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. Wikimedia Commons

It’s also useful to search the 1860 U.S. Federal Census to see if you can find a record of your ancestor Corbin Robinson. A quick search of this census collection did not return any results for him; however, we did find that there was a free African American named Gabriel Robinson who was born circa 1790 and lived in Middlesex County. The fact that we cannot find any records of Corbin before the 1870 census suggests that he was enslaved until after the Civil War.

Sources About Enslaved African Americans in Virginia

When you’re researching enslaved ancestors, it’s important to consider how your ancestors may have received their family name. As we found in a previous question, there are several ways in which enslaved African Americans received their surnames. Given that your ancestors lived so close to the plantation of the white Robinson family, it’s possible that they were once enslaved by the family and that’s how they got their surname. However, it is difficult to determine exactly how long they were owned by the Robinsons. Perhaps they were enslaved by the family until the abolition of slavery, or maybe they were sold out of the Robinson family to another owner years or decades before. A careful search of a variety of records might help you answer this question.

Because your ancestors lived close to the Hewick Plantation in Urbanna, Va., you may find more information in the administration records of the plantation or in the papers of the Robinson family. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has a collection of the Robinson Family Papers dating from 1684 to 1915. This collection contains estate papers and copies of wills that include the transfer of slaves. According to the finding online, the latest document that pertains to slaves owned by the Robinson family is the will of John Robinson from 1785. Since this is probably too early to list a record of Corbin Robinson or even Christopher Robinson, you may want to search other sources first.

In addition to searching for plantation records, you’ll also want to search for will documents for the slave-owning Robinson family, which might contain more detailed information about slaves, such as name, gender and approximate age. Indexes and complete will books from Middlesex County can be borrowed from the Family History Library and sent to a local Family History Center or affiliate library. You will first want to search the index for entries on the Robinson family.

Some additional research on the Robinson family might be useful, since you’ll want to know when the slave owners in the family died so that you can find the most useful entries in the will books. You can start by searching the 1830 and 1840 U.S. Federal Censuses, which enumerate slaves by age range, for records of the Robinson family in Middlesex County.

Information on the transfer, sale and manumission of slaves was also contained in the land records. Therefore, searching the land records of Middlesex might also provide some useful information. Microfilm of the land records of Middlesex County is available to borrow from the Family History library. Again, some research on the Robinson family will be helpful to determine who ran the plantation in the early to mid-19th century. You will first want to borrow the microfilm that contains the grantor and grantee indexes and search each of these for the surname “Robinson.” If you find relevant records, you will want to write down the book number (sometimes called liber) and page number (sometimes called folio). Using this information, you can order additional microfilm to look at original records.

Although a number of counties in Virginia lost records during the Civil War, many of the records for Middlesex County remain intact. The Library of Virginia has digitized many of the Chancery Court Records for Middlesex County, 1754-1912. This collection is searchable by surname and county, and numerous results were returned for the Robinson family in Middlesex. Some of the most useful documents you will find in this collection are disputes on the settlement of estates, since they sometimes include copies of the complete inventory of the estate, including slaves.

You mentioned that the white Robinson family belonged to Christ Church in Middlesex County. The parish registers of this church from 1653 to 1812 have been transcribed, and a copy of this can be found online for free. These parish registers are unique because they include birth and death information for many of the slaves, including both John and Christopher Robinson. Although the records in this book are too early to contain a birth record for Corbin Robinson, it does contain many birth and death records for African Americans enslaved by the Robinsons. As you find more information about your ancestors, this book may be useful in tracing your family back further.

Although researching these types of records can be time-consuming and may not always yield relevant information, you can begin to put together a picture of the lives of the slaves owned by the Robinson family. In any one of these sources, you may find the key to your own family’s history.