Were My Enslaved Ancestors Originally From Ethiopia?

Tracing Your Roots: Old family records identify Southern forebears as “Ethiopian.” How is this possible?

Enslaved Abyssinian resting at Korti, Nubia
Enslaved Abyssinian resting at Korti, Nubia David Roberts, Egypt & Nubia, 1846-1849, New York Public Library

Dear Professor Gates:

We have traced our roots back to our great-great-great-great-grandfather Lar Henry Green (aka Henry G). According to family legend, he was a slave in France or Portugal, and when he arrived in the U.S., he married a 15-year-old Ethiopian girl. Lar Henry was born in July 1831 and died March 31, 1905, in Ladonia, Texas. According to recent research we have done, his wife was Jenny (Jennie/Jensy/Jensie/Jane) Trout-Green. She was born in 1856, but we don’t know her date of death.

Lar Henry gave all his children, girls included, the first name “Lar.” We guess that was a tradition from whatever country he came from. One of those children was Lar Zinnerman Green, whose daughter, Melissa (Green) Lacy, was the mother of my own grandmother Thelma Lacy.

We have tried for years to determine what country Lar Henry came from, as well as whether Jenny was truly Ethiopian. Interestingly, the World War I military-enlistment record of Grandmother Thelma’s father, John William (aka William) Lacy, lists him as Ethiopian. This is despite the fact that he was related to the Green family by marriage, not by blood.

People tell us there were no Ethiopian slaves, but I always counter with, “How do you know? Were you there?” Can you help us settle these questions? —Daniel D. Hardman

Discovering the origins of Lar Henry Green and Jenny Trout-Green starts with gathering as much information as you can about them here in the United States. Census records in particular can be helpful in determining when and where individuals were born.

Where Were Lar Henry and Jenny Born?

Your family legend tells you that Lar Henry was a slave in France or Portugal and that his wife, Jenny (Jennie/Jensy/Jensie/Jane) Trout-Green, was Ethiopian. Starting with census records for the family will also provide you with information about the birthplaces of their children, which will give you an idea of where they were living at various points in their lives, indicating where you should look for more records.

It is important to note that census records are not always accurate, since information recorded could have been told incorrectly to the census taker or could have been written incorrectly. With this in mind, census records can be powerful tools if you read them fully, since they provide clues about where to find more records on the individuals included. It is possible that the records will state that your ancestors were born in France, Portugal or Ethiopia, as your family legends claim, but you should be prepared to find out that these stories relate to earlier generations.

It is fortunate that Lar Henry lived long enough to be recorded in the 1900 federal census, since the census that year recorded the birthplace of each individual as well as the birthplaces for both parents. Since we know that Lar Henry died in 1905 in Ladonia, Texas, this census is a good place to look for information on the family. You can access the 1900 census for free through FamilySearch. If you search for Henry G. Green living in Ladonia, Texas, you’ll locate a record for Henry G. Green; his wife, Jensy; and 10 of their children living in Justice Precinct 4, Fannin, Texas.