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

We started our search for Henry Green and Jenny Trout in the Texas, County Marriage Index 1837-1977, available on Family Search, but did not locate a record. However, if you search just for Henry Green in 1872, you’ll find a reference to the marriage of Henry Green and Jinsey Quisinbury on March 16, 1872. Based on the births of Henry and Jinsey’s children starting in 1873 in Texas, and the information in the 1900 census about their marriage in 1872, this appears to be the marriage record for your ancestors (unless this was Jinsey’s second marriage). Obtaining a copy of this marriage document might provide additional information, such as their age at the time of marriage and whether either had been married before.

This marriage document provides a different surname for Jinsey than the one you submitted, which may aid you in further searches. Based on the places of birth provided in the 1900 census for Jensy in Arkansas and her parents in both Missouri and Tennessee, you could search the 1870 census for the Quisinbury name in these three locations and see if you locate anything that looks like it may be Jensy’s family. Since the 1870 census is after the end of slavery but before her marriage date in 1872, you might be able to locate her in the household of a relative.

You could also search those three states for the Quisinbury name in the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules. Often, slaves took the surname of their former owner, so you may be able to locate a record for a household where Jensy may have lived prior to the end of slavery. Because the slave schedules usually listed only the gender and age of a slave under the name of the slave owner, we would suggest searching for a female born about 1856 with the surname Quisinbury. When we performed this search, we located a William Quosinbury living in Fayetteville, Washington, Ark., with a 5-year-old mulatto girl in his household. This could be a record for your Jensy Quisinbury.

Looking for probate or land records for William Quosinbury may reveal more about his slaves so that you can determine the possibility that this is a record for your ancestor. You may also want to contact the Arkansas chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society to see if it can provide any help in locating records for Jensy. You can perform a similar search for the surname Green in Georgia to see if you can locate a likely record for Lar Henry Green.

So Where Did the Ethiopian Legend Come From?

Based on family legend, Jensy was Ethiopian, as was your ancestor John William Lacy.

Slavery existed in Ethiopia for centuries as a part of Afro-Asiatic society, but the slaves were not directly a part of the slave trade to America. In fact, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, no slaves came to the U.S. from Ethiopian directly across the Atlantic. Given the distance between Ethiopian and Africa’s west coast, from where the majority of people were taken for the transatlantic trade, that stands to reason.

Could your ancestor have hailed from Ethiopia anyway? As the historian David Eltis told us, “Most transatlantic slave vessels from southeast Africa sold their captives to Brazil and Cuba—mainly in the 19th century—but we do have about 2,000 [slaves] from this region coming into Charleston and New Orleans between 1804 and 1808. However, their slave vessels sailed from Mozambique Island or, in one case, Zanzibar. In the latter instance, an Ethiopian [or several] may have been on board, but the direction of the Indian Ocean trade was usually from south to north [to supply Arab markets] or to the Mascarene Islands.”

Additionally, Neil A. Frankel noted in his resource on the Atlantic slave trade that slaves from the east side of Africa were often brought to Portuguese-controlled Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, citing Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. It is possible that this is where both stories—that Jensy was Ethiopian and that Lar Henry Green was a slave in Portugal—originated.

However, it’s important to remember that “Ethiopia” was one of Europe’s blanket names for any place in sub-Saharan Africa (“Guinea” and “Sudan” were two other blanket names), and as Eltis pointed out to us, for centuries the term “Ethiopian” was used simply to denote dark skin. Also, as the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood told us, the state of California listed African Americans as “Ethiopian” on birth certificates as recently as the 1950s. (The historians also checked the name “Lar” to see if it is in Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia, but it does not appear to be.)