Protector of Slaves Office (Trinidad), by Richard Bridgens, circa 1833, Yale Center for British Art
Wikimedia

Dear Professor Gates:

I’m Australian, and hoping to trace living relatives of a slave owned by a relative of my uncle in Trinidad. I want to apologize for my ancestor’s actions.

What I know is as follows: William Preston Galloway (born May 30, 1798, in Edinburgh, Scotland) landed in Trinidad in 1821 and by 1825 was the owner of a female slave: 33-year-old Hagar Purcell, born on the nearby island of St. Vincent. She was described as a “5’4½,” “negro labourer” of fully black appearance, and a Creole. I will send you a supporting document that I obtained from the Ancestry U.K.: “Slave Registers of Former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834.”

How do I trace Hagar Purcell? Can you help me find Hagar’s family, or that of any other slaves owned by William Preston? —Harold Peacock

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It’s good that you want to learn more about Hager Purcell, whose life was bound to those of your ancestors through enslavement. If you do find any of her descendants, take things slowly in your desire to make an apology. Start with sharing the information you have uncovered about their ancestor, listen to and respect how they respond to it, and then go from there.

Building Upon a Good Start in Your Research

It is always good practice to note as much information as you can from the records that you have, as you have done with the 1825 slave register for William Preston Galloway. This provides a good description of Hagar that you can use for comparison with other records in case her name changed or she was sold again. The collection of “Slave Registers of Former British Colonial Dependencies” (via Ancestry.com; subscription required) is also a good place to start looking for more information. As you search through these records, keep in mind the history that led to their creation, since it may help you determine where to look for more information.

The Abolition of Slave Trade Act of 1807 made it illegal to trade in slaves from Africa to the British colonies. To enforce this law, many British colonies began requiring the registration of “lawfully enslaved” persons, which is why these records are so detailed in recording where the enslaved person originated. In the case of Hagar Purcell, she was recorded as originating from St. Vincent. The registers were typically done every three years until 1834, a year after Britain officially abolished slavery itself. This means that Hagar Purcell could have been registered in these records multiple times, and we would expect to see her registered with William Preston Galloway in 1828 if he still owned her by that date.

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To see whether we could locate her in another register, we searched the collection just for the Purcell surname and noted a number of records of enslaved individuals in Trinidad with that surname. Since the surnames of these individuals were often different from their owners’ names, this could indicate that Purcell was a family name of the slaves, perhaps adopted earlier by a former slave owner and then passed down through the generations. This means that any of these Purcell individuals in Trinidad may be relatives of your Hagar Purcell.

There are at least 80 records in these returns for enslaved individuals with the surname Purcell on the islands of Trinidad, Jamaica, St. Christopher and Honduras. It would interesting to see if any of these individuals also originated in St. Vincent. That may help demonstrate a connection between them and your Hagar Purcell.

Uncovering a Promising Lead

One record in the list that stood out was for a “Hayer Purcell” in 1822, owned by Mary Purcell. This individual was born in 1792, as was your Hagar Purcell. We looked at a copy of the original document and noted that her name had been transcribed incorrectly. This is certainly a record for the same Hagar Purcell. The record states that Hagar was “imported” and was a Creole of St. Vincent. It also states that her owner, Mary Purcell, was formerly a Wilson of the town Port of Spain in Trinidad. Because they share the same surname, it is possible that this is where Hagar got her name. It also raises the possibility that earlier records for Hagar may be under the name Wilson. Finally, this record states that Mary “imported” Hagar from St. Vincent, so this may be the first record for Hagar in Trinidad.

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Looking back at the record for William Preston Galloway in 1825, we see that he had purchased her, and these two records together suggest that Galloway purchased her from Mary (Wilson) Purcell between 1822 and 1825. She may have been recorded even earlier at St. Vincent in the 1817 register.

To try to work backward to see where Hagar Purcell originated, we searched the register collection just for the first name Hagar and her birth year, 1792. We noted a number of Hagars without surnames born in 1792 and recorded in Jamaica in 1817. You could duplicate our search and compare the physical descriptions of these individuals with Hagar Purcell to see if you can identify a match. You could do the same type of search to work forward as well to see if Hagar was registered in 1828 with someone other than William Preston Galloway.

Based on the collection, it does not appear that William Preston Galloway registered any other slaves in the British colonies; nor was Hagar Purcell registered with him after 1825. This could be because either he sold her or she was free after this date. When the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, it provided compensation to slave owners for the loss of their slaves.

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You could check the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database for these records to see whether William Preston Galloway received any compensation for Hagar Purcell or any other slaves. This database documents all the slave owners who received compensation in the wake of the British government’s abolition of slavery in 1833 in the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. It includes biographical details on the “absentees”—those who lived in Britain. (The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership has been established with the support of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, of which Professor Gates is founding director, and University College London to develop further work on the legacies of the slavery business across the British Empire and the wider world.)

Though we did not locate a record for William Preston Galloway, there were other Galloways who did receive compensation for slaves in the Caribbean that you could research. There were also a number of slave owners with the surname Purcell that owned slaves in Trinidad and Grenada that may be associated with your Hagar Purcell. Research into those slave owners may help you determine where Hagar Purcell may have gone after abolition.

To search in the other direction, before the first slave register in 1812, the United Kingdom’s National Archives site recommends, “The best place to find information about a slave before 1812 is in the private papers of the slave owner, or in records about the owner or his or her property. Papers might still be with the family or deposited in a local archive or library where the family lived or settled.”

Consulting Resources in Trinidad

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of records for Trinidad available online. Some online sources that may help direct your search are websites such as Trinidad and Tobago Genealogy—which contains information such as what records are available at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago—and the U.K.’s National Archives, which hold a number of collections for Trinidad. This may help you determine the likelihood of locating a civil record for Hagar Purcell after 1825 or after slavery was abolished in 1834.

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You’ll likely want to work both forward and backward, researching Hagar Purcell’s known slave owners, as well as any other enslaved individuals with that same surname from St. Vincent. If you can identify her slave owner close to the time of her birth, you could determine the names of her family members. If you can identify her family members, locating information about them may help you discover more records for Hagar and her descendants. If you are unable to locate a record of her beyond 1825, you could conduct research on former slaves in the area with the surname Purcell, which may help you discover a familial connection.

Good luck in your continued search!

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.

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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.