My first African ancestor discovered

When it comes to African American genealogy, finding an African ancestor seems like a pipe-dream. It’s like winning the lottery jackpot. It’s the holy grail. The idea of it seems so impossible, it brings to mind an image of Don Quixote fighting windmills – well, it does to my literary mind at any rate.

Thanks to three Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina Josey family cousins…I have my ancestral lottery mega millions win. I have my first direct ancestor who was born in Africa.

I have found African progenitors for other ancestral lines like Goins/Gowen, Christian, Cumbo, Barbour and Munzingo. I was pretty excited to find them too. However, these were families that my various ancestral lines married into. Finding my own African ancestor…well, I’m still somewhere circling Cloud 9.

So who is this ancestor? One of my maternal 4x great grandmothers, Venus. Venus “The Elder” would go on to take the last name Josey, the name of family who owned her. It’s also the surname of James Henry Josey, the man who fathered the four children of her daughter, Venus Josey “The Younger”. To distinguish between the two Venuses, I’ll refer to the elder Venus as “Venus” and the younger Venus as Venus Josey.

I’ve spent a few hours chatting with 3 newly discovered cousins from the wider Josey family. While they didn’t have many stories about Venus, what they did tell me shed some interesting light on her life.

Born around 1806, Venus arrived in South Carolina around the age of 13. That is a very useful, seemingly insignificant factoid. It will (hopefully!) help me identify the slave ship she arrived on. I can start researching slave ships that left the west coast of Africa for the southern states between 1817 and 1822. This 5 year spread takes into account her age – she might not have been 13 when she made that Trans-Atlantic slave ship voyage. And 1806 is only an estimated year of birth, given in 1870. Her first child was born in Rich Square, Northampton, NC in 1825. 1824, the year her daughter Venus Josey was conceived, would be the uppermost limit for the slave voyage search range.

mtDNA tests suggest Venus either came from Gabon or Cameroon.

Now that all seems rather straightforward in terms of research parameters. However, looks can be deceiving. The US Congress passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves on 2 March 1807. Thomas Jefferson promptly signed it and it came into effect on 1 January 1808. This was about a decade before Venus’s transportation from Africa to South Carolina. And this is where things will get murky. This means she was illegally transported across the Atlantic and sold. Like any illegal activity, the chances of any documentation is slim. Very slim.

Trans-Atlantic slave trade map

Then there’s the question of what port this ship arrived in. Wilmington was an established slave port before the importation of slaves was outlawed. South Carolina, particularly Charleston, seems a more likely port prospect. Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana are just as likely in terms of ports of arrival. However, my instinct tells me that she arrived somewhere in South Carolina, where many of the North Carolina slave owning Joseys had purchased slaves previously.

illustration of a slave ship hold

That’s the historical aspect of this discovery. There is a human element too. I try to think of that 13 year old child crammed into the dark, dank hull of a slave ship for approximately a month with all the foul smells and filth that journey entailed. I can’t. I try to touch upon the fear she felt. I can’t do that either. It’s unimaginable. There are no family stories of any family members accompanying her on that journey. Presumably, she made that journey alone, leaving everything and everyone she knew behind. That she survived is a testament to her fortitude. There’s a glimpse into that fortitude in one last story about her.

Another family tale is that Venus was a princess or, at the very least, a younger daughter of an African chieftain.  While it would be a sensational find, I’m remaining sceptical. Like the many tales in my family of Native American ancestry – which DNA testing has over-ruled – I’m not going to get too excited by this claim 😉

There is one history sliver that my white and black Josey cousins have relayed to me. James Henry Josey freed Venus “The Younger” and her mother when Venus “The Younger” gave birth to the first of their four children. He freed their children too. James’s mother was, by all accounts, very fond of her mulatto grandchildren. She paid for their education and ensured that the money her husband had bequeathed to their grandchildren and Venus “The Younger” was safeguarded and duly handed over. In short, she ensured her grandchildren’s future prospects.

There is one story that I absolutely love. Venus came to understand English. However, she refused to speak it. Nothing could compel her to do it. That snippet of her history speaks volumes to me.

Descendants of John Stephen Josey of Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina

Updating the various family trees I posted a few years ago has been a long overdue task. These trees have grown so large, that a nice graphical representation is impossible. Hence using the traditional generational list format. One day will have an embeddable family tree widget. ;o)

Family Tree Key:

This family tree is arranged by generations. The numbers that appear before are name refer to generations.

For instance:

  1. John Smith (The ancestor whose descendants have been documented)
  2. Adam Smith (This is the 1st generation level. He would be John Smith’s child)
  3. Carrie Smith (This is the 3rd generation level.She would be John Smith’s grand daughter)
  4. Robert Smith (This is the 4th generation level. He would be John Smith’s great grandson)
  5. Helen Smith (This is the 5th generation level. She would be John Smith’s 2x great grand daughter)
  6. Randolph Smith (This is the 6th generation level. He would be John Smith’s 3x great grand son)

Privacy Note:

I have made every effort to delete details for living people. I’ve also made every effort to delete details of people who would make it easy to find their living descendants. I may have missed a handful. If I have, please accept my apologies and let me know. I will remove them from this list of descendants.

