Edward Rutledge, son of Rebecca Primus Rutledge (family photo courtesy of Marcella Goode)

A woman notices that her ancestors shared a surname with an 18th-century free black landowner after whom a road and historically black district were named.

Dear Professor Gates:

I recently came across an article that discusses the history of the Jack Primas neighborhood of Charleston, S.C. According to the article, John Primus (aka Jack Primas) arrived from Barbados with his slave owner, Humphrey Primate. He was freed in about 1703 and purchased property in the county in 1712. The area where he owned his property is now known as Jack Primas neighborhood, and Jack Primas Road runs through it. 

My great-great-grandmother’s Freedman’s Bank deposit record shows that her maiden name was Rebecca Primus (circa 1827-1894) and that she was the daughter of John Primus. I found the birth returns of several of Rebecca’s grandchildren. The 1879 return for William Rutledge (son of Jones and Prisilla Rutledge), with Rebecca as the informant, says that the father, who was Rebecca’s son Jones Rutledge, was born in St. Paul’s of Charleston County. I found an 1850 census record for a John Primus in Colleton who was born in about 1797. Colleton is next to St. Paul’s parish.

Although the John Primus in the 1850 census was free, I assume that Rebecca, her mother, Clarissa, and her children were slaves because they do not appear in a census before 1870. (Clarissa was apparently deceased before 1870, certainly before 1872, according to Rebecca’s Freedman’s Bank Record.) Is there a way to determine a family connection to the original John Primus of Charleston? —Marcella Goode

Jack Primas’ Exceptional Story 

According to local writer Suzannah Smith Miles, whose article you cited, the free black man Jack Primas/John Primus owned 100 acres of property in the Cainhoy Peninsula, a region of the Greater Charleston area that had a unique mix of inhabitants when he purchased the land in 1712. Miles wrote in the Moultrie News:

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The first settlers were a mix of people that included English-speaking people from the British Isles and Caribbean, a large contingency of Congregationalists from New England, and Puritans from Massachusetts. The French Huguenot settlers had their own French-speaking church, St. Denis, on French Quarter Creek. There were Native Americans, primarily those of the Wando and Etiwan tribes, and the name “Cainhoy” is a Native American word, originally seen as “Kenha” on maps of the late 1600s. There were also African-Americans, both slave and free. In fact, the St. Thomas Parish Annals note that in 1728, the inhabitants numbered 565 whites, 950 negro slaves, 60 Indian slaves and 20 free negroes. That is an unusually large number of free blacks. This came about from the fact that many of the original white Cainhoy Peninsula landowners manumitted their slaves in their wills.

From this, you know that Jack Primas’ free status was not unusual for the area. In another article for the same news outlet, Miles wrote, “I was able to follow the progress of Jack Primus’s family as they eventually moved from the Cainhoy peninsula to Colleton County and the Pocotaligo region. Jack Primus’s descendants fought during the Revolutionary War, some with the patriots and another allying with British loyalists, eventually going to Nova Scotia. Primus’ descendants fought during the Civil War, in World War I and World War II. They continue to live in coastal South Carolina today.”

Miles also noted here having traced some descendants to the nearby Beaufort area. While we did not independently verify the genealogical traces in Miles’ articles, they should give you plenty of information to work with as you try to locate known descendants of Jack Primas with which to connect your own kin, and suggest that military records could provide you with important leads.

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In the course of our own research, we knew it was plausible that you are connected to the original John Primus based on the location and surname of Rebecca (Primus) Rutledge, but since there could be other reasons for the commonalities (sometimes surnames were adopted from former slave owners, or passed down even while family members were enslaved, or adopted from people individuals admired), we opted to follow the paper trail back for evidence before drawing any conclusions.

The Lives of Rebecca and Her Kin During Reconstruction

You noted that you located a Freedmen’s Bureau bank account record for Rebecca, which is what listed her parents’ names. There is more information you can pull from this record. Rebecca opened her bank account on March 9, 1872, when she was 45 years old, which, as you noted, places her birth at about 1827. She recorded her occupation as a nurse and listed her parents as John Primus and Clarissa, both deceased. She also listed her husband, Edwin Rutledge (deceased), and children Emma Foster, Edwin Rutledge, Jones Rutledge, Ann (deceased), William (deceased) and a grandson, William Foster, who was 5 years old. She was residing on Smith Street (one away from Morris Street) at the time she opened the account.

Searching for her name in the Freedmen’s Bureau Records Database, you’ll note that several of Rebecca’s children also applied for bank accounts with the Freedmen’s Bureau Bank. An Edward Rutledge opened his account on June 19, 1872. He listed his parents as Edward Rutledge and Rebecca Rutledge, and his siblings as Peter Jones Rutledge, William (deceased), Emma Foster and Mily Rutledge. He was residing at 56 Smith St. when he opened his account. Based on this and other records, it is likely that the names “Edwin” that appeared on Rebecca’s bank record were mistakes.

