The buckshot, which struck Tolbert during the riot, proved not to be fatal, however, they resulted in his retreat.

Below are newspaper accounts covering the riot. I have opted to not provide a synopsis or an overview for a simple reason: note the coded language of white supremacy and racism. Pay particular attention to the racist dog whistles, nay, bullhorns.

(Note: click each article below for a larger, more legible copy to read)

Sat, Nov 19, 1898 – 7 · The Appleton Crescent (Appleton, Outagamie, Wisconsin, United States of America) ·

The riot, and Essex Harrison’s name, made the national news.

Tue, Nov 15, 1898 – Page 1 · The Newberry Herald and News (Newberry, Newberry, South Carolina) ·

The riot, and Essex’s brutal fate, have been addressed in numerous books:

A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940 by Terence Finnegan (available via Google Books)

The above account demonstrates that racist programs directed against the black community did not end with the lynchings. The reign of terror continued.

Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) ·


Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 50 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 52 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 54 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 56 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) ·

The thing that applls me the most in the articles provided in the Aftermath section is straightforward. The then Democratic racists had learned nothing. That is pretty clear in their comments, how they portray the black community, and how they place the entirety of blame on the Tolberts.

Hundreds of black families fled the area for Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D. C., and New York in the twelve months following the riot. They and their families weren’t safe…and they knew it. It explains why some 25% of my extended family from this region of South Carolina were living in the northern states and Washington D.C. by the time of the 1870 U.S. Federal Census.

Nor was their any justice for Eliza Goode, Essex Harrison, or the many others who perished in the aftermath of the riot.

Reading and hearing the same kinds of racist dog whistles and bullhorns in 2016, and again in 2018, is disquieting. It is proof yet again that America fails to learn from the worst chapters in its history. Instead, as a country, it recycles its darkest history.


  1. “16 Nov 1898, Page 1 – The Watchman and Southron at“.
  2. Race Riots“. Remember Your history.
  3. Phoenix Riot – South Carolina Encyclopedia“. South Carolina Encyclopedia.
  4. 16 Nov 1898, Page 1 – The Watchman and Southron at“.
  5. Lab, Digital Scholarship. “History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes“.
  6. Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002-11-27). “The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County“. Southern Cultures. 8 (4): 29–55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052. ISSN 1534-1488.
  7. Norris, Pippa (02/12/2002). “Democratic Phoenix“(PDF).
  8. Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro (2016-07-11). The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post–Civil War South. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813938738.
  9. Lab, Digital Scholarship. “History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes“.
  10. 10 Nov 1898, Page 2 – Keowee Courier at“.
  11. Loren Schweninger. Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 34.
  12. Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968“.
  13. Finnegan, Terence (2013). A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813933849.
  14. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Wilmington Riot | PBS“.
  15. Branch, Taylor (1999). Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–65. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 242.
  16. C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction(1956) p 8, 205-12
  17. Ted Van Dyk. “How the Election of 1968 Reshaped the Democratic Party”
  18. Zinn, Howard (1999) A People’s History of the United States New York:HarperCollins.
  19. Childs, Marquis (June 8, 1970). “Wallace’s Victory Weakens Nixon’s Southern Strategy”The Morning Record.
  20. Rick Perlstein (13 November 2012). “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy”, The Nation.
  21. Boyd, Tim.“The 1966 Election in Georgia and the Ambiguity of the White Backlash“. The Journal of Southern History. 75 (2): 305–340. JSTOR″
  22. George B. Tindall, “Southern Strategy: A Historical Perspective”, The North Carolina Economic Review in JSTOR.
  23. Margo, Robert A. “Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks Before World War I: Comment and Further Evidence.” The American Economic Review, 74.4 (1984): 768-776.
  24. Higgs, Robert. “Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks Before World War I.” The American Economic Review, 72.4 (1982): 725-737.
  25. Bleser, Carol K. Rothrock. The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869–1890. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.

Further reading

Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002). “The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County“. Southern Cultures. University of North Carolina Press. 8 (4): 29&ndash, 55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052.

Wells, Tom Henderson (1970). “The Phoenix Election Riot“. Phylon (1960-). 31 (1): 58–69. doi:10.2307/273874.