Descendants of John Stephen Josey

with roots in Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina


“I’m white, your family is black. We can’t be related!”

“I’m white, your family is black.  We can’t be related.”  In the words of President Obama….Oh yes we can!

It was bound to happen. I received an email this from a gentleman on the white side of the North Carolina Josey family who – politely, I have to add – enquired about my connection to the Josey family. “I couldn’t help but notice that your family is black. I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can be related”.

I could almost imagine his face when I kindly pointed out that not only were we related…but he was also related to the African-American Joseys who lived in his North Carolina town as well as the African-American Joseys who lived in at least three towns near to his own.

A subsequent flurry of emails passed back and forth and his denials became more entrenched. “It’s just not possible”. Airplanes weren’t possible – until they were. Sending rockets to other planets weren’t possible, until they were. Given the things we now take for granted which weren’t possible two to three generations previously, I think intimate relations between races the most probable of anything on the planet. Well, that’s the way I believe I phrased it in one of my later replies.

It all goes back to one John Stephen Josey. Me and mine, on my maternal great-grandmother’s side of the family, are descended from John Stephen Josey and a mulatto mistress. This gentleman was a descendant of John Stephen Josey and his wife Martha’s only surviving son.

It was only when I replied “Well, if my great-great-grandfather George Josey‘s existence didn’t bother Martha, why should it bother you? If anyone has or had a right to be aggrieved, it was her. He cheated on her, not you or yours.” And it is true. If certain accounts are to be believed, Martha Josey was kindly disposed to her husband’s mulatto children.

Yesterday, I received an email where this gentleman said “You’re absolutely right”.

Now he’s busy making plans to contact and meet his African-American cousins who live nearby. And we’ve inspired each other to trace the Josey/Jowsey/Jossie family lineage from 14th Century Scotland back to their Norman roots – a daunting prospect if ever there was one.

Oscar Josey & George Washington Josey of Rich Square, North Carolina: finding ancestors in books
Finding the name of an ancestor or distant relation in a publication never ceases to give me a little thrill. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Seeing their name in print somehow makes them seem a bit more real. They stop being just a name with dates on a family tree. Such things remind me that they had lives, every day lives, and seeing their names in a book or a publication with snippets of their personal history is a priceless experience.

This is the case with one of my maternal great-great-grandfathers, George Washington Josey, and his brother Oscar. They appear in the book “Divine Will, Restless Heart” by Mary E C Drew (book details are at the end of this post). Okay, there is only a few sentences which discuss the..but those few sentences are like gold dust to me.

Both boys were openly acknowledged by the white planter father in his lifetime. And the seemingly simple fact that they “lived with” a white family raises all kinds of questions. It doesn’t say they were slaves – nor does it say they were free.  So the question remains, in what manner did they live with the Norwood family? It’s the eternal see-saw of genealogy: no sooner do you answer one question (in this case, the name of the boys’ father), another one presents itself.

A screen grab except follows below (my apologies Ms Drew, WordPress doesns’t allow iframe widget embeds from Google Books and I have tried every which way to make that widget work in this post):

Excerpt detailing Oscar Josey & George Washington Josey

Excerpt detailing Oscar Josey & George Washington Josey

Unfortunately, the book isn’t available as an eBook. However, here’s the link to the book on Google Books. I believe print copies are still available to buy. A number of Rich Square, North Carolina African-American families are mentioned in the book – including the family of Oscar Josey’s wife, Emma Smallwood.

Google Book link:

Book details

Title: Divine Will, Restless Heart
Author:  Mary E. C. Drew
Publisher:  Xlibris Corporation, 2010
ISBN:  1453511962, 9781453511961
Length 292 pages

Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line

It’s that time in the university academic calendar where my schedule has been hijacked by a mountain of postgraduate and undergraduate marking and assessments. So my posts will be a bit sparse over the coming weeks.

However, in the meantime, I do have one intriguing find to share.

“Passing for white”. Now there’s a phrase that tends to hang suspended in space if ever there was one. The fact is, there are African-Americans who did so for a variety of reasons – and continue to do so today. There were more than a few instances of ‘passing’ on my maternal side of the family.

I grew up hearing the tale of how, in the depths of the 1930s depression, my maternal Turner grandfather ‘passed’ in order to get work and provide for his family. As any child, I took this as a simple family anecdote, one amongst a number of tales told during family gatherings during the holidays. It was only as an adult that I understood the significance of that act and what the potential repercussions could have been had my grandfather been rumbled.  I began to wonder if my grandfather had ever been tempted to make those forays into a white identity permanent…and asked myself what I would have done.

