“Free women of color with their children and servants in a landscape” by Agostino Brunias
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

On the 1850 and 1860 censuses in Cypress Creek, Jones County, N.C., my ancestor William Dove/Duff appears in the household of the Brocks, who were wealthy slave owners before the Civil War. In 1850 he was about 20-25; in 1860 he was 30-35 years of age. He shows up on the census in 1870 with his wife and several children.

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The Dove family is believed to be of East Indian descent. They are mentioned in Paul Heinegg’s history Free African Americans as pre-Britain or East India. They originated from Anne Arundel County, Md., and were relocated to Craven County, N.C. I’ve been trying to locate and link my William Dove to the free Dove family in neighboring Craven County. Please help! —Alexis

It turns out the condition of the free Dove family was not an anomaly in their region of North Carolina. 

Free People of Color in North Carolina

We checked the University of Virginia Library Historical Census Browser to find that the 1860 census recorded 992,622 people in North Carolina, of which 331,059 were enslaved and 30,463 in the state were free people of color (making up 8 percent of African-descended people). By comparison, Craven County had 6,189 enslaved and 1,332 free people of color, making the latter population close to 18 percent of African-descended people.

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In an excerpt from “The Free Colored People of North Carolina,” in The Southern Workman, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1902) by the renowned writer Charles W. Chesnutt, he theorized that the relatively high proportion of free people of color along the state’s Eastern Seaboard was due to “a somewhat mild character” of 18th-century slavery in the state, which typically involved small farms where slaves worked side by side with their masters. As well, he said, the “Scotch-Irish Presbyterian strain in the white people of North Carolina brought with it a fierce love of liberty. … and while this love of liberty was reconciled with slavery, the mere prejudice against race had not yet excluded all persons of Negro blood from its benign influence.” He also described “a considerable Quaker element in the population, whose influence was cast against slavery, not in any fierce polemical spirit, but in such a way as to soften its rigors and promote gradual emancipation.”

As a result, he said, “The mildness of slavery, which fostered kindly feelings between master and slave, often led to voluntary manumission.” Blood ties with whites may have contributed to this, he suggested, noting that “many of them, perhaps most of them, were as we have seen, persons of mixed blood, and received, with their dower of white blood, an intellectual and physical heritage of which social prejudice could not entirely rob them, and which helped them to prosperity in certain walks of life.”

Chestnutt’s perspective was undoubtedly influenced by his own origins as the successful son of free people of color from North Carolina, and the notion of “mild” slavery may sound naive by today’s standards.

For a somewhat more recent account of the topic, we suggest that you pick up the historian John Hope Franklin's classic 1943 text, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860. It describes the very real limits placed by the state on free people of color, 

and the difficulties they had maintaining their freedom. As we see below, the free Dove family had struggles of their own.

The Free Dove Family

According to Heinegg’s history, which you have cited, the Dove family came from Anne Arundel County, Md., to Craven County, N.C., through Mary Dove, a “Negro woman” born circa 1710 who actually sued her Maryland master for her freedom. Heinegg quotes court testimony in a later suit for freedom by one of Mary Dove’s grandsons that Mary’s own grandmother was “a Yellow Woman and had long black hair, but this deponent does not know whether she was reputed to be an East Indian or a Madagascarian, but she has understood that she was called in the family Malaga Moll.”

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As to whether you may have a trace of that Malagasy heritage, we refer you to a previous column on The Root by Professor Gates and Zachary Garceau, “Tracing Slaves Brought From Madagascar to Va.” In it, genetic genealogist CeCe Moore says there is no specific DNA test to tell you if you have ancestors from Madagascar (an island nation off the coast of Southeast Africa in the Indian Ocean), but she does relay advice for exploring the connection. We suggest that you check out the article.

Connecting Families by Working Backward

Meanwhile, there are two methods you’ll want to use to see if you can make a connection between your William Dove and Mary Dove. You will want to work backward from your known ancestor, William Dove, to see if you can identify his parents or other relatives, and you’ll also want to conduct further research into Mary Dove to determine how her line moves forward. Researching in both directions may help you identify a person that is connected to both people, proving your connection.

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You located William Dove in both 1850 and 1860 in the households of the Brock family, which owned a number of slaves. From an examination of these records, it is clear that your William Dove was a free man and not a slave. William was recorded by name in both the <1850 U.S. census and in the 1860 census. In both of those years, there was a separate census for slaves called the slave schedules, and a slave would not be recorded by name in the federal census this way, meaning that William Dove was a free man prior to emancipation. His occupation in the 1860 federal census was recorded as a cooper, meaning that he was trained in a trade and could have been in the employ of the Brock family, since he is recorded in their household in both census records. You can also gather from the records that William was born about 1825-1830, which may help you identify him in other records.

