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Is Family Legend About a Slave Ship True?

Tracing Your Roots: Advice for verifying a story of courage passed down through the generations.

(Continued from Page 2)

According to the recollections of Capt. A.C. McGhee, a shareholder in The Wanderer, the vessel made a second trip to Africa to take on 750 slaves. This time, The Wanderer ran aground in Jekyll Creek during a storm, and a number of the slaves drowned. Apparently this account was given to the New York Sun in 1894 or 1895 and related in John R. Spears' The American Slave Trade in 1900. However, there weren't any newspaper accounts or records of this sort of event following the 1858 journey. Only various attempts to visit Havana were reported in the first half of 1859.

In the latter months of 1859, The Wanderer was stolen (though that may have been faked) and sailed again toward Africa. However, although accounts claim that the man captaining her intended to collect 700 Africans, the ship only obtained two Portuguese women from Flores in the Azores. It returned and landed in Boston on Dec. 24, 1859. From that point, it would not have had the chance to return to Africa. Considering the similarity in the numbers of Africans being discussed, it seems very likely that Capt. McGhee was confusing the debacle of the stolen vessel with a full journey.

It is unlikely that the crew would have deliberately thrown what they surely considered to be valuable slaves overboard, regardless of being caught. If the drowning or swimming to land part of story was true, it may have been that the ship was damaged rather than that people were intentionally ejected to evade the authorities. Even without human cargo on board, the authorities would be able to find evidence that the crew was guilty of having transported slaves. The ship would still be outfitted as a slaver, and the typically deplorable sanitation conditions on such a vessel alone would indicate that humans had been carried as cargo. The Wanderer quickly unloaded its passengers on Jekyll Island before moving to Brunswick, Glynn County, to be made over and thoroughly cleaned in an attempt to hide its transgression.

What all this means for your family legend is that it is entirely possible that your ancestor(s) had been smuggled into the Georgia islands on The Wanderer in late 1858. Since you are willing to put in the effort, you should be able to make great headway in confirming this legend considering the available resources.

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.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with researchers 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.