Who Were My Enslaved Ancestor’s Parents?

Tracing Your Roots: Seeking the origins of an African-American family who moved multiple times during and after slavery.

Spencer Mott in the 1880 U.S. census
Spencer Mott in the 1880 U.S. census

Dear Professor Gates:

How do I go about finding the parents of my maternal second great-grandfather Spencer Mott, born about 1820 in Georgia? He was listed in the 1880 census as mulatto, living in Brandywine Claiborne, Miss. I’m guessing he was probably a slave. —Tammy Robinson

Tracking enslaved people before the end of the Civil War is tricky because they were rarely identified by name in records before then. However, we found plenty of information about your ancestor and his kin from the decades following the war that allowed us to work our way backward to some promising leads.

Starting With What You Know

There’s plenty to glean from the 1880 U.S. census record of Spencer Mott that you found residing in Brandywine, Claiborne, Miss. It identified him as a laborer and head of household born about 1820 in Georgia. His wife was Scyntha Mott, born about 1830, and they had a number of adult and adolescent children in their household.

The next step was to search for Spencer in the 1870 census, the first one to list African Americans by name. However, we had difficulty locating him, so we used two common tactics to go further: looking at later census records and researching the children in his household.

Going Forward and Around

According to the 1900 U.S. census, Spencer Mott was born in Virginia about 1824. His wife, Lucinda Mott, was born about 1835 and is likely the same person as Scyntha. Perhaps her name was misinterpreted in the previous record or heard wrong by the census taker. This means that when we’re trying to identify him in an earlier record, we would be looking for a Spencer Mott born between 1820 and 1824 in either Georgia or Virginia. It is not uncommon for information to be inaccurate in census records, since the information could have been gathered from another member of the household instead of the person him- or herself.

Now to the Mott children: According to the record in 1880, Spencer Mott Jr. was 19 years old, placing his birth about 1861; Charlie Mott was 16 years old, placing his birth about 1864; and Lula Mott was 13 years old, placing her birth about 1867. We would expect to see these three children enumerated in the 1870 census. (Spencer Mott also had three other children: Mattie, born about 1871; Nettie, born about 1873; and Thommy, born about 1876. Even though these children were not alive when the 1870 census was enumerated, records for them could provide leads for Spencer Mott’s origins.)

Charlie Mott was still living in Claiborne, Miss., in 1900, and according to this record he was born in Alabama and his father was born in Virginia. All of Charlie’s children were born in Mississippi, and it appears that one daughter, Mattie, may have been named for Charlie’s sister. Again, in 1910, the census reported that Charley/Charlie Mott was born in Alabama about 1864.

A Tactic Pays Off

Based on the records we located for Charlie Mott, we expanded the search for Spencer Mott in the 1870 census to Alabama, this time with success. We located what looks like S. Mott in Whittens, Lee, Ala., in 1870. According to the record, S. Mott was born around 1822 in Georgia, and his wife, L. Mott, was also born in Georgia. This would match much of what we know about your Spencer Mott.

Among the list of his children is a C. Mott that could be Charlie Mott and an S. Mott that could be Spencer Mott Jr. There were three daughters older than Charlie and Spencer included in this census who were likely married and out of the household by the taking of the 1880 census. Looking back at the 1880 census, we see that a few doors down from Spencer was an Annie Edwards, the wife of Irwin Edwards. She was the right age to be a match for S. Mott’s eldest daughter in 1870. She also had a daughter named Scyntha, perhaps named for Spencer’s wife.

Based on all of this, it appears that your Spencer Mott was residing in Whittens, Lee County (named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee), Ala., in 1870, which is a date close to the end of slavery. It is likely that he did not move far immediately following Emancipation, so it makes sense to search this county to identify a potential former slave owner. To see if there were any other Mott families in the area, we limited a search to those with the surname Mott in Whittens, Lee, Ala., in 1870. This search revealed a number of African-American families with that surname living close to one another, many of them born in Georgia or Virginia. This would match what we know about your Spencer Mott and suggests that he was likely related to or associated with these other Mott families.

An Interesting Pattern Emerges

What is even more compelling is that when the results are organized by birth date, a pattern appears that suggests a similar migration. The oldest of these Motts were born in either Virginia or Georgia, and the youngest born in Alabama, with the change occurring between 1840 and 1845. If the same slave owner owned all of these individuals, it suggests that the slave owner may have moved from either Georgia or Virginia to Alabama between 1840 and 1845.

To try to work even closer to Emancipation, we checked the 1867 voter-registration returns on Ancestry.com (subscription required) for the surname Mott. These records include the names of those registered to vote after the Civil War and include both white and black registrants. Our search returned six individuals with the surname Mott in Lee County, all of them African American. While none of these records were for Spencer Mott, it suggests that there were a number of African-American Mott families in the county immediately following the war.

Leads Point to Possible Enslavers

Lee County was created Dec. 5, 1866, from Chambers, Macon, Russell and Tallapoosa counties, so in looking for a slave owner with the name Mott, we decided to focus on these counties. Searching the 1860 Slave Schedules on Ancestry.com, we noted an R.L. Mott who was the owner of 80 slaves residing in Russell County, Ala., in 1860. The record states that W.L. Marten was the manager, suggesting that although Mott owned theses slaves, he may have not lived there. There were also 26 slaves owned by Benjamin Mott recorded in Tallapoosa County, Ala., in 1860. You could investigate these slave owners further to see if any records for them (such as wills, land records and, sadly, property records) reveal any more about your Spencer Mott or his parents.

It appears that R.L. Mott also owned slaves in Columbus, Muscogee, Ga., in 1860. Using this information, we located Randolph L. Mott residing in Columbus in 1860. According to the record, he was born in Virginia and was living in Georgia. Since we know that he also owned slaves in Alabama, it would appear that he would be a good match to be the former slave owner for all the African-American Motts we located in Lee County, Ala., in 1870 because he has ties to all three locations from which your Mott family originated. You will certainly want to search for more records on him and his estate, particularly in land records, to see if you can identify any of his slaves by name.

Be cautious not to rule out your other option simply because Randolph L. Mott seems to be a good fit for what you know about your ancestors. What is interesting about Benjamin Mott is that his wife, Margaret, was from Georgia, according to the 1860 census. It was not uncommon for slaves to be given to daughters, so it is also plausible that Spencer Mott and the other African-American Mott families we located in 1870 who were born in Georgia were previously owned by Benjamin Mott, joining his household through his wife.

These are two promising leads that may help you learn more about your Spencer Mott and his family. Researching further into the potential slave owners and the other Mott families we identified in the 1870 census may help reveal more about Spencer and his parents. Good luck!

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 chairman 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 Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior 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 about researching African-American roots.