Record of the Hinch family and neighbors in Anderson County, Tenn., in 1900 (U.S. Census Bureau)

Was a formerly enslaved man in a May-December romance? Was he well-read or illiterate? We try to untangle the clues.

Dear Professor Gates:

I have hit a brick wall in my research regarding an ancestor by the name of King David Hinch, born in Tennessee. His birth year varies in records that I have found, between 1847 and 1860, though his death certificate shows 1854. He died in Kentucky in 1912. He and his wife, Sarah (Boggess) Hinch, also born in Tennessee, are parents of my great-great-grandmother.

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I would like to know if King was a “free Negro” before the end of slavery, who his parents were and how much of our family oral history about him is true. On one record he states that his mother was from Georgia but gives no name for her or a city. The 1870 census shows a 15-year-old King David in the Gannaway household, but I have no clue as to how or why that would be.

King David’s death certificate shows his occupation as a “blacksmith,” while the 1870 census shows him as a “farm laborer” who could read and write. Oral history says he was a principal of a school, and a school bell has been passed down in the family that he supposedly used to call school into session. His wife, Sarah, is said to have been one of his students. Can you help me confirm what’s true? —Jawanza

We focused our research on tracing King David Hinch back in time, as well as looking at black and white families named Hinch and Gannaway in Tennessee. If King Hinch was free prior to emancipation, we would have expected to find him recorded in the 1860 U.S. census, but we could not locate him there. We also did not locate any free people of color with the surname Hinch or Gannaway living in or near counties where we found records of King Hinch or likely associates. We moved forward with the assumption that he was probably enslaved before the end of the Civil War.

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We noted the discrepancies that you saw in age and name spellings between census records, but as we mentioned in last week’s column, this is not uncommon. Sometimes an informant in the household provided inaccurate information, and former slaves in particular weren’t always sure exactly when they were born.

In 1900, King, Sarah and their children were living in Civil District 13, Anderson, Tenn. According to this record, King was born around 1847 and his wife, Sarah, was born about 1868—a difference of about 21 years if accurate. The record also tells you that the couple had been married some 19 years. King was a coal miner who could read and write, according to this record, as could his children, but his wife could not.

Twenty years earlier, King and Sarah were residing as newlyweds in District 8, Meigs, Tenn. This record states that the age difference between them is only four years, with King Hinch born about 1860 and Sarah born about 1864. Their true age gap may be somewhere in between.

What Was King’s Relationship to the Gannaways? 

The 1870 census record you noted included King Hinch, born about 1855, residing in the household of Jane M. Gannaway in District 4, Rhea, Tenn. This is likely your ancestor, based on the name and the fact that he was living in the same general location in Tennessee where he was in later records (all are neighboring counties). This record actually states that King could not read or write and that he was working as a farm laborer. The race of everyone in the household was recorded as black, although the relationship between King and the Gannaways is not clear.

We decided to investigate this Gannaway family further. In looking at their neighbors, we noted a white family with the name Gannaway on the next page of the census, headed by William K. Gannaway, who was born about 1822 in Virginia. William owned $1,500 worth of property and had $300 in his personal estate, suggesting that he may have owned a farm. We located William K. in Rhea County in 1860, residing next to a man who may have been his brother, Thomas Gannaway. There are no people of color recorded anywhere near this family that year, suggesting that the black Gannaway family recorded in 1870 was not free in 1860. In 1850, William K. was in Rhea County living next to another William Gannaway, born around 1797 in Virginia, who was likely his father.

We noted a William Ganaway who owned two slaves in Rhea County in 1860 (via Ancestry.com; subscription required): a woman born around 1813 and a man born about 1838. This is probably either William K. Gannaway or his father, who lived next to each other in 1850, and provides evidence that the Gannaway family owned slaves. That may be how the black Gannaways got their surname. Given where King Hinch was residing in 1870, he, too, may have had a relationship to the Gannaway slave owners.

Where Were King’s Hinch Relatives in 1870? 

King Hinch was the only person with the surname Hinch living in Rhea County, Tenn., in 1870, so we expanded our research to neighboring counties. Our search for the Hinch surname around Rhea County revealed several families living in nearby Cumberland County and Bledsoe County that year.

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We suggest that you trace each of these families forward and backward to look for anything suggesting a connection to King. When we narrowed results to display individuals who could be old enough to be King’s parents, we noted a household headed by R. Hinch, born around 1840. R. Hinch, his wife and likely children were all black, according to the census. However, there was a white woman named Mary A. Gott, born about 1824, who was also living in the household. The notation next to her in the occupation column reads “As one of family,” suggesting that she was living with them as kin. On the very next page of the census is the household of R. Gott, born around 1813 in Tennessee, who was a white farmer with $900 in real estate and $2,055 in personal estate.

It seems likely that Mary A. Gott is connected to R. Gott. Ten years earlier, she was recorded living directly next to Russel Gaut (note the slight spelling difference). Mary Gaut, born about 1823, was residing in the household of Elisha Day in 1850 in Bledsoe County, Tenn. Russel Gaut is recorded on the very next page, and the only household in between them is that of Nancy Gaut.

We did not locate any free people of color or any slave owners with this surname in the 1860 or 1850 U.S. censuses and slave schedules, but it is clear that at least Mary A. Gott had a close relationship with R. Hinch—and, therefore, maybe King Hinch—that could be investigated.

Did King Get His Surname From Slaveholders? 

We searched the 1860 Slave Schedule for the Hinch surname and noted that a John Hench owned slaves in Cumberland County in 1860. The original record reveals that the surname spelling is likely Hinch and was transcribed incorrectly. He owned boys ages 10, 7 and 3. Based on the age discrepancies in records for your King Hinch, he could have been any of those three.

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The U.S. census in 1860 reveals that John Hinch was born around 1806 in Kentucky. The same John Hinch was in Bledsoe County in 1850 and owned slaves that year, too. Again, that record includes a 1-year-old male who could be King Hinch. You will likely want to investigate John Hinch further and see if he has any connection to the white Gannaway family in the area, particularly William Ganaway. Searching for personal papers of these men may help you learn more about the slaves in their households and whether there were any sales between the households.

What Was King’s Vocation After Emancipation? 

To see if King Hinch had a work agreement on a farm or a relationship with a school that was part of the Freedmen’s Bureau, you could search for his name in the Freedmen’s Bureau records at discoverfreedmen.org. We did not locate any records for King Hinch in this collection, but we did note a record for an employer named Levi Hunch at Pulaski, Giles, Tenn., who hired a woman named Amanda Vanhook. Giles is a distance from Rhea, Meigs and Anderson counties, where you know your King Hinch lived, but that does not mean there is no connection.

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There are additional records available for African Americans in Tennessee that may be helpful to your search. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has a guide to its resources—including manuscripts, unpublished materials, Freedmen’s Bureau records and newspapers—that may help you learn more about the Hinch and Gannaway families. To determine whether King could have been a schoolteacher, contact historical societies in locations where you know he resided, such as the Meigs County Historical Museum and the Anderson County Historical Society, regarding the schools that may have been in the area. See if any records are still available.

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.