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Dear Professor Gates:

I’d like to get to the bottom of a puzzling name change in my family’s past. My great-grandfather Jeffrey Bedard (born circa 1856) started life as Jeffrey Nesmith, according to the 1870 census of Turkey, Williamsburg County, S.C., where he lived with Prince and Peggy Nesmith, listed as his parents, and several siblings. Then, in the 1880 census, he shows up as Jeffrey “Vedard,” still living in Turkey, Williamsburg County. In subsequent censuses through 1920, Jeffrey’s name “settles” on Bedard. Finally, a 1929 death certificate for Jeffrey “Bedderd” indicates his father’s name as Jeff Bedderd and his mother’s name as Peggy Nesmith, and his age as 55 (an error, I believe).

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Here’s where it gets tricky: There’s a Jeffrey “Beddard” who shows up in the 1880 census in Mingo, Williamsburg County, S.C., born around the same time as the “other” Jeffrey. Both of Jeffrey’s spouses are named Martha, yet their young sons have different names, and one is 9 months old and the other is 2. I wonder if they are the same person. Interestingly, maybe just coincidentally, the enumerator for this census is a former slaveholder named William Nesmith.

There were no other Bedards in the area during the 19th century. I searched for Jeffrey Bedards in the United States born around 1820 on Ancestry.com on the off chance of finding an elder Bedard and came up with some Illinois public land purchases in the 1850s made by some “J. Bedards.”

I’d like help determining who Jeffrey Bedard’s true father might have been, which might explain why he changed his name. Or maybe there was some sort of paternity issue that prompted Jeffrey to dissociate himself from the Nesmiths, if he was a white slaveholding Nesmith’s son? —Constance Bryan

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Because most African Americans were not enumerated in the U.S. census records until 1870, finding records of them for this year can give you crucial details that help you document the lives of your ancestors. However, sometimes these records give conflicting or incorrect information, which can bring up more questions than answers. Moreover, the lack of details in earlier records can leave you unsure whether the record you found is really for your ancestor.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of census records for 1870 and beyond, as well as other suggestions to help you figure out the father of Jeffrey Bedard. (Warning: There are numerous name-spelling variations!)

Are the Two 1880 Census Records Both for the Same Jeffrey?

In comparing the two census records for Jeffrey Vedard of Turkey Township and Jeff Beddard of the nearby Mingo Township, we see a lot of similarities. First, they were both listed as mulatto men who were married to a black woman named Martha. There are some slight differences between their spouses and their children. Martha, living with Jeff Vedard, was listed as 18 years old, and they had a 9-month-old mulatto son named Thomas. The other entry shows that Martha, the wife of Jeff Beddard, was 20 years old, a little bit older, and they had a 2-year-old son named James, who was classified as black.

Are these differences between their wives and children significant? To determine this, it’s important to know how factors such as race and age were recorded in census records. It’s not uncommon for ages in census records to be off by a year or two. Depending on when a person’s birthday falls and when the record was enumerated, his or her calculated year of birth (age minus census year) might be a little different from what you find in other documents, like vital records.

It also depends on who was giving the information to the census taker. It’s possible that the information came from a neighbor or family member who wasn’t quite sure of the exact ages of everyone in the household. In addition to discrepancies in age, there could also be some ambiguity in the classification of race. Until the 1860 U.S. census was enumerated, the census taker determined the classification of race or color. The University of Michigan’s Population Center has copies of the exact instructions given to enumerators for each census year from 1850 to 1950 posted online. For example, in 1880 the instructions for filling in the “color” column state the following:

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. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class in schedules 1 and 5.

So with these instructions, why was the son of Jeffrey Vedard listed as mulatto, but the son of Jeff Beddard was listed as black? Both of these children had a mulatto father and a black mother. This highlights how, even with these instructions, the classification of race in these census records was ultimately up to the enumerator based on appearance, and therefore it could vary by person, and even more so from census year to census year.

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Take, for example, Jeffrey Bedard. He was listed as black in the 1870, 1900 and 1920 census returns, whereas in the years 1880 and 1910, he was listed as mulatto. The fact that Jeffrey Bedard was listed as mulatto in the census records doesn’t necessarily mean that one of his parents was white. However, it can be an indication that he does have some white ancestry. Keep this in mind as you continue your research on the family.

The differences between the two 1880 records of Jeffrey Vedard and Jeff Beddard are significant enough that they very well could be for two different people. The best way to confirm this is to research each family separately to see if you can find duplicate records in another census year. Start by searching for a record of Jeff Beddard in the 1870 federal census living in or near Mingo. If you find one, it’s possible that they are for different people.

You can also search for records of this family in later census records, such as the 1900 census (unfortunately, the 1890 census was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1921). We did a search of both of these collections, but we were unable to find another record of Jeff, Martha and their son, James. Remember, a lot can happen in the 10 years between census enumerations, so it’s possible that a member of this family died or moved away.

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Even if you are unable to figure out for certain whether or not the record of Jeff Beddard is also a record of your ancestor, that’s OK. You have good evidence that the record of Jeffrey Vedard in Turkey Township in 1880 belongs to your ancestor Jeffrey Bedard (your initial spelling at the beginning of your query), since he was living in Turkey Township in 1870, listed as Jeffrey Nesmith, and his death record lists his mother’s name as Peggy Nesmith. Also, in 1900 he was living next door to the widowed Peggy Nesmith.