Working with the 1773 and 1825 maps of Old Ninety Six, Edgefield, Abbeville, Newberry, and Barnwell, South Carolina

I have previously written about how maps can be an invaluable research tools in my  article Using maps in your genealogy research ( I’m currently in a research phase in my South Carolina research where I’m back to using maps again.

The first names my enslaved Old Ninety Six District families used are like finger prints for different family groups. Show me a woman named Muhulda/Huldy, I’ll show you how she links back to the Holloway family. Give me a Georgian(n)a / Georgia Ann / Georgie Ann or a Savannah/Versey, and I’ll show you how she links back to the Petersons or the Williams (who were really one in the same family). Show me an Albert, Elbert, Eldred, Gertrude, Anna, or similar Germanic name and, eventually, they will lead back to a Dorn, an Ouzts, or a Timmerman – the German descended families in this region.

Isabella, Wylie, Alfonzo, or Wesley? These are classic Settle(s)/Suttle family names.

Jacob, Levi, Obediah, Permelia, Keziah/Kizzie, Hannah, Suzannah, or similar classic Quaker names? These will lead back to the enslaving families who, while no longer practicing Quakers, still used Quaker first names.

There is a fairly straightforward reason why my enslaved families used the same first names that were so prevalent in the families who enslaved them. Their enslavers were also their blood relations. At least so far. I have yet to come across an exception.

Naming conventions can be an invaluable genealogy research clue. 

I decided to create a map of the Ninety Six District of South Carolina. My aim was to plot the locations of my ancestors’ enslaving families, who were also their kin, and then add the top six male and female first names for each family.

In the midst of doing a Google search for old colonial era maps, I unexpectedly struck gold. I found a series of 1773 and 1825 maps for the region I’m researching which plotted where the large and medium sized landowners were.  While all of these land owners weren’t enslavers, most of them were.

Seeing these families plotted out like this answered a number of questions:

  1. Why they married into some families and not others – and an understanding of why these inter-marriages were so frequent;
  2. Why enslaved people were sold to certain families and not others; and
  3. Why, after Old Ninety-Six was split into many different counties, marriages and transactions still occurred within certain groups of families, even if some of those families were located in a neighboring county.

It was all about location, location, location. The ties that bound different enslaving family groups together were so deeply entrenched during the Old Ninety-Six District era that it didn’t matter if part of one family group was in Edgefield while others they were related to were just over the border in neighboring Abbeville, Barnwell, Newberry, Greenwood, Greenville, McCormick, or Saluda. Enslaved people were also being passed back and forth over these newly established, and ever-changing, county boundaries.

Blood ties, it would seem, trumped county boundaries.

I’ll give an example to bring this all together. If I find an Elbert Harling, born around 1830 and living in Gray Township in Edgefield in 1870, I know I need to focus on three things. 

First, I need to research his connection to my white and black Matthews family. Second, I know I need to focus on the northwestern part of Edgefield that became part of Saluda. This area was first known as the Saluda District, Edgefield, SC, and then as Saluda Regiment, Edgefield, SC, which eventually was absorbed into the newly created Saluda, SC. Third, I will need to research the Dorns, Timmermans, and Ouztses in Meeting Street, Edgefield too. Either Saluda  or Meeting Street will be where the earlier part of his ancestry will lie. 

Why focus on these two places? Elbert was a name largely used by the Dorns, Ouztses, Timmermanns, and their descendants. The northwest quadrant of Old Ninety Six, and then Edgefield, was one of their strongholds until this part of the state became Saluda. Meeting Street was their other stronghold.

Those researching ancestors in any one of the above counties need to be mindful that they will need to research records in all of the surrounding counties.

You will find the maps I’m working with below:,-South-Carolina-?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1,-South-Carolina-?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1,-South-Carolina–?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1,-South-Carolina–?embedded=true&cic=RUMSEY%7E8%7E1&widgetFormat=javascript&widgetType=detail&controls=1&nsip=1

GA Live S02 E03: Meet Sharon Morgan from Our Black Ancestry

Episode : Meet Sharon Morgan from Our Black Ancestry

In this episode, our special guest is Sharon Morgan from the popular and respected Facebook genealogy research community Our Black Ancestry (OBA).

The Our Black Ancestry Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting the healing of wounds that are the legacy of slavery. Its primary activity is the sponsorship of its Our Black Ancestry (OBA) website and member portal.