Since William Dove was a free man at a young age in both the census records, it seems probable that he was born free. The 1840 U.S. census only records the name of the head of the household and then the number of individuals in the household between certain age brackets. William would have been too young to have been recorded as the head of household in 1840, but it is possible that his father was recorded if he, too, were a free man.

We searched the 1840 census for anyone with the surname Dove residing in Jones County, N.C., and discovered a number of households with free persons of color recorded in Craven County, N.C. This happens to be the same county where Leonard Thomas moved Mary Dove and her family, according to Paul Heinegg’s work, Free African Americans.

Craven County, N.C., and Jones County, N.C., border each other. Based on our search, the only people with the surname Dove in 1840 in the area around Jones County were people of color living in Craven County, making it extremely likely that your William Dove is connected to these individuals. Your William Dove would have been between 10 and 15 years old during the enumeration of this census, based on his age in other records, so you could search for a household with a male in that age bracket to find a potential match. We noted a William Dove, a Jacob Dove and an Isaac Dove all residing at the South Side Neuse River, Craven County, as well as a Lemuel Dove and a James Dove residing at Newbern, Craven County, that all had males between the ages of 10 and 23 in their households that could be your William Dove.

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It may seem logical that the William Dove we located could be your William Dove’s father, since they share the same name. However, it also seems likely that all of these individuals are closely related, so do not assume that your William is the son of the William Dove in Craven County just because they share a name since he could have also been named for an uncle, cousin or grandfather. The Dove men we located in Craven County in 1840 all had males in their household the right age to be your William Dove, so to see if any of those children could have been your William Dove, we looked for the Dove men of Craven County in 1850.

We know that your William Dove was living in the Brock household that year and therefore would not be in his father's household. We searched for the households of the Dove family in the 1850 U.S. census and discovered that Jacob and Isaac Dove both had sons named William recorded in that census, so they could not be the father of your William Dove. However, William Dove of Craven County did not have a male in his household in 1850, meaning that the young male recorded in his household in 1840 was no longer living with him. This could mean that your William Dove belongs to the William Dove of Craven County who was born about 1780, and that he moved in with the Brock family between 1840 and 1850.

According to Paul Heinegg, the Dove family owned land by 1775, so you will want to search land, probate and court records in this county to see if you can locate any records for the Dove family that may include relationships of family members. We located a land division in probate records for Craven County for the estate of an Isaac Dove in 1826. According to this record, the parties involved in the land division were Anthony Brown, Jacob Dove and William Dove. Their relationships are not recorded, but the papers related to Isaac’s estate claim that his heirs were William Dove; Jacob Dove; George Carter and his wife, Susan; Gambo Fenner and his wife, Debby; and Stephen Godett and his wife, Mary. This suggests that William Dove (the possible father of your William Dove), Jacob Dove, Susan Carter, Debby Fenner and Mary Godett were all children of Isaac Dove, and each of them received a partition of his land upon his decease.

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We also located probate papers for William Dove in Craven County, dated December 1850 (on Ancestry.com; subscription required), which state that William’s wife was Rebecca. This is a match for the William Dove we located in the 1850 census record (the possible father) and suggests that he died around the time that your William Dove appeared in the Brock household. Perhaps the younger William Dove sought out work or training in a trade outside of his household once he reached adulthood, which is how he came to be in the Brock household.

What About the Brock Family?

Based on what we located, it seems highly probable that your William Dove is connected to the Dove family of Craven County; however, to make this leap we would suggest also looking at the Brock family. First, check the possibility that William Dove was living with the Brocks in 1840, which would indicate that he could not have been in one of the Dove households at that time. We located three Brock households in Jones County in 1840. While they all did own slaves that would fit William Dove’s description at that time, they did not have any free people of color in their households. So, either William Dove was not in any of the Brock households in 1840 or he was a slave at this time and was later freed by 1850.

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If that is the case, you’ll want to examine probate, deed and account records for the Brock family between 1840 and 1850 to see if you can find evidence of a manumission. These records may also contain information on an apprenticeship or work agreement between William Dove and the Brock family. An abstraction, Slaves in Jones County Wills, does not include any mention of the Brock or Dove families, but this does not mean that papers aside from the wills, such as accounts or inventories, do not include information on the slaves held by the Brock family. You can search for additional papers on FamilySearch in its collection of North Carolina Probate Records. It would also be worth searching land records in Craven County and Jones County for transactions of the Brock and Dove families, since these may contain more clues. 

FamilySearch also has a collection on microfilm that may be helpful to your search, titled Craven County, North Carolina, Pre-Civil War Slave Related Papers, Including Petitions for Freedom, 1775-1861. You will have to visit your local Family History Center to view it, but the papers may include more information on the connections between members of the Dove family.

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior 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 about researching African-American roots.