Record of Sarah Riddick in 1880 U.S. census
U.S. Census, 1880

Dear Professor Gates:

My maternal second great-grandmother was named Sarah Riddick, born around 1862 in Washington County, N.C. Records show that she worked as a servant for L.B. Davis and his wife, Annie E. Davis. I would like to know if Riddick was a slave and where she came from. The 1880 U.S. census shows she had three children and no husband. Aside from the census, I cannot find any records for her. Can you help me? —Diyah Hill Rasheed

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We can certainly give you some promising leads to pursue. That metaphorical brick wall you’ve encountered is a common problem because, as we’ve written before in this column, there is scant documentation of African Americans before emancipation. This is because most African Americans were enslaved and considered to be the property of white slave owners. That’s how they were treated in wills, deeds, account and probate records, as well as census enumerations. As legal property, they were rarely listed by name. Even free people of color were often neglected in public records before emancipation, making them difficult to trace.

The First Step in Scaling the Brick Wall

When you find yourself seemingly at a dead end in the search for genealogy records, it is always best to gather as many clues as you can from the records you already have. The 1900 U.S. census shows Sarah Riddick as the head of household in Scuppernong, Washington County, N.C.

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There are a few things you can gather from this record. It states that Sarah was born in June 1862 in North Carolina. She has two daughters living with her, Martha A. (born April 1883) and Hattie (born July 1888). The record also says that she had borne five children but that only three were still living by 1900. This could mean that you could locate birth and death records for her young children that may reveal more information about Sarah Riddick.

Working further back, the 1880 U.S. census records Sarah Riddick as a servant in the household of L.B. Davis at Scuppernong, Washington, N.C., United States. There are a number of individuals who were servants in the household, including others with the Riddick surname, namely Mesia Riddick (age 22) with who appears to be her son Jordan, who was only 2 years of age. The record also includes Sarah Riddick’s son, Joseph, age 2.

You may want to also note the other servants in the household, even if they do not have the Riddick name, since they may also be related to Sarah or closely associated with her. Other individuals who may be worth investigating further from this record include Caroline Johnston (age 22) and her son Hezikiah Johnston (age 3), Isaac Sikes (age 24), M. McGalagher (female, age 20), and William Simpson (age 23). 

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Since you are having difficulty locating more information on Sarah Riddick earlier than the 1880 census, you’ll want to focus your search on L.B. Davis. From the 1880 census, you can gather that he was born in about 1832 in North Carolina. We located Levi B. Davis residing in Cool Spring, Washington County, N.C., in 1870.  We can verify that this is the same person because his son, Charles, and wife, Anne, appear in his household in both 1880 and 1870. Levi B. Davis does not have any servants in his household at this time, so neither Sarah Riddick nor any of her relations were working for him at this point.

Using Records of the Free for Clues About Possible Slaves

However, we did also note that L.B. Davis had a mulatto “house girl” (age 35) named Mary Davis residing in his household in 1860. Mary Davis must have been a free woman of color to appear by name on the federal census. She is the only other free person in L.B. Davis’ household besides himself in this census, but according to the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedule (on Ancestry.com, subscription required), he also had six slaves. 

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Based on their descriptions, the following slaves were in his household: 52-year-old male, 41-year-old female, and four male children ages 8 years, 5 years, 3 years and 3 months. It is possible that these children may all be children of the male and female adult slaves in the household, though it is also possible that they could be children of Mary Davis. This is just two years before your Sarah Riddick was born. Perhaps she is a child of one of the members of this household.

Since we know that L.B. Davis was still living after the end of slavery, you are unlikely to locate a probate record for him that will mention those he enslaved. You could try to search land records in Washington County, N.C., to see if a manumission was recorded for the Mary Davis who appeared in L.B. Davis’s household in 1860. These are available on microfilm from the Family History Library, and you could view them at your location Family History Center. Land and account records for L.B. Davis may also give you a better sense of closely related families who may have an association with your Sarah Riddick.

We had difficulty locating any of the servants that were in L.B. Davis’ household in 1880 in any earlier census records. When you run into a wall like this, it is often helpful to expand out as far as possible to cast a wider net in hopes of finding a relevant record. We searched the 1870 census specifically for a Sarah Riddick whose race was black or mulatto in North Carolina, but did not specify a birth date or county of residence. The closest match we located was a Sarah Riddick, born about 1865, residing in the household of Frazier Riddick in Winton, Hertford County, N.C.. Unfortunately, this cannot be your Sarah Riddick because this girl was residing with her mother in Hertford County in 1880, when we know your Sarah was in the household of L.B. Davis.

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We also searched the 1870 United States federal census for the surname Riddick in Washington County, N.C. We located the household of a Lear Riddick in Scuppernong, Tyrell County, N.C. This is the same township as Scuppernong, Washington County, but the county boundaries changed between 1870 and 1880. Lear Riddick, a female head of household, also had a family of people with the surname Pailing living in her household.

Also on the page is a Richard Riddick, who, according to his death certificate, is also Lear Riddick’s son. There is no obvious connection to your Sarah Riddick other than the fact that they are the only family of color living in the right location with the same surname as your Sarah Riddick. However, because of this coincidence, they may be worth further investigation.

We then expanded our search to any individuals named Sarah born in 1862 living in Scuppernong to see if she could have a different surname in 1870. We located two potential matches. The first was a Sarah Alexander in the household of Franklin Alexander in Scuppernong, Tyrrell County, N.C. Secondly, there was also a Sarah Davenport residing in the household of W. Davenport in Lees Mills, Washington County, N.C., that could also be a close match to your Sarah Riddick. You could trace these individuals forward to see if they might be a match for your ancestor.

Searching Forward for Clues of the Past

Since you know Sarah Riddick was alive in 1900, there is a possibility that there was a death record for her in North Carolina. We searched the index for North Carolina Deaths, 1906-1930, but the only Sarah Riddick we located was a match for the daughter of Frazier Riddick, whom we already ruled out as your Sarah. You could try to contact the Washington County Registry of Deeds to see if it may have records earlier than 1906 that may include your Sarah Riddick. A death record for her may include her parents’ names, which may help you work back further. Collecting vital records for her known children may also help you learn more about her.

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Sometimes research requires a lot of work finding negative results (such as determining that the Sarah Riddick, daughter of Frazier Riddick, could not be your ancestor), but do not be discouraged! Each record you locate that might relate to your Sarah or her family helps you rule out records to get you closer to positive results. Researching Sarah’s known children and those you discover living with her in records might get you closer to learning more about her origins.

We suggest reading the following past columns for resources that may help with your continuing search: “A Cheat Sheet for Researching African-American Ancestors” and “How Do I Decode Slave Records?”

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.