When Did My Ancestor Buy His Freedom?

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


So from reading these instructions, we now know that if this column was left blank, it wasn’t because the enumerator was careless or forgot; it was because the person listed on the page was likely white. In our search of the 1860 census, we did not find any person with the surname Ellis who was listed as any race other than white. As mentioned, a free black person should have been listed in the census.

Locate the Slave Owner

The next step in finding more about the life of Isom Ellis is to try to determine by whom he was enslaved. This will also be useful for confirming your family’s story that he did purchase his own freedom. In our search we found that there were quite a few Ellis families living in nearby Saratoga, as well as other surrounding towns, including Wilson and Gardner, N.C. In looking at a map, we see that Saratoga is only about five miles from Stantonsburg, and there is an Ellis Street, as well as an Archie Ellis Pond, in between. This indicates that an Ellis family may have owned land there and that perhaps there was an Ellis farm or plantation in this area.

As you continue to research your ancestors, keep in mind that the names of geographic locations can change and that new counties were formed over time, especially in the Southern states. For example, the 1870 census record for Isom Ellis and his family shows that they were living in Stantonsburg in Wilson County. When Stantonsburg was first incorporated in 1817, it was a part of nearby Edgecombe County, since Wilson County was not created until 1855. Given this, you’ll also want to search for records of the Ellis family in Edgecombe County before 1855.

Using this information, we then searched the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules to see if perhaps Isom and Patience were enslaved by the Ellis family. Since we found there were Ellis families living in nearby Saratoga in Wilson County, we first focused our search there. We found that there were four heads of households with the Ellis surname who owned slaves.

Keeping in mind that Isom would have been about 57 years old in 1860, we then looked at the entries for each family. We found that Penelope Ellis owned 19 slaves. The oldest was a 75-year-old female, but there was no entry for a man who was the right age to be Isom. Robert A. Ellis owned five slaves, with the oldest being a 50-year-old man. Hickman Ellis owned 23 slaves, including a 55-year-old male who was listed as black and a 55-year-old female who was listed as mulatto. William C. Ellis owned 13 slaves, but the oldest male was only 29 years old.

The entry for Hickman Ellis is the most interesting because he had a male and a female slave who were around the same age as Isom and Patience Ellis. We suggest continuing your research by searching the 1850 Slave Schedule for records of Hickman Ellis and other families with the Ellis surname who owned slaves.

However, before you look further into Hickman Ellis, it might be useful to learn more about the Ellis family and their history in the areas of Saratoga and Stantonsburg, N.C. Because Isom Ellis was born shortly after 1800, we first searched the 1800 census in Edgecombe County, N.C., to see if there were any slaveholders with the surname Ellis. These households had the most slaves: John Ellis Sr. owned 27 slaves, and William Ellis Sr. owned 13 slaves.

We then searched to see if we could find a will or probate document for John or William Ellis in Edgecombe County. We did not see a will for John Ellis, but we did see that William Ellis left a will that was proved (meaning that he died and it was presented to the probate court) in 1813. In William Ellis’ will, he listed several slaves he left to both his wife and his children. The most interesting part is that when he listed the slaves he left to his wife, he listed them by name. Remarkably, he wrote, “I leave unto my said wife Unity Ellis, the following negroes, To wit, Arthur, Jonas, Isom, Belford, Listle, Pat, Minah, and Tesary & Hester.”

From this record alone, we can’t definitively determine whether or not this is a record of your ancestor, but it is likely that this is your forebear. Your fourth great-grandfather, Isom, would have been only 10 or 11 years old in 1813, but the fact that there was an Isom Ellis who was a part of the estate of William Ellis, and who lived near what is today a part of Wilson County, presents a significant lead for your research.