Herbert Jones, April Dobbins’ grandfather
Courtesy of April Dobbins

Dear Professor Gates:

My grandfather is 92 and owns 688 acres of backwoods Alabama. Supposedly, former slaves cobbled this farm together. On a good summer day, if you are willing to venture deep into the forest and beat back the kudzu, undergrowth and rattlesnakes, you can find the slave graveyard—its crude tombstones serve as precarious markers of sunken graves. During reunions, I gather with dozens of my relatives around these graves. My uncle calls the name from each tombstone, tells the relation and tells their story. He does this slowly, methodically. Dozens of us—all relatives—stand in somber silence.

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One of my writing professors always tells us that settings are characters, too. This farm is a character in our family. We have been told that the farm was part of the original plantation that our ancestors worked on as slaves—that the bell in the yard was used to call the slaves in from the field. The slave owner somehow managed to pass the land on to a child that he had by a slave woman. I am working on a photography project on my family, and I would like to know if all this is true. —April Dobbins

It’s clear that you have already done a great deal of research on your ancestors, and now you are interested in learning more about the farm that, according to documents you sent us, has been owned by your family since the late 19th century. To find out how this land came into your family, you will want to search for more records of both the property and the people who lived and worked there. Researching these sources will also help you determine if your family’s story that Wiley Jones purchased the land from former slave owners is true.

First, Find the Earliest Land Record

In your research so far, the earliest land record you found shows that Wiley and his wife, Rose Harry Jones, purchased the parcel of land together with Sterling and Adeline Smith and with Joe and Mary Harry. They purchased the land on May 14, 1874, through a mortgage agreement with the landowners, Mattie A. Jones and her husband, W.W. Jones. Is this the date that the farm came into your family? Your next step would be to see if you can find any records of Wiley Jones purchasing land before this date.

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Hale County, Ala., was created in 1867 from portions of Greene, Marengo, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties during Reconstruction after the Civil War. To find which of the earlier counties your family farm was in before the creation of Hale County, you’ll want to consult historic maps of Alabama. The Alabama Maps website from the University of Alabama shows the evolution of counties in Alabama from 1820 to 1860. The historic maps include white outlines that show the borders of the counties as they are today.

From looking at the county map of 1860, it seems that your family’s farm was located in Greene County. This is good to know when you are researching land records because it is possible that your ancestor purchased land before 1867, and the deed may be recorded in Greene County. If you are unable to find any land records for Wiley before May 14, 1874, in both Hale and Greene County land records, it is likely that the property first came into your ancestor’s ownership on this day.

Research People Listed in the Land Records

Once you determine when Wiley purchased the land, the next step in determining whether this property had any connection to a local plantation is to research all of the families involved in 1874 land transactions. For example, Joe and Mary Harry may be the parents of Rose (Harry) Jones. It is interesting to note that those granting the land have the same surname as Wiley, and you also found that Wiley’s father was probably white and named William Jones. As such, you will want to determine what connection, if any, Wiley has with William W. and Mattie A. Jones.

A good way to start is to find a record of William and Mattie in the 1870 census returns, since this was the census taken closest to the land transaction. The closest record we could find showed that W.W. and Martha Jones lived in Greensboro in Hale County, Ala. Since “Mattie” is a common nickname for “Martha,” this may be a record of the same couple that sold the land to Wiley four years later. It is also interesting to note that William was born in Virginia, the same state as Wiley. In this record, W.W. Jones was also listed as white. Next, you will want to see if William W. Jones ever owned a plantation or any slaves.

In your own research, you have already found several deeds relating to the property, including a few deeds where William White Jones granted Wiley land. To understand these transactions over time, it is useful to see the parcels of land on a map. In addition to helping you see how your ancestor’s property changed over time, historic maps can also give you names of previous owners, without looking up deeds.

When Wiley and the others first acquired the land in 1874, it was described as follows:

The East ½ of East ½ of Section 1, Township 21, Range 4 East, the West ½ of the West ½ of Section 6, Township 21, Range 5, the Northwest ½ of Northwest ¼ of Section 14, Township 21 Range 5 East and the Southeast, Northwest 1/4, Section 7 Township 21 Range 5 East.

