Image of the 1870 census record for the Yates and Payne families
U.S. Census

Dear Professor Gates:

My fourth great-grandmother Delilah Yates was listed as a "domestic servant” in a white household on the 1870 Virginia census in Marshall-Farquhar County along with three of her children, the younger two who are listed as mulatto (Delilah and the oldest child are identified as black).

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My third great-grandfather Daniel Yates was also a son of Delilah, although he was not listed in the 1870 census. In the 1880 census, they are listed in the same household, and he is identified as mulatto.

Because the two mulatto children in the 1870 census are very young, could they have been children of one of the Layne men? Could Daniel have been as well? —Marnie Yates

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The 1870 U.S. census was the first census to list all persons, including former slaves, as individuals. It provides an interesting window on what life was like for the newly emancipated: where they lived and how they supported themselves.

We cannot know with 100 percent certainty from their 1870 census record if Delilah Yates and her daughter Mary Yates, age 13, who was also identified as a domestic servant, worked for the family with which they were enumerated or were simply boarders. However, we thought it was likely, and reached out to a scholar specializing in the labor of black women in the post-Civil War era for guidance.

Tera Hunter, a professor in the history department and the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, told us that based on what we described, “It is not likely that Delilah Yates was a boarder in the [white] household. Interracial boarding was not the norm in this period, given the tight quarters that most people lived in. African Americans living with white families almost certainly would have been domestic workers, as Yates’ occupation indicates. What is unusual is that her children lived with her as well.”

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The fact that the eldest daughter was listed as a domestic worker only strengthens the likelihood that they worked for the white family, said Hunter. She also suggested considering the possibility that the relationship between the families “could have been longer-standing relationship, going back to slavery,” a scenario you will see explored later on in the column.

Are the Black vs. Mulatto Designations Significant?

Delila (spelled this way in the census) Yates was enumerated in the First Revenue District, Fauquier, Va., household of John Payne (whose surname was mistranscribed as Layne), age 56, and his family: wife Susan Payne, age 58, and children Thomas B. Payne, age 19; Wood Payne, age 16; and Albina Payne, age 14. This family was white. Delila Yates was age 35, born circa 1835. Her children were Mary Yates, age 13; Alice Yates, age 3; and Henry W. Yates, who was 8 months, born in September 1869. Mary was listed as black; Alice and Henry W. were listed as mulatto. Additionally, Delilah and her children were all born in Virginia.

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We then located Dalila (sic) Yates in the 1880 U.S. census, residing in the household of her son Daniel Yates in Marshall, Fauquier, Va. Her age was listed as 50 years, born circa 1830. Daniel was age 28, born circa 1854, a laborer. Also enumerated was his wife, Lizza Yates, age 25, and sons Ernice Yates, age 3, and Luther Yates, age 1. Daniel’s sister Alice Yates, age 14, was also residing in this household. Both Daniel and Alice were listed as mulatto. All household members, as well as their parents, were born in Virginia.

Since Daniel had not been enumerated in the same household as Delilah in 1870, we searched for him in the 1870 census. We located him in Petersburg Ward 4, Petersburg (Independent City), Va., in the household of Ri[?] Johnson, age 60, a laborer, and his family: Caroline Johnson, age 40, and D.H. Johnson, age 25. Daniel Yates, age 16, worked in a tobacco factory, and his race was listed as black; the Johnson family was also listed as black.

As you can see in the various census records, Delilah’s children were listed as both black and mulatto. The instructions (pdf) for the 1870 census stated:

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Color—It must not be assumed that, where nothing is written in this column "White" is to be understood. The column is always to be filled. Be particularly careful in reporting the class Mulatto. The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood.

However, genealogist Johni Cerny, FUGA, told us that what actually was recorded on census records depended on the person recording the information. “Some census takers listed all persons of color as black, even though a person was very fair-skinned. Others followed instructions and entered black, mulatto or white,” she said.

Typically, the census enumerator would have been informed of a person’s race by the head of household; or, if that person were unavailable, he could have been informed by another household member. And it is entirely possible that the census enumerator used his own judgment. Because Alice and Henry were identified as mulatto, their father may have been a white person. But it is also possible that the children had a black father but were lighter-skinned—and the enumerator listed them as mulatto simply based on complexion.

What Was Early Life Like for Delilah and Her Children?

To check for Delilah’s own status before emancipation, we searched the 1850 and 1860 U.S. census records. If Delilah had been a free person of color, she should have been enumerated in the census records with her own name. But we were unable to find her. We also searched for her older children Daniel and Mary, who were born circa 1854 and 1857, respectively, but we did not find them, either.

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Therefore, we searched the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules using Ancestry.com (subscription required). Since Delilah’s surname was Yates, it was very possible that the surname came from the slave owner. Because Delilah was residing in Fauquier County in 1870, we searched for the Yates name in that county. In those schedules, we only found the surnames Hathaway, Heath and Hitt in 1850 and Hathaway and Hitt in 1860.