For more info about OBA, please visit their website:

Join us on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month at 4pm via

GA Live S02 E01: The GU272 Descendants Project

S02 Episode 1: Meet the GU272 Descendants Project

Season 2 kicked off strong with our special guest, Karran Harper Royal, from the GU272 Descendants Project.

The GU272 Descendants Association is dedicated to preserving the memory, commemorating the lives, restoring the honor, and tracing the descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuit priests of Georgetown University in 1838.

GU272 Links:


Facebook Group:


To see how Genealogy Adventures uses the Beyond Kind methodology, you can read the following articles:

1. Why diversity matters for online genealogy service providers via

2. 1845 Will of Col. William Bolling (1777-1845), Goochland County, Virginia via

Genealogy Adventures Live will be taking a break in September. But don’t worry…we’ll be back in October!

Book review: Jefferson’s Daughters

I’ve just finished my second reading of Jefferson’s Daughters by Catherine Kerrison. I have to say it was a very enlightening and illuminating read.

Let’s face it, my ancestral cousin Thomas Jefferson’s life has been poured over in great detail in his lifetime and down the generations. As has his relationship with my other ancestral cousin, Sally Hemings. I can understand anyone thinking that everything that could be said about Thomas, Sally, and their children has already been said, many times over. Ms. Kerrison, however, has mined fresh territory. I’ve had a glimpse into my cousin’s lives and characters that I’ve never seen before.

Instead of a dry history book about Jefferson the Statesman, or about Jefferson the Founding Father and Revolutionary War patriot, Kerrison introduces us to  an engaging and lively history of Jefferson, the father. She has done a superb job getting beneath the superficial.

I won’t spoil anything by revealing too much. Let’s just say that where his daughters Martha and Maria a were concerned, Jefferson was a hard task master. The reader won’t come away with any knowledge about what Jefferson thought about his third daughter, Harriet. There is a simple reason for this: he didn’t write anything about Harriet. Or, if he did, his words about his third daughter were either lost over time, hidden from public view, or destroyed at his death by his white heirs. 

Truly, Harriet’s name only appears in Jefferson’s Farm Book, where he noted day-to-day things related to the lives of those he enslaved: food and blanket rations, births, deaths, the properties where his enslaved people resided, work productivity, the dates some of his enslaved people were sold (and who they were sold too), etc. It’s an odd remembrance of a daughter. However, it’s either all that Jefferson left us regarding his third surviving daughter – or all that anyone can publicly access.

The history Kerrison related regarding Sally and Harriet Hemings had me gripped.

Kerrison made the best use of scant contemporary written material about Sally and Harriet, the daughter she had with Jefferson. Sally left nothing that was written by herself. Or, if she has, those records have been lost or remain from public view by the Hemings family. Once Harriet crossed the colour line, adopting a white identity and a new name, she literally disappears into history. We know she “married well”, and lived in Washington D.C., where he family prospered. This we know from her brother Madison’s account of their family.

Where Kerrison has excelled is in her portrayal of Sally during her time in Paris, where her relationship with Jefferson begins, and where their first child was concieved. Kerrison’s account of Sally’s time in Paris mirrors what is already been related to me by family members years ago.

For those who question the origins of Sally and Thomas’s union really ought to read this book. All I’ll say is that Kerrison has portrayed a strong-willed, savvy, resolute, capable teenager who determined her own fate, as well as the fate of any children she would have by Jefferson. This too squared with what I’ve been told about her.

Kerrison realistically portrays the complexities of slavery in general, and the added layers of complexity of a union the likes of which Sally and Thomas shared. Kerrison does not pull her punches. I appreciated that.

I am often irritated when I see people making free with Sally’s history on Facebook and Twitter. I become annoyed because the usual statements that are made are conjecture based on assumptions without truly knowing what that history was. They’ve reduced her into a 2-dimension victim when her actual history is far more complex and nuanced than their 2-dimension portrayal allows. If  you’re sincerely interested in gaining a fuller understanding of her life while she was enslaved, buy this book.

While Sally and her children don’t feature as much as Martha and Maria Jefferson do – Kerrison has used the research material she accessed (which was monumental!) to great affect.

