Hewick House in Middlesex County, Va.
Wikimedia Commons

“I have been tracing my roots on my mother’s side for a number of years. They hail from Middlesex County, Va., home of the senior Honorable Christopher Robinson. Robinson (1645-1693) came to Virginia and settled in Middlesex County, where he established the Hewick Plantation. He also fathered a family of prominent Virginians, and some of his descendants bore the name ‘Christopher Robinson’ as well, including his grandson (1703-1738). Christ Church Parish records list him and his family members. At least four are buried in the church cemetery.

“Until the year 1796, all of the Robinsons in the immediate area were white, particularly in Middlesex. However, in 1796 a Christopher Robinson was born and listed as black. There is no record of who his parents were.

“My great-great-great-grandfather was Corbin Robinson, born in 1833 in Middlesex County. My grandmother was born to Thomas and Mary Ellen Robinson, also in Middlesex County. I visited Middlesex County in September 2012, the home of my mother’s first cousin, and saw a photo of Thomas Robinson hanging on her living wall. He appeared to be mixed-race.

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“How should I connect the dots and find the parents of Christopher Robinson (the one who was born in 1796)? Is DNA the best means to solve the puzzle?” —Selma Copper

Your question is a good example of how traditional genealogy sources, such as census records, cemetery transcriptions and vital records, can be lacking in information about African-American families. This is especially true for Southern states, where slave labor was a large part of their economy. Although records of them may be lacking, there were still many African-American families living in Middlesex County, Va., from as early as its first settlement, most working in the plantations.

One of the best sources for African-American genealogy research is the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. Because this was the first federal census taken after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, it contains more detailed information about African Americans than previous censuses. For your ancestors, we found that Corbin Robinson was living in the town of Pine Top in Middlesex County with his wife and their four young children.

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In 1870 there were six other African-American families with the surname “Robinson” living in Pine Top. The oldest head of household was Christopher Robinson, born circa 1795. While it is possible that all of these Robinson families were related, it is also possible that they themselves, or their ancestors, were once enslaved by the white Robinson family. Interestingly, the town of Pine Top is only 12 miles southeast of the Hewick Plantation.

Were Your Ancestors Enslaved or Free Before the Civil War?

To continue tracing your ancestry back before 1870, it is useful to determine whether or not your forebears were freed from slavery before the Civil War. This is helpful because the sets of records kept for enslaved families might be different from those for people who were emancipated earlier. For example, if members of your family were granted their freedom before the Civil War, there may be records of them in tax lists or land records.

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The book Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware is a compilation of records of free African Americans in these five states. The collection includes a list of African Americans who paid personal-property tax in Middlesex County from 1782 to 1819, but there isn’t any record of a Robinson family. There is also the “Registers of Free Negroes and Mulattoes for the County of Middlesex, 1800-1862,” which provides information, such as name, whether born free or into slavery and, occasionally, emancipation information. These records are available on microfilm, which can either be borrowed from the Family History Library or used at the Library of Virginia.

It’s also useful to search the 1860 U.S. Federal Census to see if you can find a record of your ancestor Corbin Robinson. A quick search of this census collection did not return any results for him; however, we did find that there was a free African American named Gabriel Robinson who was born circa 1790 and lived in Middlesex County. The fact that we cannot find any records of Corbin before the 1870 census suggests that he was enslaved until after the Civil War.

Sources About Enslaved African Americans in Virginia

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When you’re researching enslaved ancestors, it’s important to consider how your ancestors may have received their family name. As we found in a previous question, there are several ways in which enslaved African Americans received their surnames. Given that your ancestors lived so close to the plantation of the white Robinson family, it’s possible that they were once enslaved by the family and that’s how they got their surname. However, it is difficult to determine exactly how long they were owned by the Robinsons. Perhaps they were enslaved by the family until the abolition of slavery, or maybe they were sold out of the Robinson family to another owner years or decades before. A careful search of a variety of records might help you answer this question.

Because your ancestors lived close to the Hewick Plantation in Urbanna, Va., you may find more information in the administration records of the plantation or in the papers of the Robinson family. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has a collection of the Robinson Family Papers dating from 1684 to 1915. This collection contains estate papers and copies of wills that include the transfer of slaves. According to the finding online, the latest document that pertains to slaves owned by the Robinson family is the will of John Robinson from 1785. Since this is probably too early to list a record of Corbin Robinson or even Christopher Robinson, you may want to search other sources first.

In addition to searching for plantation records, you’ll also want to search for will documents for the slave-owning Robinson family, which might contain more detailed information about slaves, such as name, gender and approximate age. Indexes and complete will books from Middlesex County can be borrowed from the Family History Library and sent to a local Family History Center or affiliate library. You will first want to search the index for entries on the Robinson family.

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Some additional research on the Robinson family might be useful, since you’ll want to know when the slave owners in the family died so that you can find the most useful entries in the will books. You can start by searching the 1830 and 1840 U.S. Federal Censuses, which enumerate slaves by age range, for records of the Robinson family in Middlesex County.

Information on the transfer, sale and manumission of slaves was also contained in the land records. Therefore, searching the land records of Middlesex might also provide some useful information. Microfilm of the land records of Middlesex County is available to borrow from the Family History library. Again, some research on the Robinson family will be helpful to determine who ran the plantation in the early to mid-19th century. You will first want to borrow the microfilm that contains the grantor and grantee indexes and search each of these for the surname “Robinson.” If you find relevant records, you will want to write down the book number (sometimes called liber) and page number (sometimes called folio). Using this information, you can order additional microfilm to look at original records.

Although a number of counties in Virginia lost records during the Civil War, many of the records for Middlesex County remain intact. The Library of Virginia has digitized many of the Chancery Court Records for Middlesex County, 1754-1912. This collection is searchable by surname and county, and numerous results were returned for the Robinson family in Middlesex. Some of the most useful documents you will find in this collection are disputes on the settlement of estates, since they sometimes include copies of the complete inventory of the estate, including slaves.

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You mentioned that the white Robinson family belonged to Christ Church in Middlesex County. The parish registers of this church from 1653 to 1812 have been transcribed, and a copy of this can be found online for free. These parish registers are unique because they include birth and death information for many of the slaves, including both John and Christopher Robinson. Although the records in this book are too early to contain a birth record for Corbin Robinson, it does contain many birth and death records for African Americans enslaved by the Robinsons. As you find more information about your ancestors, this book may be useful in tracing your family back further.

Although researching these types of records can be time-consuming and may not always yield relevant information, you can begin to put together a picture of the lives of the slaves owned by the Robinson family. In any one of these sources, you may find the key to your own family’s history.

If you are able to find the actual name of one of your enslaved ancestors, such as Christopher Robinson, from among his master’s legal papers described above, you will be among the fortunate ones. But more and more, with digitization of records across the country, African Americans are identifying the slaveholders who owned their ancestors, even as early as 1796.  But this requires diligent effort; this sort of research can be both time-consuming and painstaking.

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About DNA Testing

DNA testing can bolster your genealogy research efforts, although it should be done in concert with tracing the paper trail to the best of your ability. Try reaching out to descendants of the white Robinson family. It should be easy, since a Google search using the key phrase “Hon. Christopher Robinson Middlesex County” yields several results of genealogy pages posted by others researching their blood ties to him. If you find willing individuals who have proved that they are related to him, ask them to take a DNA test from one of the major companies that specialize in analyzing autosomal DNA, including Ancestry.com, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA.

If you are related to the white Robinsons, autosomal DNA can establish that fact. Good luck!

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.