When Did My Ancestor Buy His Freedom?

Tracing Your Roots: Advice for finding out how an enslaved ancestor was able to beat the odds.


Dear Professor Gates:

Family legend says that my great-great-great-great-grandfather Isom Ellis was a free man of color who bought his freedom and later that of his wife, Patience Bynum. I’d love to know more about him. He was born in 1802 in Wilson County, N.C. I believe he had a son named Robert. —Kevin J. Hagan Jr.

Your family legend describes a scenario that was far more common than many people realize. As reported in a 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column at The Root, the 488,070 free black people living in the U.S. in 1860 made up 10 percent of the total black population. North Carolina had the third-largest free black population (30,463) in the South, after Maryland with 83,942 and Virginia with 58,042. So the chances that your family story is true are certainly consistent with what we know about the relatively large number of free people of color in North Carolina.

Start With Census Records

A great first place to start researching your ancestor and verifying your family’s story is census records. This is because all free persons, regardless of race, were enumerated in these census returns. One exception was Native Americans, since they were not taxed by the federal government, but freed African Americans were included in the standard census returns as early as the first census taken in 1790.

In a broad search of all federal census returns for Isom Ellis, the first record we find of him and his family is in the 1870 census. This is perhaps one of the most important census years for those researching African-American ancestry, since this was the first year to list all African Americans by name, along with their ages and places of birth.

In the record for Isom Ellis and his family, we see that he was living in the town of Stantonsburg in Wilson County. He was born in approximately 1803 in North Carolina. He was living with his wife, 62-year-old Patience Ellis, as well as an 18-year-old boy named Jacob Ellis. There was also the family of 47-year-old Amos Ellis living next door, who may have been a relative.

We then continued to work backward by searching the 1860 census for any records of Isom Ellis or his family. Our initial search did not return any results for Isom. This is significant; we’ll elaborate on why later on.

We then broadened our search by using the advanced options to look for anyone with the surname Ellis who lived in Wilson County. The 1860 census returns did record a person’s race; however, you cannot narrow your search results by race on either Ancestry.com or FamilySearch, so you will have to look at each individual record to determine the person’s race. The instructions for the enumerators of the 1860 census (pdf) gave the following information:

Under heading 6, entitled “Color,” in all cases where the person is white leave the space blank; in all cases where the person is black without admixture insert the letter “B;” if a mulatto, or of mixed blood, write “M;” if an Indian write “Ind.” It is very desirable to have these instructions carefully observed.