The other aspect of this book that impressed me was Kerrison’s detailed search for Harriet and her brother Beverley in Washington D.C. Beverley too crossed the colour line, taking a white identity and changing his name in the process. Kerrison’s genealogical research strategy for Harriet and Beverley was impressive. She threw everything at this task. I too know how tough a task this is. I have scoured DNA matches for myself as well as my father siblings – to no avail. While I easily found matches to Sally’s other children, as well as descendants of her other Colbert, Hemings, Brown, and Bell family – I haven’t found anything yet that links back to Harriet or Beverley.

This either suggests that Harriet and Beverley’s descendants might not have taken DNA tests (for a variety of reasons), or they haven’t tested on AncestryDNA or Family Tree DNA. Or, if they have tested on those services, they have surnames that I simply haven’t associated with the Hemings and Jefferson families.

Kudos to Kerrison, however, for her attempt to find them…which she does a superb job in relaying and detailing. She had a sound research strategy that, in itself, is informative.

I definitely recommend this book. I can put it this way: if gripped me so thoroughly that I had to read it twice.

Available for purchase online, and offline in all major bookstores.

Piecing together enslaved family relations at Monticello

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 wherehow and the 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 a 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 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 via 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.

Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, available through The Massachusetts Historical Society via

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 researched of 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 eigth 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: mother, daughter, a grand-daughter 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 appraent. 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 the 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 neice 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?:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. The 1823 estate inventory for John Wayles Eppes, to pick up the story of the EPs he received from Jefferson; and
  4. 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, perserverance, and patience will reveal the specifics. In that, I have absolute faith.

Cuffy Pleasants: A journey from slavery to freedom in 1772

An essential aspect of genealogy is the acceptance, more than understanding, that the ancestors will not let us be. It is as though the very act of researching the ancestors is akin to approaching a still lake with a serene and undisturbed surface which provides no inkling or clues to its depth.

Diving into that pool, and disrupting that flat surface, sends ripples and rings that flow outward in all directions. That act of disruption, and the tandem ripping rings, act as calling cards to the ancestors. Once you begin the research, and the names, histories, and stories of unknown or long-forgotten ancestors are re-remembered (I say re-remembered for they were known and loved before their names were lost to us), that act of discovery shoots out like those ripples across a pond. They are a calling card, an invitation to ancestors and kin keen to have their names spoken once more; keen to have their stories told.

You never know which ancestor or kinsperson will answer that call.

Julia Ella Bates Roane of Varina, Henrico County, Virginia

Julia Ella Bates Roane, my paternal grandmother’s mother, pulled me in to researching my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia roots. This research now encompasses the part of Henrico County along the James River, as well as neighboring Charles City and Goochland Conties.

Julia’s Bates ancestry is inextricably entwined and connected to the major estates dotted along the James River: from Chatsworth in the northwest quadrant; down to Curles Neck, Varina, Bermuda Hundred, Flowerdew Hundred and Bremo in the centre quadrant; over to Turkey Island in the eastern quadrant; and finally down Shirley and Westover to the south.

Julia’s Bates line, it would seem, were always in Varina – going all the way back to Piersey’s Flowerdew Hundred and John Rolfe’s Varina in the 1620s. A combination of records and DNA matches confirm this. This is the part of her history I am currently tackling.

Enslaved, her family’s history is linked to that of their enslavers: a complex, multi-layered succession of marriages between the enslaving Quaker Bates, Price, Jordan, Fleming, Woodson, and Pleasants families. The Bolling, Tarl(e)ton, and Crump family also feature in her Bates family history. Her ancestors and kin were passed between these closely inter-related families up and down the James River, into Goochland County, Charles City County, Prince Edward County, and Chesterfield County. DNA has provided ambulance evidence these families were not just the enslavers of Julia’s family. They were also her family’s blood relations. However, as the saying goes, that’s another story for another day.

My embarkment into this odyssey of discovery led me to a rather poignant discovery.

I had traced one of Julia’s kinsmen’s group to John Pleasants III (1698-1772) – the Quaker convert whose Will rocked Virginia’s elite. He freed nearly 1,000 enslaved people in a Will due to an act of religious conscience. To be clear, only those enslaved people who were 30 years old, or older, were immediately freed from the bondage of slavery. All those under the age of thirty had to wait until they were of that age to be freed. I have no idea, at this point in my research, why thirty years of age was the magic number. It was, and that’s kind of that.

