Sabra Vinson, daughter of former slave Adalin Vinson
Family photo courtesy of Natasha Mullins

Dear Professor Gates:

I’ve managed to trace my family ancestry back to an Adalin and Alex Vinson. The records I have state that Adalin (the spellings of her name vary) was born around 1825 and died around 1915. Alex was born around 1820 and died around 1878.

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They had quite a few children, including my great-great-grandmother Sabre. I think they may have been the property of slave owner Drury Vinson of Alabama.

I can’t seem to go back any further or find their place of birth or any further information about them. Is there anything you can do to help with this mystery? —Natasha Mullins

Starting With the Post-Civil War Period

Since you believe that your ancestors were enslaved, our initial search focused on the period immediately following the Civil War, the first time in American history that all African Americans were recorded in censuses by name.

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In 1870, Alex and Atline Vinson were living in Colbert County, Ala. (the same county from which soul singer Percy Sledge hailed). According to the federal census record, Alex was born in North Carolina about 1820, and Atline was born in Tennessee about 1830. This largely corresponds with what you told us about your ancestors, leading us to assume that we had the right couple. All of their children (including a 9-year-old girl named Sabra) were born in Alabama, starting with the oldest, Caroline, who was born about 1845.

If you examine the original record, you’ll note that next door to Alex and Atline were Jesse and Matilda Vinson, both born about 1843. In their household was a woman named Harriet who was the same age as your Alex. We noted this family not only because they share a surname with Alex and Atline and are living near them but also because Alex and Atline had a daughter named Matilda, which may suggest a familial relationship between the two families. Researching other black families with the same surname in Colbert County may help lead you to more information about your own ancestors.

By 1880, Alex was deceased, and does not appear in the census, but an Adaline Venson was residing in Colbert County with 27-year-old Sabie Venson and a number of daughters. As you do your own research, when examining original records, be sure to check the pages before and after the page where your family appears. In this case, looking at the next page revealed that Adaline was living close to Jesse and Matilda Venson. There was an Adline Vinson in the same place in 1900.

We think it’s likely that the family was also in Colbert County prior to the end of slavery, bolstered by the fact that Alexander Vinson registered to vote in Colbert County on July 1, 1867 (pdf), which is the closest record we located to the end of slavery for him. That year was the first one in which black men could vote and run for public office, rights that would be proscribed in the decades to come under racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Furthermore, in Alabama a state census was taken in 1866. It was the first census in the state to record African Americans by name, under the “Colored Population” census. The census records the names of the heads of households and the number of individuals within certain age brackets living in the home.

When we checked it on Ancestry.com (subscription required), we saw that an Adaline Vinson appears as the head of household in the census in Franklin County. It is important to note here that Colbert County split from Franklin County in 1867, was abolished eight months later and re-established in 1870. The fact that she was recorded in Colbert County in later records is most likely a reflection of that shift in county borders.

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The 1866 state census shows Adaline living with one male between the ages of 10 and 20, one female under age 10, one female age 10 to 20, one female between 30 and 40 years of age, and one female between ages 40 and 50 residing in the household. On the same page, “A. Vinson” was recorded with 12 people in his household, including a male between ages 40 and 50 who could be your Alex Vinson.

These names were not recorded in alphabetical order, suggesting that the census was done household by household, with all the individuals with the Vinson surname recorded on this page living closely to one another. It is likely that they were all recently emancipated slaves whose former owner had the surname Vinson, which was either given to them or adopted by them after the end of slavery.

Shifting Focus to the White Vinsons Before Emancipation

We located Drury Vinson (recorded as Drewry Vinson), the man you suspect to have been the slave owner of your Vinson ancestors, residing in Franklin County, Ala., in 1860. According to the record, Drury was born about 1785 in North Carolina. He appears to be residing directly next to a man who is likely his son, based on his age, named F.C. Vinson. The younger man was born in North Carolina about 1821, around the same time of the birth of your ancestor Alex Vinson.

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Based on their birth locations, it appears that the white Vinson family moved from North Carolina to Alabama sometime after 1821. Given your ancestor’s place of birth, this is a good match for what we know about him. If he was enslaved by Drury Vinson, he could have made the migration to Alabama with them.

Such relocations were happening all over the South during that period, many of them driven by the cotton trade. As noted in a previous column on The Root,What Was the 2nd Middle Passage?”: “‘In the seven decades between the ratification of the Constitution [in 1787] and the Civil War [1861],’” the historian Walter Johnson tells us in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, “‘approximately one million enslaved people were relocated from the upper South to the lower South … two thirds of these through … the domestic slave trade.’”

In particular, “The number of slaves needed in the new states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, where cotton reigned, increased by an average of 27.5 percent each decade, demanding that entire families be relocated from plantations in the East and Upper South.” While we have not discovered what kind of trade the Vinsons were involved in, their movements were certainly typical of the cotton boom period.

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From the various census records we have for Adalin (also Atline/Adaline) Vinson, she was born in Tennessee, which would not match this migration. However, she could have been purchased by the white Vinson family after her birth.

Curious to see if there were any probate records for Drury Vinson that might name one or more of your ancestors, we located his gravestone in the Vinson Cemetery in Colbert County, which records his death on May 31, 1862. We tried searching for his will in the digitized Alabama Probate Records available through FamilySearch, but the database did not have probate records for either Franklin or Colbert County. Upon further investigation into Franklin County, we learned that there was a fire at the courthouse in 1890 and these records were destroyed, so unfortunately you are not likely to locate a probate record for Drury Vinson that could name your ancestors. You are also not likely to locate any land or property records for him, either, since these were also lost in the fire.

Getting Around a Roadblock in Your Record Search

It can seem like an immovable roadblock when you have a situation in which the records you need no longer exist. However, there are still a few things you can do to determine the likelihood that your ancestors were once slaves owned by Drury Vinson. FamilySearch has some great suggestions for researching in counties where records were burned or otherwise destroyed, although you will also be facing the challenge of searching for enslaved ancestors, who do not easily appear in records under the best of circumstances. You’ll need to piece together whatever records you can find to construct whatever you can about their lives prior to emancipation, though you should be prepared for the possibility that you may not be able to identify Alex’s or Adiline’s parents.

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Focus first on determining the likelihood that Alex and Adiline were once enslaved by Drury Vinson. In the 1860 United States Slave Schedules (via Ancestry.com), Drury Vinson and F.C. Vinson were recorded as owning 176 slaves together. (They are also listed on a transcribed page of Franklin County’s largest slaveholders in 1860 on RootsWeb.) This is a large number of enslaved people, and in the slave schedule many of them have similar descriptions, but there are slaves in this household who match the description of your ancestors based on the 1870 census.

Another possible slave owner may be John E. Vinson, who also had slaves in Franklin County in 1860. John E. Vinson and Drury Vinson may be related. Researching their connection and their families could reveal from where they originated and help you determine a likely location where your ancestors were born.

Another strategy you might use would be to research the other African Americans with the surname Vinson who were closely associated with your Vinson family and compare with the slave schedules to see whether you can determine the household where they were all likely living prior to emancipation. Good luck!

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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. Julie Wolf is a freelance writer and editor based outside Boston.

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

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