In researching the African-American Turners of Charles County, Maryland, some interesting facts have come to light. Death records between 1850 and 1870 cite a number of Charles County, MD Turners as having ‘very light’ or ‘white’ complexions. However, these records are for the Turners I traced who declared themselves as mulattoes during their lifetime. There were a number of their kin who moved from Charles County, MD and passed for white, their descendants entering into the white race. With respect to their descendants, who most likely have no idea they are descended from African-Americans, I won’t be posting specific family individuals I’ve found from the Turner clan who left their black roots behind.

There are other Turner lines I suspect followed in their footsteps and also ‘passed’. However, due to the popular nature of their names, it’s difficult to know if I’m looking at records for the same individual or different people born roughly in the same year bearing the same name as one another. What is interesting, for me, is the fact that my Turner antecedents had a complexion cited as ‘white’ who were born as early as 1825. That would suggest mixed race relationships had occurred for generations beforehand. This has presented an interesting genealogy hurdle to be overcome. Finding the names of fathers for many of the Charles County, MD Turners born before 1850 has been next to impossible. The reason for this is more than likely because the fathers of these mulattoes with such light complexions were white.

On my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, the Harlings, the same pattern emerges. A small number of Harlings caused all manner of confusion for doctors issuing death certificates. I’ve found three death certificates which first stated the deceased was ‘white’, which was crossed out and substituted with ‘black’. One individual went from ‘white’ to ‘black’ back to ‘white’ and then ‘black’ on the same death certificate. Like the Turners, many of my direct Harling antecedents had a complexion noted as ‘very light’ or ‘white’ as far back as the 1830s. Again, suggesting relations had existed between Harling slave women and white men for a number of generations. Unlike the my Turner ancestors, a number of the children born of these unions were openly acknowledged by their fathers (but more on this in a future post).

Like the Turners, a small number of Edgefield County-born Harlings jumped the colour line after the end of slavery and passed for white. However, unlike Charles County, MD Turners, documenting this amongst the Harlings has been fairly easy and straightforward. The Harlings seemed to prefer using distinctive names which has made tracing this family’s descendants far easier than tracing the Turners.

Again, staying with my maternal ancestors, my Josey great-grandmother’s extended family had a number of family members who permanently passed for white at the end of the Civil War. Like the Turners and Harlings, my Josey ancestors in Rich Square, North Carolina , could also pass for white from the 1820s onwards.

I’ve deliberated over publishing this post for quite a few months. “Passing” still remains a prickly subject. However, it did happen and shouldn’t be ignored. I decided to publish it, in the end, as it presents another set of genealogical challenges for Americans with roots in the ante-bellum Southern states. And I use the word ‘American’, without any ethnic qualifier, deliberately. An African-American tracing his or her family might come across individuals who seem to drop off the radar in terms of the official records. If that person comes from a long line of mulattoes, one reason you might have to consider is that person ‘passed’. So instead of seeking someone who is black in the official records, take a punt and look for someone with the same, or similar, name born around the same year. Of course it helps if they have a somewhat distinctive name. Or, if you’re white, and the trail runs cold for a specific ancestor, it just might be because the individual you’re researching was a mulatto who decided to ‘pass’. This won’t always be the case – but it is a possibility, no matter how remote.

Digging deeper with Census Records: Part 4

Recognising family groups

As mentioned previously ( Post: What’s in a maiden name), marriage records are important for a number of reasons. Two invaluable pieces of information marriage records provide are 1) the maiden name of the bride; and 2) in most cases, the maiden name of the bride’s mother.

Maiden names allow you to build a bigger picture of your family’s history. In my family’s case, certain names occur with consistency. Taking the Roanes for example, the family name of Hill, Carpenter, Byrd (or Bird), Richardson, Broaddus, Waring, Johnson, Holmes, Baylor, Braxton and Green occur over and over again, generation after generation in any number of combinations. Again, it’s worth bearing in mind that these were members of rural communities, an important genealogy and family research factor I mentioned in the first post in this series.

Roane cousins from different branches of the male Roane lines married. That’s one of the easiest ways to spot marriage between cousins. What’s more subtle and more challenging to spot is kinship through a family’s female lines. In my case,  by discovering women’s maiden names – and the surnames of their mothers – I’ve been able to recognising recurring last names…and establish degrees of kinship amongst cousins who married from different family branches.  The names listed in the above paragraph appear frequently.

Here’s a fictitious example: Nancy Roane marries Joe Richardson.

