(The Root) —
"I have an insatiable appetite for history and so does my father. He was born on Cherokee Plantation in Yemassee, S.C. (the Lowcountry), and that area still has a very rich Gullah heritage.
"I have been able to go back to the 1880 census, but a lot of records in South Carolina were destroyed during the burning of Columbia. I would love your help on how to continue my journey. I have traced my father's side back to a slave born in 1840, who I believe to be my great-great-great-grandfather. There was also a record of his wife." —Nikki (Francis) Fleming
Most of us don't realize that about 40 percent of all of our ancestors who survived the Middle Passage arrived in this country through Charleston, S.C. Many of the Gullah people, who hail from the Lowcountry region in South Carolina and Georgia, descend from Africans taken to America from the "Rice Coast" in West Africa (Sierra Leone and the Windward Coast) to work on rice plantations.
But not all do. In fact, according to the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood, who looked at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to ascertain the origins of the enslaved Africans who came into South Carolina, the largest portion of slaves (31 percent) came from West Central Africa and nearly 22 percent came from the Rice Coast, with lesser numbers coming from the Gold Coast and the Niger Delta region. What this means, they conclude, is that "this is hardly grounds for making the Gullah people's origins an exclusive provenance of the Rice Coast," a mistaken assumption that many of us commonly make.
So to ascertain where in Africa your maternal line derives (as closely as genetic evidence allows), you should get a DNA test of your ancestry to see if you have roots in any of these regions. Africanancestry.com provides its clients with the most definite estimates of their African ethnic ancestry, through their mother's mother's line or their father's father's line. (As a woman, you would have to have your father, a brother or a male cousin descended from your father's father take the y-DNA test, since females don't have this chromosome.)
In other words, tracing your ancestors to South Carolina or even to a Gullah community doesn't necessarily mean that your ancestors originated in Sierra Leone or the Windward Coast. So take the test! More information about the types of testing available can be found in my article "How Mixed Are African Americans?" on The Root.
Thanks to the work of several scholars, such as Peter Wood, we do know quite a lot about slavery in the Lowcountry. Because of the nature of rice growing, the slaves on these Lowcountry plantations lived apart from the owners and had less contact with them than other Southern slaves. After the Civil War these former slaves became wageworkers, until the rice business crashed at the end of the 19th century. This economic change made the Gullah more isolated than ever. For that reason, these former slaves from South Carolina and Georgia still maintain an active community based on African culture and practices.
You can trace Gullah ancestry by following the same basic genealogical methods mentioned in previous articles. A great resource for researching your Lowcountry ancestors is Lowcountry Africana, which offers advice and links to useful sources regarding South Carolina slaveholders.
You have already begun tracing your family through the federal census records, and you can keep going by searching the additional population lists taken in South Carolina. The South Carolina Department of Archives & History, in Columbia, has microfilm of the 1869 South Carolina State Population Census (including all but Kershaw, Oconee and Spartanburg counties), the first to have African-American heads of household listed by name and all members of the household indicated by age and gender. Also held there are the Voter Registration Lists of 1867 and 1868, the first in which freed slaves appeared as registered voters. In addition to names, these lists feature the birth state or country and the length of time in the current residence.
From there you can continue by looking for sources about South Carolina slaves and slaveholders. Lowcountry Africana has been indexing estate inventories and bills of sales that have now been made available through Fold3. You can find additional plantation documentation by searching for manuscript collections held by historic institutions with catalogs linked to search programs like ArchiveGrid.
The difficulty in your research may have more to do with the number of different counties in which you will be searching rather than the destruction of records in Columbia. The capital itself is in Richland County, with part spreading into Lexington County. Yemassee is in Hampton and Beaufort counties, very near the borders of Colleton and Jasper counties.
Often, slaves and freed slaves can be identified through owners' probate and conveyance records. The probate records were kept by each county in South Carolina, and of the counties in question, only Colleton County's pre-Civil War probate records were destroyed. The other South Carolina counties in which this would be a problem include Beaufort, Chesterfield, Georgetown, Lancaster and Orangeburg.
The South Carolina Department of Archives & History features searchable transcriptions of various probate documents. Much of its collection of probate records has been digitized by the Family History Library and made available for browsing. These two repositories also hold many of the conveyance (or deed) records for South Carolina. However, there are many missing records of this type for certain counties, including Beaufort, Colleton, Lexington and Richland, as well as Abbeville, Chesterfield, Georgetown and Orangeburg.
In tracing Gullah ancestors, it is useful to know that the Rice Coast Africans brought a higher price. That meant there were advertisements specifically indicating the slaves' origins to potential buyers. These typically included only the number of men, women, boys and girls on sale, but they also featured the name of the ship, the seller and the approximate arrival date. These can be found in local newspapers that have been made available on microfilm in local libraries and archives or in digitized collections like Chronicling America.
There were also a variety of African-American newspapers dating back to before the Civil War. These could hold obituaries or other information about your former slave ancestors. For a list of these newspapers, you may wish to consult the African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography, edited by James P. Danky (with a foreword by me). This was a project with the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has microfilmed copies of many such newspapers.
Researching African Americans in places where records may have been damaged by the Civil War can be difficult but is definitely not impossible. Your African-American ancestors left traces of their lives in a variety of documents that were kept in multiple locations. Keep looking for resources that are available, and you should find success!
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Kyle Hurst, a researcher from 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.