Savannah waterfront circa 1862
George N. Barnard/National Archives and Records Administration

Dear Professor Gates:

I would like help finding the parents of my slave ancestors Edward Wright and Adeline Boston (or Benett, we think). Both of them, my third great-grandparents, were shipped to Savannah, Ga., on separate dates on a ship called the Calhoun.

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Edward Wright was born in Essex County, Va., circa 1836 and died circa 1887 in Savannah, Ga. A slave, he was shipped from Charleston, S.C., by his owner, Howell W. Hollister, on Nov. 27, 1851. His wife, Adeline, was born in Rockingham, N.C., circa 1829 and was shipped from Charleston on the Calhoun on July 24, 1854, by the same owner.

Edward and Adeline’s children, who were all born in Savannah, were Sarah, born circa 1855; Emily (Emma), born April 1858, died October 1904; and Clifford, born circa 1862. Clifford was female.

We’d like to learn about Edward’s and Adeline’s parents in Virginia and North Carolina. Who were they? —Dori L. Brown

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It appears that your third great-grandparents were brought to Savannah during what is known as the second Middle Passage inside the United States between the end of the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War. As covered in the 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column, several hundred thousand enslaved African Americans were relocated during the domestic slave trade.

As for learning more about them, we’re impressed with the amount of information you have already gathered, given that locating information about enslaved African Americans is always challenging. For instance, you already know the name of the ship that transported your ancestors to Savannah. If you hadn’t, you could have checked the shipping-news columns of contemporary local newspapers, as the historian David Eltis suggested in an email when we consulted him about your query.

We did dig up a few more leads that can help you find Edward’s and Adeline’s parents; in addition, we found some resources that can help many who are seeking answers about their enslaved ancestors in Virginia and North Carolina.

Checking Freedman’s Bank Records

It appears that you may have already checked the Freedman’s Bank Records for documents related to Edward Wright and his family. The Freedman’s Savings Bank, which was established to assist emancipated African Americans after the Civil War ended, was in operation between 1865 and 1874. These records are available online through Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.

Among these records are applications for Edward Wright, husband of Adeline, and their daughter Sarah Wright. Edward Wright’s application is dated Dec. 31, 1866, and is application No. 299. The name of his “master” is H.W. Hollister, and his place of birth is listed as Essex County, Va. His children Sarah, Clifford and Emily are listed on his application, and it is also noted that his occupation was saddler. The application also includes a line for the names of an applicant’s parents, although it is left blank on his application. Edward’s daughter Sarah Wright’s application is also dated Dec. 31, 1866, and the application number is 298. It is noted that she was 11 years of age when the application was filed, and her birthplace was Savannah.

Using Census Records and Slave Schedules

You can search the 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses, as well as the slave schedules for those years. As covered in a previous Tracing Your Roots column, most locales listed enslaved people under the name of their owner and identified them by race (“black” or “mulatto”), age and gender, though a few counties listed slaves by name. Once you have determined the name of the slave owner, you can search these records to track your slave ancestors.

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In the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedule for Howell W. Hollister of Columbia, Richland County, S.C., a 15-year-old male and a 14-year-old female are listed. The information on the male slave corresponds with the approximate age of Edward Wright, born circa 1836. You know that Wright was owned by Hollister in 1851, based on the information you previously located showing that Hollister transported Wright from Charleston to Savannah on Nov. 27, 1851. This information helps you narrow down the time frame when Wright was relocated from his place of birth in Virginia to South Carolina.

The 1840 census does not include a separate slave schedule, but this census includes additional columns for slaves in the household, broken down by gender and age range. Since Edward Wright was born circa 1836, this would be the first census that includes him, although only with a check mark in the column “Slaves—Males Under 10.” We recommend seeing if you can find this in the 1840 census at Ancestry.com.

Searching Slave Owners’ Wills, Probate Records and Business Transactions

Another valuable source for finding details about the sale of slaves, as well as information on the slaves themselves, is the personal and business records of slaveholders. However, finding such documents can be difficult because they oftentimes remained part of a family’s private collection.

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There are a number of resources available online and through local and state repositories that may help you in your search for papers related to Howell W. Hollister. A brief biographical sketch of Hollister is included in The Hollister Family of America: Lieutenant John Hollister, of Wethersfield, Connecticut, and His Descendants. It is noted that he was a harness-maker in Savannah and married Mary G. Thurston. It also states that they did not have any children, which rules out the possibility that Hollister’s personal and business papers were passed down to a son or daughter. According to his death notice, published in Georgia’s Macon Weekly Telegraph on Sept. 3, 1872, he died the day before in Savannah. It is stated that he had been involved with the saddle- and harness-making business in Savannah since 1850.

