The White House in 1846, John Plumbe, Library of Congress
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

I found my maternal great-great-great-grandmother, Eliza Simpson, on an 1840 Free Persons Census list, living in Washington, D.C., as head of household with, presumably, her son, Marshall (who was born in 1835), and her mother. She was a free single, unmarried mother, all of which surprised me.

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I found them again in the 1850 census, by which time they were living in Baltimore with a flour merchant and his wife. I located Marshall in 1860, when he was listed as 27 years old, but the next time I can locate Eliza Simpson in a census listing is in 1880 in North Carolina, where she is living with Marshall and his family (Marshall had married Martha Rollin on April 23, 1868, in North Carolina). The 1880 census reports that Eliza was employed as a cook and widowed (but I can’t find evidence she used any other surname but “Simpson”).

I know Eliza Simpson was born in 1818 in Baltimore County, Md. How do I piece all of this information together and find out how she came to be a single, free black female living in a slave state? —Cheryl Bedini

When we first read your question, we were struck by the fact that Eliza Simpson was a free woman of color living in Washington, D.C., around the time that Solomon Northup was kidnapped into slavery in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. A free man of color from upstate New York, Northup was abducted in 1841 and spent 12 years in bondage in Louisiana, as he later described in an 1853 narrative that Professor Gates wrote about in a previous column at The Root. (The narrative was brought to the big screen in 2013 as 12 Years a Slave.)

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You found Eliza Simpson in the 1840 U.S. census, an enumeration that listed 2,873,648 black people in the U.S., including 386,293 free black people. During that period, there was a relatively high percentage of free blacks living in Simpson’s birthplace in Baltimore and the surrounding region (including D.C.), which you can read about in Barbara Jeanne Fields’ excellent resource, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century. Still, in the District of Columbia, slavery would remain in effect until 1862.

There are two possible reasons your Eliza Simpson came to be a free woman of color in Washington, D.C.: She was either born free or she was born into slavery and freed prior to 1840. In both scenarios, you will likely need to broaden your search beyond just locating documents relating to Simpson herself in order to find clues that may help you work backward. Gaining a better sense of the history of the area in which she was living, and with whom she may have been associated, may provide hints as to whether she spent her whole life as a free woman or whether you will need to identify a former slave owner to find more records on her.

A Neighborhood of Free Black People

To understand the environment Simpson was living in, you could read books and articles that provide some historic context. Letitia Woods Brown’s book Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790-1846 may give you some idea about the lives of free black people in Washington, D.C., while your Eliza Simpson was living there. You may also get some new ideas of sources to check by noting where the author gathered her information.

To tackle your question about Simpson specifically, start by gathering as much information as you can from the records you have already located. On the 1840 U.S. census (via Ancestry.com; subscription required), we noted that Simpson appears to have been living in a neighborhood of free people of color. On the same page where she was recorded, 22 other households contained free people of color.

Upon closer inspection of the document, it also appears that the heads of many of these households were women. In fact, of the households on this page that contained only free people of color, six heads of household were adult males, compared with 17 adult females, and 11 households contained only women.

From this, it seems likely that Eliza Simpson had settled within a support system of free black women. Noting some of the names of the heads of households living near Simpson would be useful for comparison with other records. If Simpson appears to remain near the same people, there is a good chance they are related or closely associated somehow.

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You could also search for others with the surname “Simpson” in the District of Columbia in 1840. Identifying other free people of color with this surname in the same area may suggest a relationship, and a white family with the Simpson surname could lead to a former slave owner if Eliza Simpson was enslaved earlier in her life.

When we performed this search on Ancestry.com, we located a Matilda Simpson, a free person of color listed as the head of household just five pages before your Eliza Simpson. There were seven people in this household who could be related to your Eliza Simpson. We also noted that there was a Presley Simpson, a white head of household, living in Washington, D.C. His household in 1840 contained one female slave who was between the ages of 10 and 23 (a wide but commonly used age range for listing slaves), which tells you that he was a slave owner and could have had more enslaved people in his household earlier.

You could continue to examine earlier and later records, noting any trends you find with these individuals that could point to a connection to your Eliza Simpson. Examining the 1830 U.S. census for individuals with the surname “Simpson” living in Washington, D.C., we noted Presley Simpson again, and this time he had one free black female recorded in the household between the ages of 10 and 23. Based on Eliza Simpson’s age in other records, she would have been about 12 years old in 1830, making it possible that this is a record for her.

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We also, however, noted three Simpson households in Washington, D.C., in 1830 that had free people of color as the heads of household. E. Simpson was residing in Ward 4 of the District of Columbia with five free people of color and two female slaves under the age of 10. The oldest person in the household was a female between the ages of 24 and 35; there was also a male and a female between the ages of 10 and 23, and two males under the age of 10. Your Eliza Simpson would fit nicely into the 10-to-23 age range and could be recorded in this record, too.

There was also a Maria Simpson between the ages of 36 and 54 living as the head of household with five people of color, including two females the right age to be your Eliza Simpson. You will likely need to research these individuals forward and backward in time to determine whether they could be related to your Eliza Simpson.

Exploring Other D.C. Records

There are also a number of records for the District of Columbia that have been compiled into published volumes that may include Eliza Simpson. As genealogist Johni Cerny noted in an email to us, “Most places required free persons of color to register with the city or county clerk, where they would be given a paper attesting to their status. Some entries give details about their emancipation, including the name of the person who set them free and the names of parents and other family members.” Cerny referred us to Dorothy S. Provine’s District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861 and advised, “If members of the ancestral family are listed, a copy of the original can be ordered from the county clerk.”

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In addition, it may help to look a bit further back to see if anyone with the Simpson surname was free at the time of Eliza Simpson’s birth. You can then trace those individuals forward to see if you can make a connection.

Helen Hoban Rogers’ Freedom and Slavery Documents in the District of Columbia would prove helpful for this process because it includes an index and abstractions for documents relating to slaves and free blacks in D.C. between 1792 and 1822. This collection, for example, contains an abstract of the manumission of James Simpson and his wife, Mariah, on March 7, 1815, freed by James Middleton. It also contains a number of certificates of freedom for a Leonard Simpson from 1813 to 1821. There was also a Nance Simpson, son of Mary Simpson, who George Watterson swore in 1821 had always been a free person.

Researching these individuals forward in time may help with finding a connection. It is important to note that these are abstracts from deed records and that the abstracts end in 1822. That does not mean that there are no records after 1822 in the deed books that may include information on Eliza Simpson. The Family History Library has District of Columbia deed records available on microfilm that you could search at your local Family History Center for a manumission, certificate of freedom or a deed of sale that might help you determine Eliza Simpson’s status prior to 1840.

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To discover more details about Eliza Simpson’s early life, your best option is to explore as many possible leads as you can and then begin to piece together the evidence to develop a likely scenario for how she became a single free woman of color in Washington, D.C., during slavery.

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.

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

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, 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.