British and American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War.
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“My father told me that his maternal grandmother’s side of the family descended from a British Loyalist family who owned a plantation in Virginia. When the American Revolution started, this family relocated (and took all their slaves with them) to Jamaica, another British colony at that time. Is there any way that I can verify this? Please advise on where I should begin. My grandmother’s maiden name was Jones.” —Candace

Loyalists in Jamaica

At the end of the Revolutionary War, those who remained loyal to the British Crown departed America either to return to Britain or to settle in other colonial territories. Many relocated to Canada, while others left for resettlement in other British colonies in the West Indies, including Jamaica. As noted in the Amazing Facts About the Negro column “George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry,” historians estimate that about 15,000 former slaves left the United States with the evacuating British. It is also estimated that up to 10,000 Southern Loyalists and their slaves left for Jamaica, where there were already numerous sugar plantations.

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To accommodate these refugees, the Assembly of Jamaica passed several acts that made it easier for these loyalists to settle, with incentives for them to start their own plantations on the island. In addition to white Loyalists, some free African Americans who were loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War were also granted passage to Jamaica and the Bahamas.

One of the largest groups, arriving in Jamaica in early 1783, was a result of the evacuation of the British from Charleston, S.C. The majority of the Loyalists who relocated to Jamaica were from Georgia and North and South Carolina, but they also came from other Southern colonies, including Virginia.

According to the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, some of the black Loyalists were responsible for the spread of the Baptist religion in Jamaica. The most famous black Loyalist was George Liele, who was also the first African American to be ordained and—with his arrival in Jamaica in 1783—the first Baptist missionary from America to go to any other land. He was born a slave in Virginia and freed by his master before the Revolutionary War.

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In light of these facts, your family’s story may be true. However, given the passage of time and the gaps in records, finding documentation to support this claim may be challenging. Fortunately, there are a few different ways in which you can begin your search to find evidence of Loyalists ancestors from Jamaica in your family tree.

Working Backward

First, you will want to begin by tracing your great-grandmother’s family back as far as possible. You mentioned that your grandmother’s maiden name was Jones, so starting from there, you will next want to determine your great-grandmother’s surname to find the family name that owned the plantation in Virginia.

To accomplish this, you can use census, birth, marriage and death records to connect each generation. If you hit any brick walls, you may also want to talk to other relatives and extended family members in the same line to see if they have any additional information, oral traditions or family artifacts that might give you an indication of where the family’s plantation was in Virginia. You will also want to search for any evidence that your family came back to America from Jamaica by searching passenger lists or census records that show your ancestors’ birthplace as Jamaica.

Once you have gained more information about this side of your family, you can then expand your research into other areas.

Searching Jamaican Records

Most Loyalists left America in the 1780s, and one of the biggest obstacles you will have in confirming your family’s story is determining how long your family was in Jamaica. If you are able to find evidence that your direct ancestors lived in Jamaica, you will then have a better idea of which surnames to research and the approximate time period in which your ancestors lived there. Using this information, you can look into several sources to see if you can find any records of your family.

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The free genealogy website FamilySearch has a collection of Church of England Parish Registers from 1664 to 1880. If your ancestors were Loyalists, it is likely that they were members of the Church of England. Most births, marriages and deaths were recorded in the parish registers before the Assembly in Jamaica enacted civil registration in 1843. This collection contains transcriptions of the original records, so they can be searched by surname.

If you have a name of a specific ancestor who lived in Jamaica, you will want to search by that name to see if you can find any records. If not, you can search this collection for your great-grandmother’s maiden name. Although this will probably not lead to definitive records of your ancestors, it will give a general idea of whether anyone with your family name was living in Jamaica.

In the Parish of Saint Elizabeth, some of the loyalists were allotted land to settle. The website Jamaican Family Search has a transcription of a list of Loyalists who settled in St. Elizabeth, though many of those who settled in that parish emigrated from the Carolinas.

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Another useful source is the manuscript Abstracts of Jamaica Wills 1625-1792. This is a compilation of Jamaican wills and probate records that were once housed at the registry in London. Given the time period, many of these records pertain to Loyalists who immigrated to Jamaica. This collection is available only on microfilm, but using WorldCat, you can find the library closest to you that has this item.

Searching American Records Before the Revolutionary War

In tracing your Jamaican ancestors, you can also search for records of your family before the Revolutionary War. If you are able to determine which branch of your family owned the plantation, you can do a broad search of records to see if you can find any evidence that they were Loyalists who went to Jamaica.

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For example, you can do a broad search of published collections in the book Loyalists in the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War. This three-volume set contains extracts of various records pertaining to Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, including muster rolls, petitions and other service documents. The volumes are fully searchable by name on Ancestry.com and are also available in the New England Historic Genealogical Society library (AmericanAncestors.org). You can put in a photocopy request if you know the names you would like the researchers to look up.

Another book that contains biographical sketches about those who served with the British in the Revolutionary War is American Loyalists, which is available for free online at Archive.org and is fully searchable by name.

If you know the name of the family who owned the plantation and approximately where it was located in Virginia, this will greatly aid your research. For example, you can use this information to search historical newspaper articles. The subscription website GenealogyBank and database America’s Historical Newspapers both have a large collection of early Virginia newspapers in which you could look for information about the family’s plantation. Perhaps you will find an article stating that the family were Loyalists, or an article documenting their departure to Jamaica.

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While it’s true that many slaveholding Loyalists from the Southern colonies left America for Jamaica after the Revolutionary War, it may be difficult to know for sure whether your ancestors were among them. By researching your great-grandmother’s family to trace your ancestry as far back as possible and searching for your family’s name in both Jamaican and Loyalist records, you may be able to get an indication of whether your family’s story is true.

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 the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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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.