This fact provides another lead to explore. Available online through FamilySearch is the database Georgia Probate Records, 1742-1990. This collection includes digital images of probate records filed in Georgia, including Chatham County, where Savannah is located. We suggest that you search this database for probate documents pertaining to Howell W. Hollister. Oftentimes these records include an inventory of the deceased’s personal and real estate.

According to the 1860 census, Hollister’s personal estate was worth $8,000. You may locate references to business records such as his account books, which could date as far back as the 1850s and 1860s, the time frame when Hollister owned Edward Wright and his family. Such documents may include information about when and from whom Hollister purchased Wright and his wife. You may be able to determine from his probate records what became of these books after his death.

Widening Your Search of Probate Documents

It can be useful to extend your search to documents relating to other members of a slave owner’s household. In your case, while searching Hollister’s probate documents, be sure to look for references to Daniel Mallett. The exact nature of his relationship to Hollister is unknown at this time, but he is listed in the household of Howell and Mary Hollister in the 1850 and 1860 censuses.

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According to these census records, he was about 15 years younger than Howell Hollister. Like Hollister, Mallett was born in Connecticut and worked as a saddler. It is possible that he inherited a portion of Hollister’s estate, including his business or personal records. Because Hollister was born in Connecticut, you may also wish to contact the Connecticut State Library. Among its holdings is a file named “Hollis, Hollister Family: History and Genealogy Unit Special Genealogical File,” Record Group 74:54. According to the description in the catalog, this file may contain items such as correspondence, manuscripts and other family material.

In the event that you are unable to locate the personal or business records of Howell W. Hollister, you may be able to find out the name of Edward Wright’s original owner and his parents through slaveholder documents recorded in Essex County, Va., Wright’s place of birth. One example is a set of records held at the University of Virginia Library. Its collection includes the microfilmed Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations From the Revolution Through the Civil War. Among the documents in this collection are Essex County Court House Records dated 1813-1884.

According to the library’s description of these records, these documents include account books and financial records related to a plantation at a farm named Gwynfield in Essex County and to merchants who served various plantations in that county. The records contain lists of slaves from the early 1860s—after Edward Wright left Virginia—but they may contain information about other area slaveholders who may have owned Wright and his parents.

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Another resource for slave records is the Library of Virginia, which has posted online a short resource titled “A Guide to the Essex County (VA) Free Negro and Slave Records, 1714-1857.” In addition to these sources, the Virginia Historical Society has created the database Unknown No Longer, which contains the names of various Virginia slaves. The society compiled the list from a number of unpublished documents that are housed there.

You note that Edward Wright’s wife, Adeline (Boston or Benett), was born in Rockingham, Richmond County, N.C., circa 1829. The State Library of North Carolina has posted on its website a guide to locating slave records. In addition to information regarding census records and Freedman’s Bank Records, the library links to the “Preliminary Guide to Records Relating to Blacks in the State Archives of North Carolina” (pdf).

One item of particular interest in this guide are slave papers—which are described as documents collected by the clerk of court or register of deeds—and include bills of sale of slaves, petitions to sell slaves and receipts for slaves. A list of counties with these slave papers—including Richmond County, where Adeline was born—is noted in the guide. According to this source, the slave papers for Richmond County include the years 1778 through 1866, which cover the time frame for when Adeline was born.

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Also listed by the State Library of North Carolina is a source titled “Guide to Private Manuscript Collections in the North Carolina State Archives,” which may be beneficial once you have identified the family name of Adeline’s slaveholder in Rockingham, N.C. It is also noted that the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Perkins Library at Duke University, both have extensive manuscript collections.

In addition to these sources, if you have not done so already, we recommend that you search for additional information about the children of Edward and Adeline Wright. Since their daughter Emily was your direct ancestor, it is likely that you have already searched a variety of sources for information pertaining to Emily. Conducting research on her sisters Sarah and Clifford may lead to sources that provide details about their parents’ early lives in Essex County and Rockingham. Published county and local histories often include biographical sketches of various residents.

Newspapers are another valuable source of such information. In addition to the resources mentioned at the top of this column, GenealogyBank and Chronicling America (a free site available through the Library of Congress) are among the free or fee-based newspaper databases available online.

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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 Eileen Pironti, 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.