Did My Slave Ancestor Really Trek Across the South?

Tracing Your Roots: A family legend points to a 125-mile journey and a new name for a former slave.

Map of North Carolina Thinkstock

Another way to find information about Jesse James would be to research his children—namely their vital records, marriage records and census records—to trace their lives. Upon a brief search, we found the death record of Lizzie (James) McKoy, one of Jesse James’ daughters. Lizzie James married Henry D. McKoy, and she died at age 26 of catatonic interstitial nephritis. Her father is listed as Jesse James Sr., while her mother is listed as Emma Jordan. Records like these of Jesse James’ other children could reveal additional information about his real name, thus helping you find earlier records of him. We suggest that you seek more documentation about his children.

Next: Look for Possible Slave Owners

You mentioned that Jesse James could have been running from enslavement. But by whom? As we have mentioned in a previous column, the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules list enslaved people under the names of their owner, identified by race (“black” or “mulatto”), age and gender. This makes it difficult to identify an ancestor in these lists, but not always impossible. Sometimes the listings for large slaveholdings appear to take the form of family groupings, but in most cases, slaves are listed from eldest to youngest.

Though it would be time-consuming, you might search through all of the James slave owners listed in the 1860 slave schedule for South Carolina for boys around 5 years of age. To narrow things down a bit, concentrate on the counties that were in the locale of Florence, S.C., at the time: Marion, Darlington, Williamsburg and Clarendon counties.

As we have also previously said, another good resource for tracing enslaved ancestors is deed records, which frequently listed the buying and selling of slaves. Deed records may also include the age of a slave at the time of the sale. Check the counties cited previously for such documents in the time period between Jesse James’ birth circa 1855 and emancipation in 1865.

Why Did Jesse James Leave South Carolina?

If your ancestor was indeed a runaway slave, it is possible that an advertisement offering a reward for his capture would have been posted in a local newspaper. One online source of historical newspapers is the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America database, which has digitized newspaper pages dating back to 1836.

You also mention the possibility that Jesse James was one of the former slaves who joined Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s nearly 300-mile march across Georgia from Atlanta “to the sea” in Savannah. As Harper’s Weekly reported in 1864, escaped slaves formed the “rear guard” of the Union Army. Afterward, Sherman led his troops up into the Carolinas for a campaign that ushered in the final days of the Confederacy. Since your ancestor’s journey was through the Carolinas, perhaps the latter campaign is where he might have seen military action. Take a look at our previous column of advice on tracing Civil War veterans to help you explore this possibility.

Finally, closer to home, the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, in Wilmington, N.C., has archived records—including images, letters and diaries, bookplates and pamphlets—that might shed some light on Jesse James and his family. Contacting the historical society could help you uncover some earlier records of him, and perhaps help you solve the mysteries surrounding his life.

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 Andrew Krea, 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.