George Biggs 
Courtesy of Michelle Benzenhoefer

Dear Professor Gates:

I have been working on tracing my maternal grandfather’s line using Ancestry.com. I can say with confidence that I traced my great-grandfather George Biggs to the 1900 census, which also lists my grandfather “Levy” as his 10-year-old son. Going backward, I believe a white Biggs family (the patriarch named Morris), also from Pike County, Mo., is connected to ours.

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I found a very interesting and perplexing detail in the 1880 census for Pike County, Mo.: Robert Biggs, a 50-year-old white farmer (son of Morris and Leah Biggs), is listed as head of household, while Harriett (age 70 and black) is listed as a servant; Lucy (age 40 and black) is listed as daughter; and 10-year-old George, a black boy who I believe may be my great-grandfather, is listed as son.

My hunch is that George may be Robert and Lucy’s son, and Lucy the daughter of Harriett. I would love to know if there is indeed a connection.

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Robert’s father, Morris, was from Kentucky, and I believe he may have brought Harriett with him. Earlier slave schedules indicate an “older” black woman. —Michelle Benzenhoefer

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The family relationships recorded in the 1880 U.S. census for the household of Robert Biggs may, indeed, indicate a deeper relationship between the members of the household. However, given taboos against interracial relationships in 19th-century America (about which Professor Gates has written previously in this column), the record stands out.

Is the Record Accurate?

Keep in mind that you could be seeing a transcription error. In 1880 a census taker would take down the information, and then the enumeration district supervisor would make a copy of that document. One copy went to the county courthouse, and the other was sent to the United States Census Office. It is sometimes impossible to tell, looking at the records that have been microfilmed and put on sites like FamilySearch, if you are looking at the original document or the copy that was made.

Since the census was copied by the enumeration district supervisor and not the enumerator, it is possible that errors were made because of a misinterpretation of handwriting, or the copier could have shifted rows of information. We noted that for both Robert Biggs and Lucy Biggs in this record, the column for “married” was first checked and then crossed out for “single.” This could be an indicator that the information was transcribed incorrectly at first and then was corrected. It is also possible that the relationships were recorded incorrectly. (For more information on how the census was recorded and transcribed and what that might mean for your search, see Lindsay Fulton’s webinar, “Using the U.S. Federal Census,” at AmericanAncestors.org (the site of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, for which this column’s co-writer, Meaghan E.H. Siekman, works).

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Taking It at Face Value, Then What?

Assuming, however, that the census record does correctly indicate a deeper relationship between members of this household, you could try to work backward. Accordingly, we searched for Harriet and Lucy in the 1870 census and located them living together in Buffalo, Pike County, Mo., with a number of other individuals with the surname Biggs in the household. Relationships were not recorded on that census record, but it appears that, based on their ages, and those of the rest of the individuals in the household, that some of the older ones could be children of Harriet, and perhaps the younger individuals were children of Lucy or the other young adults in the household.

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It is also possible that these individuals were not biologically related but that all had been enslaved by the same person and they all adopted the surname of that slave owner. Often, former slaves from the same household would stay together following emancipation, even if they were not directly related, for support, as almost an adoptive-family unit. In either case, you could focus on tracing these individuals to see if records for them reveal any additional information about Harriet, Lucy or their relationship to Robert Biggs.

Harriet Biggs’ household was enumerated on pages 98-99 of the census for Buffalo Township, Pike County, Mo., and just three pages away, on Page 103, Robert Biggs appears in the household of Morris Biggs. This suggests that they were living close to each other very shortly following the end of slavery. It seems possible that Harriet Biggs and those in her household adopted the Biggs family name because they were formerly enslaved by Robert and Morris Biggs.

The 1860 United States Slave Schedule (via Ancestry.com, subscription required) shows that Robert and Morris Biggs owned slaves in Buffalo, Pike County, Mo. The slave schedules did not name slaves by name but recorded their age, sex and color, providing a description of those in the household. Based on the census records we have already located, we would expect Harriet to be about 50 years old and Lucy to be between 20 and 30 (her age varies on census records).

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You can also compare the ages of the others in Harriet Biggs’ household in 1870 to help provide more evidence that this slave schedule is a record for the individuals in question. Sadly, slaves did not always know exactly when they were born, so ages for the same individual can vary greatly in records. You’ll want to look for individuals who are a close-enough match to likely be Harriet and Lucy.

There is a 53-year-old female in the household who is likely Harriet Biggs. There are also two women—one 33 years old and the other age 30—who might be Lucy. Comparing the enslaved listed with those we found in the Harriet Biggs household in 1870, we found that there is also an 11-year-old boy who could be James Biggs, a 9-year-old girl who could be Ellen Biggs, a 7-year-old boy who could be Lales Biggs and a 6-year-old girl who could be Emma Biggs. The 1870 census and the 1860 Slave Schedules suggest that Harriet and Lucy were, in fact, slaves owned by Robert and Morris Biggs.

As for Family Ties …

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Unfortunately, all of this does not help you to determine whether George Biggs was the son of Robert Biggs and Lucy Biggs. You could focus on looking for death records for George, Lucy and Harriet Biggs and those of the other individuals who were living in Harriet’s household in 1870. Missouri death certificates from 1910 to 1964 are available to search online. You could also trace those individuals forward in time to determine if they died in another state. The death records could list parents’ names, which may help you determine the relationships between Harriet and those in her household and if Robert Biggs could be the father of any of the children. Additionally, conducting more in-depth research on those individuals in Harriet’s household in 1870 in general might provide you with clues, such as migration or naming patterns, which may help you connect members of this family.

Another option would be to trace any descendants of Robert Biggs or Morris Biggs to identify any known living relatives and conduct a DNA test using one of the major services, such as 23andMeAncestryDNA or FamilyTreeDNA. If you could compare your DNA results with those of known descendants, you would be able to know for sure if it is possible that Robert Biggs could be the father of George Biggs.

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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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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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.