James Edward Kirkland, a son of Judy White Kirkland (family photo courtesy of Ashley McGriff)

An upcoming family reunion motivates a young woman to prepare an accurate presentation about the storied family matriarch.

Dear Professor Gates:

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Since the late 1970s, my family has come together every two years for a reunion. For the upcoming one in 2018, I would like to present my family with information on the origins of our family matriarch, Judy White Kirkland.  

From Rafting Creek, S.C., Judy was born in 1842 and died on May 28, 1920, in Sumter, S.C. She is buried in Bordon cemetery. Her maiden name was White, and though she was never married, she had relationships with Powell Kirkland, a farmer who was born in 1854 in South Carolina; Joe Richardson, who was also born in-state and may have been of Canadian descent; and a man whose last name was Boykin, a white man who is said to have founded a town of the same name in South Carolina. Her children were James Edward Kirkland, Mack Kirkland, Joseph Richardson, Robert Richardson, Adam Boykin, Caroline Hunter and Mary Dorgan. 

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According to family oral history, Judy was full- or half-Native American and not enslaved. She worked as a midwife for Dr. M.S. Kirk, the town doctor. Can you help us confirm her heritage, free status and occupation and find details of her early life and parentage, please?  —Ashley McGriff 

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Your family matriarch sounds like a remarkable lady, even if the picture that emerged during our research differed somewhat from the description of her in family oral history. You had already uncovered some of the documentation of these differing details yourself; hopefully what we’ve added will open up new routes to explore as you research her origins.

Was Family Oral History Correct?

According to oral history, she was full- or half-Native American, but every record we found for Judy White Kirkland listed her as black, or “Negro.” You indicated to us that you had not taken a test to determine whether you have Native American ancestry. Keep in mind that, as Professor Gates has written previously, despite all the black family legends about having a “Cherokee” ancestor, only 19 percent of African Americans have at least 1 percent Native American ancestry.

If you still think you are among them, we suggest that you have one or more direct descendants of Judy White Kirkland take an autosomal DNA test through a major testing company such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.com to see if the results include Native American. Why not order one or more kits and bring them to the reunion? The closer the direct descendant is to her generation, the better.

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Additionally, you were told that she worked as a midwife for Dr. M.S. Kirk, the town doctor. At the very least, contemporary news reports indicate that there was such a doctor in the vicinity. The Aug. 1, 1906, edition of the Watchman and Southron newspaper (subscription to Newspapers.com required) reports that Dr. M.S. Kirk of Hagood in Sumter County, S.C., opened an office in nearby Borden, open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and “He seems to do a good business.” There is no mention of a midwife, however; nor could we find one in other accounts of Kirk published by the newspaper. Furthermore, none of the records we found for Judy White Kirkland listed her occupation as midwife.

Tracing Judy’s Records Back in Time

According to Judy White Kirkland’s death record, she was 78 years old at the time of her death on May 28, 1920, placing her birth about 1842. Her son James Kirkland of Rembert was the informant on her death certificate, and her death was recorded at Rafting Creek, Sumter County. With the information you provided, it seems likely that Judy resided in Rafting Creek for a majority of her life, which will help you as you try to work backward in time.

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“Judea Kirkland,” whom we assumed to be your ancestor, was residing in Rafting Creek in 1910 directly next door to her son James Kirkland. At that time she had a grandson, James, age 6, residing with her. According to the census, she had given birth to 14 children but only eight were still living.

Interestingly, “Judia Kirkland” was also recorded in the same census living next to her other son, Mack Kirkland. In this record, she has a grandson, Eugene Dayon, age 5, residing in her household. This may seem like an error that she was recorded twice, but it did happen at times if the person was in a different location when the census taker came around again. The dates at the top of the pages show that the census for each household was taken just five days apart.

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It’s also worth noting that the census record for “Judia” lists her occupation as a “laborer” doing “odd jobs,” while others around her were identified as farmers. It opens up the possibility that she could have been working for a doctor. (The other instance lists her as having no occupation.)

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Each time you find a record, try to draw as much information or clues as you can to help you work backward. In 1900 a “Judith Kirkley” was recorded in Rafting Creek, residing with five children: Robert, born in June 1876; Dinah, born in December 1877; James, born in December 1878; Mack, born in August 1880; and Mary, born in 1883. Her occupation is “farm laborer.” This is certainly your Judy White Kirkland, based on the children in the household. Directly next door were Adam Boykin (born October 1863), his wife, Mattie, and nine children. It’s probable that this is the Adam Boykin who was the son of Judy Kirkland, which is why they were living directly next to each other.

