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
Map of North Carolina Thinkstock

Dear Professor Gates:

My maternal grandmother states that her grandfather Jesse James walked to Wilmington, N.C., when he was 12 years old, from Florence, S.C.—a distance of more than 125 miles. My grandmother was uncertain if it was before or immediately after slavery. I wonder if he could have been a runaway slave or perhaps a part of Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864.

After searching for Jesse James in the county courthouse and U.S. census records, I located him in the 1880 census, which listed him as a 26-year-old male working for the railroad. Family oral history states that Jesse survived on raw corn during his trek from Florence to Wilmington. As to why we could not locate him before 1880 in the records, my guess is that he changed his name to Jesse James from another, original name when he arrived at Wilmington, perhaps to ward off kidnappers or because he was fearful in a new town.

In 1900 I found Jesse James married to Emma Jane Jordan with 10 children. The second-oldest child’s name was Smiley James. I found this quite unusual for a first name, so I began searching in Florence for the surname Smiley, and there were a lot of people with Smiley as a surname.

My guess is that Jesse James’ surname may have been Smiley, which would explain why I could not locate him prior to 1880 in Wilmington or Florence. I am stumped and eager to complete the search for Jesse James and possibly meet some of my long-lost family members in Florence. —Tonia McKoy

First Find Jesse James’ Kin

You have already embarked on the best route for researching the life of Jesse James as accurately and comprehensively as possible, which is by starting with the U.S. census records. Keep in mind that there could be many variations of your ancestor’s name in the census records, since the records were completed by hand and were subject to human error.

You mentioned that you found Jesse James as early as 1880 and also in the 1900 census (because over 99 percent of the 1890 census records were destroyed, it makes sense to have skipped that one). We decided to go even further forward in time, finding 55-year-old Jessie James (spelled “Jessie” instead of “Jesse”) listed in the 1910 census. At the time, he and Emma Jane (Jordan) James were living in Cape Fear Township, New Hanover, N.C., and their children were Hallie, Elen, Lizzie, Tilly M., Annie May, Joseph J. and Neil James. The record states that Jessie James and both of his parents were born in South Carolina, and Emma Jane’s parents were both born in North Carolina.

It can be beneficial to examine the households immediately surrounding your ancestors for additional clues to Jessie/Jesse’s family ties—which could help lead you to his original identity. For instance, the name directly above Jessie James’ household in the 1910 census was Harriet Jordan. Note that she shares a surname with Emma Jane. She was a 70-year-old widow and was listed as the “mother-in-law,” making her the mother of Bella J. Murphy, who, if related, could have been the younger sister of Emma. Further research would be needed to prove this connection.

You can also use Ancestry.com to find all residents of Cape Fear Township listed in the 1870 census. It is possible that Jesse James was living with other relatives named James under his original given name.

For instance, there was a 17-year-old named Alfred James living with a 40-year-old female named Merrick James. We know that Jesse James would have been around 15 years old at the time and that census records are often inaccurate about details such as age. Could Alfred be your ancestor’s real first name? Did he perhaps live with an older relative while he looked for work in 1870? These are all questions worth exploring.