Why Did Jeffrey’s Surname Change Between 1870 and 1880?

This is another question that you can answer by taking a closer look at the census record and then expanding your search to other record types. Although Jeffrey was living with Prince and Peggy Nesmith, it’s still possible that he wasn’t the son of Prince Nesmith. The 1870 census, unlike census records taken in 1880 and later years, did not contain a column listing the person’s relationship to the head of the household.

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It’s generally assumed that if everyone in the household has the same surname, they are probably related. Along with this, researchers usually assume that the older male and female in the household were the designated parents, and the younger members of the family were the children. However, this assumption isn’t always correct. For example, a niece or nephew with the same surname, or younger siblings of the head of the household, could be living in the household, and without knowing their relationship to the head of the household, one might incorrectly assume that they are his or her children.

Also look out for stepchildren, because if the record was written down correctly, any stepchildren would probably have a different surname from the head of the household’s. Occasionally, depending on who gave the information and how the record was recorded, stepchildren were incorrectly given the same surname as the head of the household. Maybe this could explain why Jeffrey’s surname changes from Nesmith to Bedard between 1870 and 1880.

Another possible explanation for Jeffrey’s name change is that his mother was married twice—first to Jeff “Bedderd” and then to Prince Nesmith. Although the death record purports to list the maiden name of his mother, it’s possible that the informant gave the surname that she used from her second marriage. Let’s see if we can find more records for Peggy Nesmith to determine if one of these scenarios is possible.

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South Carolina death records from 1915 to 1943 are available online through the genealogy website FamilySearch. On this site, you can search not only by a person’s name but also by his or her parents’ names. We started searching this collection by filling in “Jeff Bedard” for the person’s father’s name and leaving all other fields blank. Because we already know that the Bedard surname was spelled several different ways in census records, we also searched using several spelling variations, like Beddard, Biddard and Bidard.

We found three death records for the children of Jeff and Martha (Pressley) Bedard, including Furmey Rhem Bedard, Annie Fisher and Sidney Beddard. These are probably records of the deaths of children of Jeffrey and Martha Bedard. Fortunately, South Carolina death records list not only the parents’ names, including the mother’s maiden name, but also the parents’ places of birth. It’s important to remember that the information for these records is usually given by an informant, so it’s not always accurate.

We found one record for a child of “Jeff Bidderd” and Peggy, and that is the death record you already found for Jeff “Bedderd.” It’s more likely that he is the man we have been referring to as Jeffrey Bedard, your ancestor.

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Next, we searched to see if we could find any record of Peggy’s children with Prince Nesmith, which might give her maiden name. Our search returned only one additional record, which shows that Ella Williams, born in Nesmith, S.C., was the daughter of Prince Nesmith and Peggy Nesmith. The fact that Peggy’s maiden name is once again listed as Nesmith brings about another possibility. Perhaps Peggy was born Peggy Nesmith, and she then married Jeff Bedard/Bidderd/Bedderd, and after his death she got married again, to Prince Nesmith.

As we can see from looking at the census records, “Nesmith” was a very common surname for both African Americans and white families in the 1870 and 1880 census records. The fact that there is a place called Nesmith, S.C., also suggests that there was a landowner with the Nesmith surname who probably owned slaves in the area. From these death records, it seems possible that Jeffrey Bedard was really the stepson of Prince Nesmith.

Although Peggy’s maiden name was probably Nesmith, it doesn’t mean that she was a blood relative of Prince Nesmith. It’s possible that she was given this surname from the plantation or farm where her family was once enslaved. A search of the book Narrative of Reminiscences in Williamsburg County (published in 1897) reveals that the Nesmith family were among the early settlers of Williamsburg County, and there was a Lemuel W. Nesmith living in Turkey Creek (Turkey Township).

Finding More Information About Jeff Bedard Sr. Before 1870

From the search of these census and vital records, it seems likely that Jeffrey Bedard was the son of Jeff Bedard (let’s call him Jeff Bedard Sr. from here on out) and the stepson of Prince Nesmith. If so, it’s possible that his father died before 1870 and he was never enumerated in the federal census. One way to find out more about Jeff Bedard Sr. is to find out whether there were any slave owners with that surname who lived in the area.

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A quick search of the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules reveals that there was a man named R.S. Bedon who owned many slaves in the St. Georges Parish of Colleton County, S.C. Remember that the counties and names of towns in South Carolina changed during the Reconstruction of the Civil War. In fact, when we search a little more for a record of R.S. Bedon, we find that in 1880 he was 70 years old and living in Verdier, Colleton County—just like your ancestor Jeffrey Bedard (Jr.).

The census record we found for him is in the 1850 census, which shows his full name as Richard S. Bedon, born in South Carolina around 1810. It also tells us that he owned a plantation in 1850. The surname Bedon isn’t exactly the same as “Bedard”; however, as we found in a previous question, the surnames of slaves would sometimes change in the years after they were freed from slavery.

To continue your research on this family before 1870, you will want to search for more information about the Bedon and Nesmith plantations that were in the area. See if you can find will and probate records for these families that might list the slaves they owned. FamilySearch has a variety of collections relating to early records of South Carolina, including two sets of bound and unbound probate records. You could also check with local libraries and historical societies to see if they have more detailed information about the plantations in the area.

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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.