The land in Alabama is divided using the Township and Range (pdf) system. Although these descriptions are hard to visualize, since they do not really use distances or distinguishing landmarks, they are useful in researching your family’s property because unless the land becomes divided, the description remains unchanged. Even if only a portion of the property is sold, it is easy to determine which part of their property is sold by identifying the section.

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So, although reading the description on paper may not be easy to do, using these numbers and descriptions to find the parcel of land on a map can show you exactly where your ancestors owned land and how much they owned. 

The Alabama Maps Collection website by the University of Alabama also has a collection of historic maps of Greene County available for online viewing. One useful map included in this collection is the 1858 map of Greene County that was hand-drawn by V. Gayle Snedecor. This map gives detailed information on land ownership in Greene County in 1858 because it outlines each property and labels each one with the property owner’s name.

The land that Wiley Jones purchased in 1874 was described as being in various sections of Township 21, Ranges 4 and 5 East. The 1858 map for Precinct 3 (Beat 3) or Five Mile shows that William W. Jones owned land in section 1 of Township 21, Range 4 East, and sections 5, 6, 7 and 8 of Township 21, Range 5 East. This map is useful because it shows you how all of the land being described in various ranges and sections is actually one contiguous plot. You can also use this map to help you visualize the other land records that you already have. 

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Since you know that the white landowner, William W. Jones, owned the property in 1858, you can then search for records of him in the 1860 census. A quick search of the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedule shows that Wm W. Jones of Greensboro, Greene County, Ala., owned 34 slaves, including some boys who were about the same age as Wiley. They are all listed as black (none as mulatto, which is how Wiley has been identified in some subsequent census records).

Check Published Local Histories

Other sources of information that may be useful in your search are published local histories. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, books published on the history and development of towns and counties across the U.S. became popular. These books would often contain information about the history and development of counties and towns, including biographical sketches of early settlers.

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When you’re trying to find information about plantations in an area, local histories are a great place to look because many of these books are in the public domain and can be searched online through the Internet Archive and Google Books. The book The History of Greensboro, Alabama gives an account of the plantation in Greensboro owned by a Dr. William Jones.

Next, you will want to find more information about this Dr. Jones to see if perhaps this is the same William W. Jones previously identified. Using the genealogy sites Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, we found that Dr. William Jones was born in North Carolina circa 1793 and died in Greensboro in 1863. This is too early to be the same William Jones who sold Wiley land, but there may still be a connection to this family and the plantation of Dr. Jones in Greensboro.

Therefore, you will next want to search probate records for Greene County. In a search of the books for 1863, we found an inventory of the estate of William Jones, which listed each of his slaves by name and then listed their value. This list did not contain the name “Wiley,” so it is possible that your ancestor does not have any connection to the plantation of Dr. William Jones.

Probe Connections to the Jones Family of Virginia

Now that you know that William W. Jones probably owned a different parcel of land from Dr. William Jones, you can continue to research him to see if there is any possible connection to your family, especially their origin in Virginia. You will want to find the earliest record of William possibly living in Greene County. We found a record of William Jones living in Greene County in 1850. He was 20 years old, and the record shows he was born in Virginia. The record also shows that he was living with his father, 60-year-old Robert, who was born in Maryland.

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Next you will want to search for more information about Robert Jones to see if he owned any slaves in Greene County in the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules. You will also want to search for a record of his death and see if you can find an inventory of his estate in the Greene County probate records, which are available online as part of FamilySearch’s Alabama Probate Records collection.

If you are unable to find any connection to this Jones family, you may also want to check this list of early settlers in Greene County. This list is based on early land and vital records. It also shows that in Township 21, Range 5, close to where your ancestors owned land, there was a plantation owned by James and Peyton Madison.

As you continue your research to verify your family’s story, you will begin to see how researching land records and finding records of the people who lived on the land go hand in hand. By researching the people who owned the land, you can see how it was used and when it passed from generation to generation. At the same time, researching land records can give you a better idea of how your ancestors’ lives and circumstances changed over the years. In the example of Wiley Jones, he may have been born into slavery, but he managed to create a home for his descendants to meet generations later.

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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 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.