Indeed, an account for Emma Foster opened on Feb. 22, 1872, records her parents as Edward Rutledge (deceased) and Rebecca Rutledge. Learning more about Emma may be helpful to your search. Her husband was Henry Foster and she was a 25-year-old dressmaker residing on Smith Street (again, one street away from Morris). Her siblings were listed as Jones and Edward.

A Death Certificate Yields Clues

Rebecca Rutledge’s death certificate on Ancestry.com (subscription required) also holds some clues that may be helpful working backward. She died on Nov. 12, 1896, at age 83, which places her birth about 1813. This is very different from the bank record that indicated she was born about 1827, as well as an 1880 census record stating that she was born in 1828. The age on her death certificate could just be a mistake. A few things let you know this is a record for the right person: her occupation as a nurse and her description as mulatto (while that varies with the “dark brown” description in her bank record, it still means she was African American). She was buried at Morris Street Baptist Church, which is just a few blocks away from the location where she was living in the bank records, so she is in the same neighborhood.

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If you look at a current map of the area, you may also want to note that there is currently a Rutledge Street very close to Morris Street Baptist Church. This likely means that someone of prominence in the community had the surname Rutledge. This also means that Rebecca was living in Charleston and not in the immediate area of Jack Primas Road.

You’ll also want to take note of historic district boundaries when trying to determine how closely your Rutledge family was living to others in the area with the same surname or the Primus surname. You mentioned that Rebecca’s son, Jones Rutledge, was born in St. Paul’s Parish and that a John Primus, whom the census record describes as mulatto, was residing in Colleton County in 1850. Since the two locations are very close to each other (and writer Susannah Smith Miles traced some of Jack Primus’ descendants to the county), check the resources available for St. Paul’s Parish, which may lead you to more information on the Primus and Rutledge families.

Rebecca’s Husband Opens a New Avenue of Research

We continued our search by focusing on Rebecca’s husband. A medical record for Edward Rutledge in March and April 1864 in Beaufort, S.C., came up in a search of the Freedmen’s Bureau records. He was an officer’s servant who had variola (smallpox). The medical logs say he was “sent to tents,” likely in quarantine. Perhaps this is a record for your Edward Rutledge. The Beaufort district (also noted by Miles) bordered the Colleton district at that time, so it is not unreasonable that he could be connected to your Rutledge family.

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We searched census records and noted that the only Edward Rutledge recorded in the 1850 census was Edward C. Rutledge, who was white, born about 1800 and residing in Charleston, S.C. Based on the record, it appears that his father (the head of household at 70 years old) was H.P. Rutledge and his wife was Rebecca M. Rutledge. He served in the United States Navy, while Frederick Rutledge (who was likely his brother), recorded in the same household, was a planter with $15,000 worth of real estate.

This was a slave-owning family, and the 1850 U.S. Slave Schedules show that H.P. Rutledge owned 25 slaves, a number of whom were around the age of your Rebecca Rutledge. Don’t rule out the possibility that your Rebecca (Primus) Rutledge or her husband, Edward Rutledge, may have been former slaves of this Rutledge family. Looking for probates and land records of this family may help you determine if this is a possibility.

The inventory of Edward C. Rutledge’s estate filed Jan. 11, 1861, lists his slaves by name, age and, sadly, monetary value—right next to furniture, books, wine and other property. Those listed include Richard (4-5 years), Anthony (21 years), Henry (“aged”), Martha (47 years), Jack (13 years), Annie (26 years), Tamar (50 years). None of these names matches any of your known relatives, but this is just one record for this family. Searching for a will or probate for H.P. Rutledge, Frederick Rutledge or the women recorded in the household in 1850 may include more names of those enslaved in this Rutledge household.

Suggestions for Further Research

There are not any slave owners named Primus recorded in Charleston in either 1850 or 1860, suggesting that this surname was not adopted from a former slave owner. It is certainly possible that Rebecca descended from the free black Primus family, and somehow along the way, her line was enslaved but kept their surname. As has been noted in previous columns, sometimes free black people were kidnapped or otherwise forced into slavery). Or perhaps Rebecca’s father simply adopted it out of admiration for Jack Primas/John Primus. Our research did not determine which was the case.

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Another method for trying to locate more information on the Primus family would be to trace forward the known descendants of Jack Primas while you also continue to try to work backward in your own tree to see if you can locate someone who would fit into both families. This will likely require pulling any records you can find for people who share the surnames of your ancestors, as well as any known neighbors or associates, to see if you can piece together the puzzle of their past.

Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore offered this additional advice: “Once you have identified a living descendant of Jack Primas, I suggest you ask that person to take an autosomal DNA test to compare to your family’s DNA. You can also search your own DNA test results for matches who descend from families with the ancestral surname Primas/Primus to see if the connection might reveal something of value to your research.”

Good luck!


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.