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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Another way to find information about Jesse James would be to research his children—namely their vital records, marriage records and census records—to trace their lives. Upon a brief search, we found the death record of Lizzie (James) McKoy, one of Jesse James’ daughters. Lizzie James married Henry D. McKoy, and she died at age 26 of catatonic interstitial nephritis. Her father is listed as Jesse James Sr., while her mother is listed as Emma Jordan. Records like these of Jesse James’ other children could reveal additional information about his real name, thus helping you find earlier records of him. We suggest that you seek more documentation about his children.

Next: Look for Possible Slave Owners

You mentioned that Jesse James could have been running from enslavement. But by whom? As we have mentioned in a previous column, the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules list enslaved people under the names of their owner, identified by race (“black” or “mulatto”), age and gender. This makes it difficult to identify an ancestor in these lists, but not always impossible. Sometimes the listings for large slaveholdings appear to take the form of family groupings, but in most cases, slaves are listed from eldest to youngest.

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Though it would be time-consuming, you might search through all of the James slave owners listed in the 1860 slave schedule for South Carolina for boys around 5 years of age. To narrow things down a bit, concentrate on the counties that were in the locale of Florence, S.C., at the time: Marion, Darlington, Williamsburg and Clarendon counties.

As we have also previously said, another good resource for tracing enslaved ancestors is deed records, which frequently listed the buying and selling of slaves. Deed records may also include the age of a slave at the time of the sale. Check the counties cited previously for such documents in the time period between Jesse James’ birth circa 1855 and emancipation in 1865.

Why Did Jesse James Leave South Carolina?

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If your ancestor was indeed a runaway slave, it is possible that an advertisement offering a reward for his capture would have been posted in a local newspaper. One online source of historical newspapers is the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America database, which has digitized newspaper pages dating back to 1836.

You also mention the possibility that Jesse James was one of the former slaves who joined Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s nearly 300-mile march across Georgia from Atlanta “to the sea” in Savannah. As Harper’s Weekly reported in 1864, escaped slaves formed the “rear guard” of the Union Army. Afterward, Sherman led his troops up into the Carolinas for a campaign that ushered in the final days of the Confederacy. Since your ancestor’s journey was through the Carolinas, perhaps the latter campaign is where he might have seen military action. Take a look at our previous column of advice on tracing Civil War veterans to help you explore this possibility.

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Finally, closer to home, the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, in Wilmington, N.C., has archived records—including images, letters and diaries, bookplates and pamphlets—that might shed some light on Jesse James and his family. Contacting the historical society could help you uncover some earlier records of him, and perhaps help you solve the mysteries surrounding his life.

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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 Andrew Krea, 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.