In 1880, “Judea Kirkling” was recorded in the census as the wife of Powel Kirkling, residing in Rafting Creek. According to this record, she was born about 1851 in South Carolina, and she “works on a farm.” The couple had four children residing in the household: Joe, born about 1868; Robert, born about 1874; Dyanna, born about 1875; and James, born about 1879.

We continued to try to work backward, searching for members of this family in the 1870 U.S. census, which was the first one to record all African Americans by name. Based on the ages of the children recorded in 1880, at least Joe, born about 1868, should have been recorded in the 1870 census, but we could not locate him or Judith under any of the surnames that we know are connected to this family.

Using the Records of Judy’s Children to Learn More

When you hit a brick wall, try gathering records for family members to reveal more clues. Death records for Judy’s children are particularly helpful in determining where she was living at the time each of them was born. The death record for her daughter Mary Dorgan identifies her parents as Powell Kirkland and Judy Kirkland. Mary’s brother Mack Kirkland was the informant on her death certificate. Based on this record, Mary was born Sept. 7, 1894, although, judging from the 1900 census, it is more likely to have been about 10 years prior. This tells you that Judy was with Powell Kirkland at least by 1884.

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Likewise, the death record for Caroline Hunter in 1927 identifies her parents as Joe Richardson and Judy Kirkland. She was born about 1872, meaning that Judy was with Joe Richardson around 1870. A death record for Robert Richardson on Jan. 9, 1939, records his birth as being on Jan. 10, 1888. His parents were Joe Richardson and “Judie White,” both born in Kershaw County, S.C. (providing you with a new location in which to search for the family).

In addition, a death record for Joe Richardson on March 16, 1940, estimates his birth as having been around 1870 in Kershaw County. His parents were recorded as Joe Richardson and “Juddie White,” both born in South Carolina. With regard to your assertion that the senior Joe Richardson may have been Canadian, we noted that the index record does say that the ethnicity of the junior Joe Richardson is Canadian, but nothing on the original document indicates that, pointing to the likelihood of a transcription error in the index record.

Was One of Judy’s Children the Son of a White Man?

We then searched the 1870 U.S. census for Adam Boykin, born about 1864 in Kershaw County, S.C., who you said may have been the son of a white man with the surname Boykin who founded a town of the same name.

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We located a good match for the family, but they were recorded under the name Croxom (or some variation of that; the record is hard to read) instead of Richardson. Adam Boykin, a “mulatto” born about 1863, was living in Wateree, Kershaw, S.C., in the home of “Joseph Croxom” (born about 1820) and “Judith Croxom” (born about 1845). Also in the household was 1-year-old “Joseph Croxom.” This matches what we know about Judy and her family but presents yet another surname for the family.

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Although relationships are not recorded in this census, it appears possible that Adam Boykin was the son of “Judith” from a previous relationship with a white man, since he is the only one in the household described as “mulatto.” Everyone else is black.

Your family lore indicates that Judy was a free woman prior to the end of slavery, but we were not able to locate any females with the first name of Judy/Judith in Kershaw or Sumter counties, or anyone with a variation of the surname Croxom in the 1860 census who matched her description. This suggests that she may not have been free prior to the Civil War, and therefore not named in the census. Keep in mind that in South Carolina, only 9,914 free blacks were recorded in the 1860 census, versus 402,406 in bondage.

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Sometimes transcriptions into the search criteria for databases are not accurate, so you may still want to browse the 1860 census for any black families that appear in those counties.

There is indeed a town of Boykin in Kershaw County, as you described. “It was named for the William Boykin family who settled the town in 1755,” according to the South Carolina directory Sciway, which also states that at least two of William’s descendants were named Burwell. On Ancestry.com (subscription required) we found a number of slave owners with the name Boykin residing in Kershaw County in 1860, and all of them had female slaves around the age of your Judith White. Among them were Burwell Boykin, as well as B.E. Boykin, L. Boykin, T.L. Boykin, A.H. Boykin, Mary E. Boykin, L.W. Boykin and a John Boykin, all in Division 4 of Kershaw County. Perhaps Adam Boykin was connected to one of them, and perhaps to the family that founded Boykin.

Good luck in your continuing research, and have a great family reunion!


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, Ph.D., 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 1 billion 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.