De Batang Rawas by Bingin-Telok. A sketch of a traditional village in Madagascar. Engraving from Southeast Asia. (National Museum of World Cultures) 
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

I have done a lot of research into my family’s Madagascar ancestry, but I want help understanding how my mother’s family got to America.

I understand that there were only five ships that legally came from Madagascar to the Colonies and that the slaves from there were obtained by a member of the House of Burgess. I know that enslavers of my mother’s family had the surname Coney and that a Henry Coney was a member of the House of Burgess. It turns out some of my ancestors had the surname Coney, as well.

My mother’s maiden name was Annie Lee Billue, her mother’s maiden name was Pearlie Mae Pridgett and her mother’s maiden name was Tabitha Coney. Tabitha’s parents were Elizabeth Coney and David Coney, both enslaved by Mary Coney in Dublin, Ga. Is Mary Coney related to Henry Coney, and if so, how? Did he purchase the Africans? From which ship did they disembark, and in which area of Madagascar were they captured? —Valerie Pigatt

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It is worth noting that during the period that Henry Coney was listed as burgess (an elected representative) for Archer’s Hope and Glebe Land, Va. (1629-1630 and 1632-1633), slavery, as we think of it, had yet to be codified in the statutory laws of the colony. Just a decade prior to the beginning of his tenure, the first Africans had landed in nearby Jamestown, in 1619. At least some of the “20 and odd” people from Angola, who had been removed from a Portuguese slave ship by English privateers off the coast of Mexico, were treated as indentured servants. And free blacks were not unknown in the colony in the years that followed. Still, between that time and when slavery, as a status inherited from one’s mother, became Virginia law in 1662, a series of regulations were passed, restricting the freedoms and eroding the rights of people of African descent.

Archer’s Hope (later renamed College Creek) is a tributary of the James River, via which enslaved Africans before 1776 were transported up to Richmond, where they were sold to work in the region’s tobacco and wheat fields, according to the website for Visit Richmond VA.

Based on this, it would be helpful to examine the probate records and land records of James City County, where Archer’s Hope is located. Unfortunately, these records have not been digitized; however, microfilms can be ordered from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. According to the work Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632-1800, while no wills exist for a Henry Coney, there is a will for a Thomas Coney of Westmoreland County, Va., filed in 1742, which may be worth examining.

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The reason we encourage you to look at probate records is that they are among the most useful resources for establishing relationships between individuals. These records are also helpful in establishing the ownership of slaves, since they are often mentioned in wills and in other documents tracking transfers from person to person. Sadly, relevant ship manifests and records of slave purchases from this time were relatively rare.

Tracing the Coneys Back to Virginia

With regard to Mary Coney, we suggest using FamilySearch to peruse probate records between 1742 and 1990 for Laurens County, where the city of Dublin, Ga., is located. We looked at census records using Ancestry.com (subscription required), and according to the 1850 census, the only Mary Coney in Dublin, Ga., was the wife of a William Coney. William Coney was born in Georgia in 1809. Therefore, if there was a connection between Mary Coney and the family of Henry Coney of Virginia, it would likely be through William. 

The most effective method of connecting William Coney to the Coney family of Virginia would be to attempt to determine who William’s parents were and trace the Coney line backward. The wills of Laurens County, Ga., where William was living in 1850, are available to browse on FamilySearch. Maybe he is named in one of them.

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We searched through Virginia Colonial Abstracts of James City County, Virginia to find additional information on the Coney family. We found a Thomas Coney who signed a land deed to Benjamin Eggleston (595 acres) in James City County on April 16, 1690, but did not find mention of any other Coney names within the Colonial records.

We then searched Early Virginia Families Along the James River to find any information referenced on the Coney family in that geographic area, and found a Ralph Cony (note the variant spelling) who signed as a witness to a 750-acre land grant between Elizabeth Grayne and John Morgan in Charles City County, Va., on July 25, 1638. There was no additional information contained within these volumes regarding the Coney family.

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Other sources that may provide useful information about the family of Henry Coney include the Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography and Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607-1635

Focusing on the Madagascar Connection

To determine where the ships carrying your ancestors could have departed from and where they arrived, a useful source is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which contains records of slave voyages around the world from 1514 to 1866. According to the database’s co-editor, David Eltis, individuals from Madagascar would likely have arrived before 1722. A search of the ships arriving in North America between 1678 and 1721 revealed seven ship disembarkations with a total of 1,922 slaves from Madagascar landing in Virginia: an unnamed one in 1686; Mercury on Feb. 21, 1719; Prince Eugene on Feb. 27, 1719, and again on May 18, 1720; Rebecca on July 13, 1720; and both the Gascoigne and Henriette in 1721. Consult the database to find out more about each voyage.

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As Professor Gates wrote in a previous column, the ports that enslaved Africans came through to Virginia included Hampton, Lower James River, Rappahannock, South Potomac, Upper James River and York River. Unfortunately, in our search, there did not appear to be records of the individuals who purchased slaves at each port; and therefore, the most likely source of information would be probate and land records, which would show the property of an individual.

Newspapers, which often contain lists of slave purchases and announcements, may also prove to be useful in your search, as they might help you determine when and where slaves arrived in areas near James City County, Va., or Laurens County, Ga. The database Newspapers.com contains issues of the Virginia Gazette as far back as 1736, and the database Early American Newspapers contains issues of the Georgia Gazette beginning in 1763.

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Another useful resource is the database Unknown No Longer, available for free through the Virginia Historical Society. The Virginia Historical Society has compiled unpublished manuscripts and documents relating to slavery and slave owners into a searchable database. Our search of the name “Coney” did not turn up any results, but be sure to try a variety of name spellings when conducting your own search. The Georgia Historical Society may also contain documents and records from Mary Coney and her estate.

Finally, with regard to your own Madagascar heritage, we asked genetic genealogist CeCe Moore if a DNA test could confirm it. She told us in an email, “While there is not a DNA test that will specifically tell you that you have ancestors from Madagascar, we have been having great success using all three types of DNA tests—Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal DNA—in conjunction with some focused research, to uncover this ancestral origin.

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“When an African American takes a Y-DNA or mtDNA test and receives a haplogroup [genetic groupings] typically associated with an Asian origin, closer examination will often reveal that the particular subclade or branch of that haplogroup is found in Madagascar—sometimes exclusively. With autosomal DNA testing, the hints are more subtle, but can sometimes be teased out as well.”

Moore also said that “Malagasy origins” have been revealing themselves in African Americans with “surprising” frequency, so much so that she was inspired to create the Malagasy Roots DNA Project at FamilyTreeDNA. Go to the project’s home page to learn more; and if you would like to get your DNA tested, 23andMeAncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA all offer such services.

Good luck with your search!

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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.

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

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This answer was provided in consultation with Zachary Garceau, 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 about researching African-American roots.