Since you already have Travis’ death date, looking for a death record or an obituary is a good place to start. We first found a burial record for Travis H. Howard, which shows that he was born on Jan. 15, 1896. Even though the book Elston and Me lists his birth date a few years later, since the name, death date and place match, this is probably a record of Elston’s father. This is a good example of how memoirs and other published sources can have some information that isn’t always correct, so it’s best to check everything using primary sources.
Now that you have a birth date for Travis, you can begin to search census records to see if you can find him living with his parents. The 1900 U.S. census is a great place to start because he would have been about 3 to 4 years old, and this is the only census year that lists a month of birth in addition to the year. We found one census record for a Travis Howard, who was born in January of 1896 in Mississippi, and his race was listed as black. He was living in Panola County, Miss., with his parents, Frank and Frances Howard. Frank was born in Mississippi in May of 1869 and worked as a farmer. This doesn’t quite fit the story that Travis Howard was from a well-off family from Tennessee, but since the date of birth matches, it’s worth looking into this family.
The 1920 U.S. census record for the family shows that they were still living in Panola County. Elston’s father was working as a farm laborer, but he also attended school at the age of 26, meaning that he did have some higher education. By 1930 the family had moved to Memphis in Shelby County, Miss., where Franklin P. Howard worked as a Protestant preacher. Travis was not living with the family at this time, which further supports the story that he was teaching in Sikeston, Mo. Now that you know more about Elston’s family, you can then compare it with the records you have found for your family.
Seek Connections to Your Own Howard Family
If your uncle was a first cousin of Elston Howard, your great-grandfather should also be Frank P. Howard of Mississippi. From the information you shared with us, however, we see that your great-grandfather is actually Charlie Howard, who was born in 1892 in Louisiana. So your uncle was probably not a first cousin of Elston; however, it’s possible that the relationship was a more distant one.
To find this out, you will want to continue to trace both families back further to see if you can find the common ancestor, or at least a time and a place where these two Howard families were living near each other. We found that Elston’s father was actually from Mississippi, which is closer to your ancestors in Louisiana than St. Louis, where Elston was born.
According to additional information that you sent us, the furthest back you can trace your Howard ancestry is your second great-grandfather, Henry Howard, who was born in February of 1864 in Louisiana. You told us you have heard that your family lived mostly in Butler and Mineral, La., both of which were in the DeSoto Parish.
Because Henry Howard would have been young at the time of the enumeration of the 1870 census, it would be useful to try to find a record of him in that census year. We found one potential record, which shows 5-year-old Henry Howard living with 42-year-old Jessie Howard, born in Africa, and 24-year-old Norah Howard, born in Louisiana. Although this census record does not explicitly list the relationship of these people, records in this year typically list the father first, then the mother, followed by the children (but don’t assume this is always the case).
We also found an 1880 U.S. census record for this family, still living in DeSoto Parish, but some of the information is different from what was listed on the 1870 census. For example, Norah’s place of birth was listed as Alabama, and Henry was listed as 18 years old instead of 15.
Next you’ll want to try to verify in the 1870 and 1880 U.S. census returns that this is your great-grandfather. To do this, you will want to see if there are any connections to his siblings. For example, did they also move to nearby Natchitoches Parish, La.? Also, since Henry Howard died in 1925, it’s possible that there is a death record for him at the Louisiana Archives. You can first search the online index and then use this information to order a copy of the original record.
Death records can list the parents’ names and occasionally their places of birth. If you can confirm that your third great-grandfather was born in Africa, it seems even less likely that you are related to Elston Howard, unless you can find a branch of the family that moved to Mississippi. If you find that your ancestor is probably not the same Henry Howard of DeSoto Parish, keep searching the 1870 census for other possible records of your ancestor.
Consider DNA Testing
Tracing the ancestry of the two Howard families becomes increasingly difficult as your research enters the pre-Civil War era. Given this, you may also want to consider taking a Y-DNA test to find more information about your paternal ancestors. You can also contact a male descendant of Elston Howard (he had a son named Elston Jr.), or a male descendant of Elston’s father or grandfather, to see if they would be willing to take a Y-DNA test as well. FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.com both offer a Y-DNA test.
Additionally, you could have autosomal DNA testing done to show if you and a direct descendant of Elston Howard share long segments of identical DNA, which would indicate that you share an ancestor in the recent genetic past. FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry.com and 23andMe all offer this test, too.
As you can see, a lot of time and research is needed to definitively prove or disprove family legend. By using primary sources, documenting each generation and taking DNA tests, you may be able to find out whether there is a connection between these two Howard families.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.