Researching some of the newly liberated people brought me to Cuffy, a man whose descendants I share DNA with on a number of chromosomes. His line was one of the first I have successfully traced down to the present day.

Freeing so many enslaved people, many of whom were in the possession of John Pleasants’ immediate family, was bound to be problematic. In this case, his dying wish led to a court case: Pleasants vs Pleasants ( This court case has been the only place where I learned the names of the enslaved people held by John Pleasants, as well as their age and/or year of birth.

It is where I found Cuffy:

Cuffy Pleasants, listed with some of his known siblings and extended family members. Aged 26 in 1799, we can determine his year of birth was around 1769. Since he was over the age of 30, at the time of John Pleasants’ death, he was freezing immediately. The lawsuit also states where he was at the time of John’s death: with John’s son, Samuel Pleasants, in Henrico County, Virginia. Click for larger image

I can’t explain what it was about Cuffy that called out to me. Was it because he was the only Cuffy in a staggering list of enslaved people’s names? Perhaps. Something did call out to me…and I followed.

I had a distinctive name to research. I knew where he was around 1799/1800: with Samuel Pleasants in Henrico County. I also had an approximate year of birth for him: 1769. Let’s face it, for those of you who have followed my work over the years, I’ve had far less information to work with than this, and made some remarkable discoveries. I didn’t just jump into the proverbial lake: I did a cannonball.

Armed with what I knew, it didn’t take me long to find Cuffy.

The natural place to start were the 1790s and early 1800s tax lists for Henrico County. It was the logical place to begin my search. It was the county of his birth. It was the place he knew intimately. It was where his roots were – as well as his family.

In the image above, Cuffy (Cuff) was counted as a tithable (taxable, in other words) adult in 1783.

In 1801, Cuffy is once again a free landholder, and paying taxes in his own right. At this stage of my research, his one tithable is his son, Cuffy Pleasants, Jr.

As of 1801, Cuffy is now known as Cuffy Peasants. DNA strongly suggests he was a Pleasant by blood. By which he didn’t take the name because he was enslaved by the Pleasants family, or liked the name. He took the name he was biologically entitled to take.

He is also living near some of his siblings and their children.

In 1803, Cuffy’s taxable estate includes a horse. Cuffy, Jr was the head of his own household at this point. The other Pleasants listed in the image above were his brothers.

1813 is the last time I see Cuffy in the Henrico tax list. However, this isn’t the last record for him.

The 1810 US Federal Census for Henrico County. Cuffy is the third name up from the bottom of the list. Click for a larger image

Cuffy’s online record turns cold in 1813. It will take a trip to Virginia to access the records for the Free Negro and Slave Records, 1789-1865 Henrico County (Va.) records. As a free person of color, Cuffy would have been legally obligated to formally register as such. These records will (hopefully!) have more information about him, his children, and his extended family.

My “go to” resource for researching free people of color, Paul Heinegg’s superb Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina: From the Colonial Period to About 1820 is quiet on the Pleasants family. They are a family he either hasn’t researched, or hasn’t published information about.

I’m not going to lie. I became more than a little emotional with Cuffy’s journey. Tears started to well up when I saw that 1803 tax list. He was taxable on a horse…but it was his horse, which he had on his land. Which was more than he would have ever had had he remained enslaved.

He toiled on his land, and reaped the benefits of his own labor – rewards which wouldn’t automatically go to anyone else. He could put his hands into the rich earth and know that it was his, and would be the land of his descendants. He could have been as poor as a church mouse financially, but he was rich in ways I won’t be able to fully, really grasp. He was free – something that he couldn’t have ever envisioned or for seen for himself throughout his life, until a Will probated in 1772 said he was.

In this regard, he must have felt as rich as the ancient king, Croesus.

GA Live S01 E11: Meet the IAAM’s Family Research Center Team

Episode 11: Meet the IAAM’s Family Research Center Team

We had another powerful & amazing show this Sunday. We had a great time chatting with Toni Carrier and Robin Foster about the new International African American Museum coming in 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina – and their department within the museum: the Family History Center, which is already up and running.

We had a lot of questions about what will make the museum a unique and compelling place to visit. We also found out more about the records, resources, and educational activities the IAAM’s Family History Center has, and its plans for the future.

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