Hardy Damascus Graham, son of Nash Graham
Family photo courtesy of Hardy Damascus Graham III

Dear Professor Gates:

In my father’s family, there is a story about three brothers: Nash, Kush and Hardy. Our surname is Graham. The brothers were slaves who escaped by setting a cotton gin afire in the middle of the night, and during the commotion, they scat.

We don’t know where they escaped from, but my family is strongly connected to North Carolina. One brother ended up in North Carolina, one brother ended up in South Carolina and the third brother was never heard from again. We don’t know if he was captured or just went elsewhere.

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The South Carolina brother was my great-great-grandfather Nash Graham. He was born in 1830 and his death date is unknown. Nash was married to Elizabeth Graham, born 1847 (maiden name unknown).

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Nash and Elizabeth’s children were Allen, born 1860; Gabriel W., born 1863; twins Maggin and Hardy Damascus, born 1865; W.D., born 1877; and Henry, born 1880. We found no information on Allen, Maggin or W.D. Nash, and the family lived in Nichols, Marion County, S.C., in 1880. We found a record stating that Nash’s parents were born in South Carolina, but no names were present. I was told that we have connections to Bolton, N.C. Can you help me fill in the details of his life, please? —Hardy Damascus Graham III

If your family lore is true, then it is one of great daring. Particularly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which compelled citizens to actually assist in the recapture of runaways, a flight to freedom was fraught with danger. (Read more about “one of American history’s worst laws” in a September 2015 Time article on its 165th anniversary.)

Generally, stories of runaway slaves describe flights north to Northern states or Canada, but as Professor Gates noted in a previous article for The Root, consistent with your family story, “more than 50,000 slaves ran away not to the North, but ‘within the South,’ according to John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s pioneering study, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. … But few of them made it to freedom.”

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One way to determine if your family story about the three brothers’ escape is true would be to identify a likely slave owner and see if he posted any runaway slave advertisements in the newspapers, or if a local paper reported the fire. It seems that South Carolina is a good place to start, given the documents located. You can search historic newspapers through free sites such as the Google Newspaper Archive, through subscription websites such as GenealogyBank.com and Newspapers.com, or by contacting local libraries.

We located a promising article on GenealogyBank.com from the Charleston Courier dated Oct. 21, 1858, which states that a ginhouse belonging to Mr. S. Coles burned to the ground the Wednesday night before. Mr. S. Coles was described as a planter of the district who lived on the Saluda River. This is approximately 130 miles away from Nichols, Marion County, S.C., where Nash Graham is found in documents, so it is not directly next to it but may be far enough away to coincide with the runaway story. We should note that this is not the only cotton gin that burned to the ground recorded in the news, but it was the only one we located that did not attribute the fire to a malfunction of the gin and gave no reason for its destruction. Because of this, it may fit with your family lore.

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We searched for S. Coles in the census records and noted a J.S. Coles who owned a number of slaves in the Saluda district, according to the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules on Ancestry.com. It seems likely that this is the S. Coles from the article, since he was the only Coles in the region. According to the 1860 U.S. census, J.S. Coles was born in Virginia about 1833. We did note a John S. Coles who owned slaves in Albemarle, Va., in 1850 with a 20-year-old slave in the household that could be your Nash Graham. You will likely want to research this individual further through land, court and probate records to see if you can locate evidence that he may actually have been Nash Graham’s former slave owner.

You will likely want to search newspapers for a runaway slave advertisement to confirm your story. An upcoming database may be able to help. Freedom on the Move is a project based out of Cornell University to create a searchable database of runaway slave advertisements. Though it is not completed yet, you could check back in the near future to see if it can help you find an ad involving your ancestors.

When Was Nash Graham Born?

You provided a death record for Nash Graham’s son, Henry Graham, dated June 18, 1937, which states that both father and son were born in Nichols, S.C. You also mentioned the 1880 U.S. census, which also shows the family residing in Nichols, Marion County, S.C., with the children that you mentioned. Based on these two records, it’s reasonable to concentrate the search on Marion County, S.C., to start to see if we can locate any more records for Nash.

We also located Nash Graham residing in Hillsboro Township (south part), Nichols town, Marion, S.C., in 1900. This is certainly the right person, since his age and location match what we know about him, and his son, Henry, whose death certificate you found in the household. However, this record suggests that he may have remarried, since his wife’s name is Mary instead of Elizabeth, and there are a number of children in the household that were not there in the previous census. Keep in mind that there is a 20-year gap in census records at this time because most of the 1890 federal census was destroyed, so a lot could have occurred during that span of time.

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All of these records together show relations that may help you find more information on the early years of Nash Graham’s life. When you hit a brick wall, it is often helpful to research your ancestor’s family members or neighbors as they could reveal more about your ancestor. For example, the death record for his daughter, Cora Graham McClellan, dated Feb. 19, 1928, states that Nash and Elizabeth were her parents and that they were both born in South Carolina.

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There is also a delayed birth certificate for his son James Nash (available on Ancestry.com, subscription only), which states that Nash Graham died at age 70 and that he was born in Nichols, Marion, S.C. According to the record, James Graham was born March 5, 1894, and was the son of Nash Graham and Lizzie Jones, who was also born in Nichols. This would mean that Nash died about 1900, but certainly after the census was enumerated that year, since he appeared on the census. The more information you can locate that suggests a location to look for him, it will help you focus your search for Nash and his brothers.

We set out to locate Nash in the 1870 United States federal census, which is the first federal census that listed former slaves by name. We were not able to locate him even when we expanded the search to just the surname “Graham” in Marion County, S.C., since we know he was residing there in 1880. There were a number of African-American families residing in Marion County in 1870, but none seemed to match your Graham family.

You could continue different combinations of search criteria or just browse the census for the county page by page to see if you can locate the family. Sometimes records are transcribed incorrectly or names were recorded differently than what you know about the individual, and browsing the records can be helpful for this reason.

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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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.