My Sis Is Famous and I Need Genealogy Help

Tracing Your Roots: The sister of a movie legend seeks to find forebears and answers to puzzling DNA results.

Poster from the film Foxy Brown
Poster from the film Foxy Brown American International Films

Dear Professor Gates:

My name is Jennifer Grier Fairweather. Yes, the actress Pam Grier is my half-sister through our father, Clarence Ransom Grier Jr. I am trying to trace my ancestry on the Grier side. I have made a lot of progress, but I begin to get stuck when I go past my second-great-grandparents Dock and Martha Jane Grier, who were born in 1874 and 1879, respectively. As you can see from the family trees I am sending you, both of them have ancestry with the surname Grier. I’d like to trace the Griers back as far as I can before the end of slavery.

Dock’s parents were Thomas Grier and Susan Neel (sometimes Neely), but I don’t know who Thomas Grier’s parents were. Martha Jane’s parents were Maurice Grier and Mollie, born in 1857 and 1859, respectively. Maurice’s parents might have been John Grier and Lucinda “Lucy” Dunn, both born in 1816, but I have not confirmed that.

On Martha Jane Grier’s side, her parents were Maurice Grier and Mollie (Grier). I have no additional info on Mollie. I haven’t been able to find vital records to determine the parents of Thomas Grier and Susan Neel or John Grier and Lucy Dunn. A relative of mine thought Thomas’ father was also named Thomas, but I am not finding this. It is also interesting—which my dad knew—that his grandparents both came from “Griers.”

Also, my DNA test shows 2 percent Asian DNA and traces of Native American ancestry. I wonder where the Asian DNA may have come from. Were these possible trade routes into Africa or into Europe? Jennifer Grier Fairweather

The detailed family tree that you sent us demonstrates that you have done an excellent job of documenting the family to date. This helped us quickly locate a promising avenue of research into the ancestry of the Grier family.

You have both vital records and census records that provide you with Dock and Martha Jane Grier’s parents, and even some that provide their grandparents’ names. Unfortunately, you may not be able to locate any vital records for before the end of slavery, but there are many other sources that may reveal information about your family.

Pick Up the Trail With Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Since your family was living in North Carolina, one source that may prove helpful in your search is the collection of North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Assistant Commissioner Records, 1862-1870, available to view online through the Family History Library. These records are the product of the establishment of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) in 1865 after the American Civil War. The collection includes applications, labor contracts, account books and employment records. You may also be able to locate information regarding the legalization of marriages, court records and claims, and records pertaining to property and homesteads. There is both a search option and a browse option for this collection, and both may prove helpful.

If you search the Freedmen’s Bureau records for the surname Grier, the results produce a number of documents for a Thomas J. Grier of Charlotte in Mecklenburg County, N.C., mostly dated 1866 and concerning military service. Your Thomas Grier (father of Dock A. Grier) was born around 1850, so he likely was too young to have been the Thomas in these records. However, since we know this is a county where your Grier family resided, it seems probable that these are documents for a relative or someone associated with your Grier family, such as a slave owner.

Now What: Is Thomas J. Grier a Promising Lead?

The documents can also provide more clues about where to look for information. For example, one registered letter in the collection explains that Thomas J. Grier, Esq. entered into a written contract with Sam, a freedman, who was formerly the property of the Rev. P. Nicholson, to work Grier’s plantation. A number of other documents that appear in the search also concern a breach of contract between Thomas J. Grier and Sam Nicholson. The document also states that Thomas J. Grier was 81 years old, placing his birth around 1785.

From this you can determine that Thomas J. Grier was a white plantation owner in Charlotte in Mecklenburg County, N.C. Based on the location of your Grier family and their surname, it is likely that your ancestors resided on or near Thomas J. Grier’s plantation.

Examining all the documents relating to this case in the Freedmen’s Bureau records may reveal even more evidence of your ancestors’ connection to Thomas J. Grier. For example, the letter of testimony by Sam Nicholson also describes the day Thomas J. Grier dismissed Sam Nicholson. In recalling the argument between the two men, Nicholson explains that “Mr. Neal” was called over to witness Sam Nicholson leave.

You know that your Thomas Grier married Susan Neel; perhaps this is a variation of the same name. This indicates that there was a Neal or Neel who was either also working the plantation or living nearby. This all suggests that Charlotte is the location to look for your Grier ancestors prior to the end of slavery.