However, when we widened the search to adjacent counties, we found several slave owners with the Yates surname. A Paul Yates of Rappahannock, Va., in the 1860 Slave Schedules owned the following slaves: a male and female, both age 25; a male, age 23; a male, age 6; and a female, age 4. In 1860 Delilah would have been between ages 25 and 30; her son Daniel would have been about age 6; and her daughter Mary would have been about age 3. We also noted that the first male listed was a “fugitive of the state” and that on the same page, listed directly above Paul Yates, were two other slave owners: James F. Johnson and James Johnson.

We recalled that in 1870, Daniel Yates was living in the household of a Johnson family. We suggest searching for more information about Paul Yates and his family, including searching for probate records to see if names of slaves were mentioned, or seeking any kind of documentation connecting them with either a slave-owning Johnson family or the people they enslaved.

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Another way to locate more information about Delilah’s early life is to look for marriage and death records for her children. Often these kinds of records will list birthplaces and names of parents. We located a marriage record in the Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940 index for Daniel Yates and Elizabeth Jorden. According to the record, he was born in Fauquier County in 1854 and married there on Nov. 12, 1876. His mother was listed as Delilah Yates, but, unfortunately, no father was listed.

We also found an indexed marriage record for Alice Yates. According to this record, dated 1932, Alice was born in Fauquier in 1878 (which may be a transcription error) and Delilah was listed as her mother; unfortunately, no information was included for her father.

However, when we located Henry W. Yates in the 1900 U.S. census in Lee, Fauquier, his household included an uncle, Thomas Edward Yates. The uncle was born in August 1836 in Virginia and was enumerated as a black male who was widowed. Thomas Edward Yates could have been the brother of either Henry’s mother or father. To learn more about him, you could search for him in earlier census, marriage and death records; as well as search for deeds to see if he purchased any land. We noted that Henry was listed as black.

How Were the Yates and the Paynes Really Connected?

We returned to the 1870 census, when Delilah was living with the Payne family, to see if there was a connection between Delilah and this family.  Searching forward for John Payne, we found his gravestone, along with biographical information about his family; his full name was John Wood Payne and he died in 1896. We then searched the 1860 Slave Schedules and found a John W. Payne in Southwest Revenue District, Fauquier, Va., who owned the following slaves: a female, age 30; a male, age 5; a female, age 2; a male, age 20; and a female, age 18. There were also two slave houses on his land. Thus, there may have been two enslaved families, the first having similar ages to Delilah, Daniel and Mary. (Although we did note that the 30-year-old female was a fugitive from the state.)

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Since the cemetery record provided names of the family of John W. Payne, we also suggest gathering more information about his parents and siblings in order to locate other types of records, such as probate. Additionally, you can contact the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County, which has an extensive collection and includes local newspapers, probates and deeds, free Negro and slave records, church and vital records, and funeral notices.

Finally, we asked genetic genealogist CeCe Moore what kind of DNA testing you might do if you wanted to see if there’s a genetic link between your family and the descendants of the Paynes. Her answer is below:

Marnie should have a Y-DNA test done on a male in her family that descends through a direct male line from Daniel, so her father Martin would be ideal. If she is unable to test Martin, then a brother, a paternal uncle or a paternal male cousin (this person should carry the Yates surname) would also work. The test she would use is only offered by FamilyTreeDNA and is called a Y-37 test.

If Daniel was the son of Delilah's employer, John Payne, then he would have inherited his father's Y-chromosome. In turn, he would have passed that Y-chromosome down to his son who passed it to his son and so on. This means that Martin would be carrying that same Y-chromosome today.

If Marnie is able to also trace and Y-DNA-test a male Payne descending from John Payne's patrilineal ancestral line, then she can compare the two Y-chromosome signatures. If the theory that they are related is correct, then they should match. Even if she is unable to locate a male Payne who is willing to test, she can still test a male from her family and see if they match any male Paynes who have already been tested in the Family Tree DNA database. There are quite a few listed in the Payne DNA Project, so she will still have a good chance of getting a match if the theory is correct. 

If Marnie is unable to test the males necessary to use Y-DNA testing to address her genealogical question, then she can try to use autosomal DNA by testing herself and reviewing her match list to see if she matches any descendants of the Payne family. Autosomal testing is offered by major testing services such as FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry.com and 23andMe.

Because of the distance of the ancestor in question, however, this will be more difficult than using Y-DNA testing. Since Daniel is her third great-grandfather, she carries about 3 percent of his DNA and only about 1.5 percent from his father. This means that even if Daniel was the son of John Payne, she may not see any matches to that family in the list of people who share DNA with her in the database. For this reason, testing the older generation is always preferable, if at all possible. If Marnie is successful in locating a descendant of John Payne, and her father is able to DNA test, then she should have both of them take autosomal DNA tests. Even if the theory is correct, then they may not show a match due to the distance to the ancestor in question, but there is a chance they will share autosomal DNA, and that will help to support her theory. 

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.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Nancy Bernard, 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 about researching African-American roots.