  • Nancy’s parents are Samuel Roane and Betty Broaddus
  • Joe’s parents are Charles Richardson and Nannie Green

Now, looking at both their parents:

  • Samuel Roane’s parents are Edward Roane and Annie Green
  • Betty Broaddus’s parents are Alan Broaddus and Sophie Richardson (Joe Richardson’s aunt)
  • Charles Richardson’s parents are Lawrence Richardson and Lena Roane (Samuel Roane’s great-aunt)
  • Nannie Green’s parents are Ollie Green (second cousin to Annie Green, Samuel Roane’s mother) and Kate Holmes

This is an extreme example. However, what this boils down to is Nancy and Joe are cousins. Charles Richardson (Joe’s father) and Samuel Roane (Nancy’s father) are also cousins. Stretch this example a few generations back and the same surnames criss-cross through time – different lines of a family coming together in marriage.

I’ve spent a great deal of time tracking down marriage records for my family tree. And whether it’s my Roane, Sheffey, Turner, Mathews/Mathis, Harling or Josey ancestors, I’ve noted the intricate patterns of their extended families. So when I scan a county’s census record I slow down – without even thinking about it – as soon as I begin to see associated names to the family I’m researching. It’s like Pavlovian conditioning.

If I’m researching my Roane ancestors, as soon as I see the names Hill, Carpenter, Green, etc I slow my scrolling down to a dead crawl. And usually a relevant Roane family group soon appears.

The same holds true for the Sheffeys: when I start seeing surnames like Byrd, Richardson, Hill, Ward and Johnson, my scrolling grinds to a snail’s pace and usually a relevant family group appears. With the Joseys it’s name like Padgett, Smallwood, Calvert and Barbee. With the Harlings, it’s names like Matthews/Mathis, Peterson and Fuller. These names are red flags that tell me to slow my scanning speed down.

And these tend to be families that live quite near to one another and subsequently appear together in census returns decade after decade after decade (until the 1920s when family groups began to move elsewhere within the US). This is where knowing maiden names pays off. The family living next door to your (rural) ancestors weren’t just neighbours…they were more than likely kin; especially if they remain living to one another through the 19th Century.

Keeping with the Roanes, have a look at the two census returns below. The first is Essex County, VA in 1870, the second is Newtown, King & Queen County, VA in the same year. Keep in mind the surnames Hill, Carpenter, Byrd (or Bird), Richardson, Broaddus, Waring, Holmes, Baylor, Braxton and Green. How many appear in both? And how close do they live to the Roanes?

That’s digging just beneath the surface in terms of scanning census records.

That’s it from me until just after Christmas.  So to new-found family and followers of the blog…my best wishes for a very happy holiday.

Genealogy challenges: Part 1 – General overview

The vast majority of my posts have been about successes in tracing my ancestors and their kin and surprise discoveries along the way.  Today it’s about the other side of the coin.  For in tracing family history, there are failures, dead-ends and moments of absolute frustration.

I’ll be covering this side of genealogical research in the next couple of posts. I’ll be concentrating on a specific family and highlighting the challenges and issues which has made tracing them a veritable mission impossible.

When researching family history, there will be a minimum of 8 families to tackle. For example, this is mine:

On my father’s side of the family:
1:  My paternal grandfather:  Sheffey (Wythe & Smyth Counties, Virginia)

2:  My paternal grandmother: Roane (Henrico County, VA)

And then:

My Paternal Sheffey grandfather
His father – will be a Sheffey, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

3. His mother – my paternal great-grandmother: White (Wythe County, Virginia)

My Paternal Roane grandmother
Her father will be a Roane, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

4. Her mother – my paternal great-grandmother: Bates (Henrico County, Virginia)

On my mother’s side of the family:
5:  My maternal grandfather:  Turner (Charles County & La Plata, Maryland)

6:  My maternal grandmother: Matthews (part of her extended family has the surname Mathis) (Wise, Edgefield, South Carolina)

And then:

My maternal Turner grandfather
His father – will be a Turner, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

7. His mother – my maternal great-grandmother: Josey (Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina)

My maternal Matthews grandmother
Her father will be a Matthews, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

8. Her mother – my maternal great-grandmother: Harling (Blocker Township, Edgefield, South Carolina)

These are the eight families that the majority of my research is based upon.

Or looking at it another way….

My immediate family tree

My immediate family tree

Of these eight families, the following have been relatively straightforward to research:  Sheffey, Roane, Josey and Harling. The Sheffey and Roane are well-documented families. I’ve also been fortunate that there are a number of African-American Roane’s and Sheffey’s tracing their family’s history and sharing information via services like  Meeting these newly found extended family members, and sharing information online, has helped all of us on our respective genealogy adventures.

The Harlings and Joseys have also been relatively straightforward to research. They are distinctive family names – which always helps – and, like the Sheffeys and Roanes, were close-knit form the end of the Civil War through to the early 1900’s. They also tended to stay in the area they were born.

The White, Turner and Matthews/Mathis families have posed all manner of challenges. I’ll cover the respective challenges each family poses in the next couple of posts.