2 Families: 1 Black, 1 White. Have I Found the Link?

Tracing Your Roots: A historical record of a black Virginian born in 1796 could hold the key.

Hewick House in Middlesex County, Va.
Hewick House in Middlesex County, Va. Wikimedia Commons

“I have been tracing my roots on my mother’s side for a number of years. They hail from Middlesex County, Va., home of the senior Honorable Christopher Robinson. Robinson (1645-1693) came to Virginia and settled in Middlesex County, where he established the Hewick Plantation. He also fathered a family of prominent Virginians, and some of his descendants bore the name ‘Christopher Robinson’ as well, including his grandson (1703-1738). Christ Church Parish records list him and his family members. At least four are buried in the church cemetery.

“Until the year 1796, all of the Robinsons in the immediate area were white, particularly in Middlesex. However, in 1796 a Christopher Robinson was born and listed as black. There is no record of who his parents were.

“My great-great-great-grandfather was Corbin Robinson, born in 1833 in Middlesex County. My grandmother was born to Thomas and Mary Ellen Robinson, also in Middlesex County. I visited Middlesex County in September 2012, the home of my mother’s first cousin, and saw a photo of Thomas Robinson hanging on her living wall. He appeared to be mixed-race.

“How should I connect the dots and find the parents of Christopher Robinson (the one who was born in 1796)? Is DNA the best means to solve the puzzle?” —Selma Copper

Your question is a good example of how traditional genealogy sources, such as census records, cemetery transcriptions and vital records, can be lacking in information about African-American families. This is especially true for Southern states, where slave labor was a large part of their economy. Although records of them may be lacking, there were still many African-American families living in Middlesex County, Va., from as early as its first settlement, most working in the plantations.

One of the best sources for African-American genealogy research is the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. Because this was the first federal census taken after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, it contains more detailed information about African Americans than previous censuses. For your ancestors, we found that Corbin Robinson was living in the town of Pine Top in Middlesex County with his wife and their four young children.

In 1870 there were six other African-American families with the surname “Robinson” living in Pine Top. The oldest head of household was Christopher Robinson, born circa 1795. While it is possible that all of these Robinson families were related, it is also possible that they themselves, or their ancestors, were once enslaved by the white Robinson family. Interestingly, the town of Pine Top is only 12 miles southeast of the Hewick Plantation.

Were Your Ancestors Enslaved or Free Before the Civil War?

To continue tracing your ancestry back before 1870, it is useful to determine whether or not your forebears were freed from slavery before the Civil War. This is helpful because the sets of records kept for enslaved families might be different from those for people who were emancipated earlier. For example, if members of your family were granted their freedom before the Civil War, there may be records of them in tax lists or land records.

The book Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware is a compilation of records of free African Americans in these five states. The collection includes a list of African Americans who paid personal-property tax in Middlesex County from 1782 to 1819, but there isn’t any record of a Robinson family. There is also the “Registers of Free Negroes and Mulattoes for the County of Middlesex, 1800-1862,” which provides information, such as name, whether born free or into slavery and, occasionally, emancipation information. These records are available on microfilm, which can either be borrowed from the Family History Library or used at the Library of Virginia.