Help Me Trace the 3 Enslaved ‘Wives’ of William Dawkins

Tracing Your Roots: A church stands on land bought by the “widows” of a slave owner, and a descendant seeks answers.

Original Paradise AME Church building, before 1965
Original Paradise AME Church building, before 1965 Courtesy of E. Giddings Ivory

Dear Professor Gates:

How can one find the place where one’s ancestors originated when the names of locations change over time? 

My family oral history indicates that William Dawkins (1790-1872), who died in Union County, S.C., went from his plantation in Fish Dam, S.C., to a place called Maddox/Mattox in Virginia and brought back four enslaved women. Dawkins, who was from a large family, never married, but he had about 23 children with three of these women, who were his “wives,” beginning first with Katy/Kate (born in 1802), then Milley (born in 1805) and Rosetta (born in 1805). The descendants of these women still meet annually and will have the 88th family reunion at the end of July in Chicago.

William Dawkins left property to them. It was challenged, through delay, by his nephew Spencer Morgan Dawkins. The judge found in favor of two of the women, and they took possession of the property, in Carlisle, S.C., where they built the Paradise AME Church at the center.

All of that we know, but we are trying to find where Maddox/Mattox could have been. Could this have been Appomattox or Maddox Creek? Could it have been a family plantation in Virginia or West Virginia named Maddox? How do I find where the women came from and any records connected with the origins and early family history of Katy/Kate, Milley and Rosetta? Were they born in Virginia, as the 1870 census indicates, or were they born in Africa?

William Dawkins is this family’s slave master, as well as my third great-grandfather, since I am a descendant of Katy/Kate. —Elenora Giddings Ivory

You learned from family tradition that these three enslaved woman who had children with William Dawkins came from a place called Maddox or Mattox, Va. However, when we look at a map of Virginia today, we don’t see a place with either name.

Over time, the names of places can change, and this can make researching African-American ancestors before the Civil War even more challenging. There are two ways you can approach the problem of finding these women’s origins in Virginia and more information about their lives before they moved to Dawkins’ property in South Carolina. It’s a good idea to work backward as you do.

Records of the Dawkins Family in South Carolina

First, find as much information as you can about the women and their families in Union County, S.C., where they ended up. The records you pull up may give you some clues about their places of birth and when they became enslaved by William Dawkins.