I'm White. Did My Ancestors Own Slaves?

Tracing Your Roots: A white family receives an invite to a black family reunion, leaving questions.

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If they did not live in one of the 15 slave states or few slave territories in the 1850s and 1860s, they probably did not own large numbers of slaves. Texas had been a slave state since it was brought into the United States in 1845, but Mr. Ellzey's family may not have originally been from Texas. However, if the family can be traced back even further, perhaps they owned slaves before earlier abolition laws were passed.

Other than the slave schedules, you can search probate, land and tax records to see if Mr. Ellzey's ancestors owned slaves. Unlike ancestors of those enslaved, you will be able to search the indexes and records directly for the Ellzey ancestors in question. Once you have found them, your goal will be to see if they owned, bought, sold or freed any human property. For more information about what probate and land records can tell you, refer to this previous Tracing Your Roots article.

As an example concerning tax records, take the first slave owner listed from the 1850 slave schedule. Through the Mississippi State Archives, you can go through a variety of digitized tax rolls for Pike County in search of William Ellzey and his family members. Many other states kept similar tax rolls that are available to researchers.

In some years, these tax rolls included the number of free and enslaved residents on the property of the person being taxed. In other tax lists, the value of the human property may be tallied. Going through different years of tax rolls can show when an owner gained or lost property of all kinds.

If you do find a connection to an Ellzey slave owner, you may be inclined to determine whether the Ellzey family sending your grandmother invitations was also descended from this line. Perhaps that Ellzey family has a DNA project or at least had members of the family submit their samples through specific companies. You could then have a known relative of your grandmother's husband compare his DNA.

If the DNA samples have enough similarities, it would indicate that both Mr. Ellzey and the Ellzey family from the reunions had common ancestors. Contacting members of this Ellzey family could lead to a great exchange of information about those ancestors.

Another way to approach this is through an analysis of your own autosomal DNA to determine if you are related either to descendants from any of these white Ellzey families or to the black Ellzeys! So we encourage you to take a DNA test from one of the reputable companies offering autosomal analysis, such as 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA or AncestryDNA.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Kyle Hurst, a researcher from 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.