Hall family in 1952: Edward Hall stands second from left. (Courtesy of Dawn Prime Watson)

Her mother-in-law’s paternal roots lie in what was once Texas’ richest county, made so off the backs of slaves.

Dear Professor Gates:

My mother-in-law is in her mid-80s, and per her request, I would like to do what I can to find information about her father’s family. I have searched on Ancestry.com and I am stuck!

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Her father was Russell Stephen Hall (1907-1973), born in Brazoria, Texas. I believe Russell worked as a brakeman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

Russell’s father was George Hall (1891-1958), who was married to Lucy Eason. George’s father was Edward Hall (1871-?). He lived in Brazoria, Texas, and was married to Phoebe Stewart.

From where did this Hall lineage descend? Was slavery part of their past? —Dawn Prime Watson

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Fortunately, we were able to find quite a bit of information to trace your mother-in-law’s paternal ancestry back another generation or two before Edward Hall and identify the possible slave owners of his parents. We also learned about conditions under which Edward Hall and his kin lived.

The High Price of Freedom in Brazoria County 

Slave labor on sugar and cotton plantations enabled Brazoria County to become the wealthiest in Texas between 1849 and 1859, according to the Texas State Historical Association. In fact, enslaved black people outnumbered whites in the county more than 2-to-1 by 1860, with a population of 2,027 white people, 5,110 black slaves and only six free black residents. It is therefore no surprise that emancipation dealt a great blow to the area’s wealth. According to the TSHA:

Some plantations were destroyed, and agricultural production declined sharply with the freeing of the slaves … total property value in the county fell from almost $7 million to less than $3 million. Many plantations were divided into smaller farms or turned into pastures; others eventually became part of the Ramsey, Retrieve, Clemens, and Darrington state prison farms.

Emancipation also changed the politics of the county, at least at the outset of the Reconstruction era. Suddenly most of the county’s eligible voters were black freedmen who voted Republican, reversing the dominance of Democrats prior to the Civil War. As TSHA describes:

A Freedmen’s Bureau agent arrived in the county in 1865, the Union League organized and registered black voters by the mid-1870s, and voters elected black legislator George T. Ruby as early as 1870 and Nathan H. Haller as late as 1894. Such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, San Bernard Rifles, and Prairie Rangers attempted to maintain the supremacy of whites in the county in opposition to Reconstruction measures, though some former slaves succeeded in attaining positions of wealth and leadership. The White Man’s Union ultimately disfranchised black voters, however, and removed local politics from the hands of carpetbaggers and freedmen. From 1895 until the 1950s, the Taxpayers Union worked to assure “the fact that this is a white man’s country and that white supremacy must obtain,” and held primaries in which only whites could vote … . Leaders posted notices that African Americans elected to office could not serve, and in the 1890s placed guards around the courthouse to enforce their edict.

Edward Hall was born into a world in which opportunity briefly flourished, only to be snuffed out by Jim Crow. To learn more about his early environment, we suggest that you pick up Texas After the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction, by Carl H. Moneyhon.

A search of the 1880 U.S. census showed that at age 10 he was residing at Precinct 8, Brazoria, Texas, in the household of his widowed mother, Ellen Hall. We noted his siblings, since they may lead us to more information. He had a brother, John, born around 1873; a brother, William, born about 1876; and a sister, Rebecka, born around 1879. This record gives Ellen’s birthplace as Texas and states that both of her parents were born in Virginia.

The Rich Paper Trail Left by Edward’s Mother

Other records for this family show Ellen Hall residing next to her son Ed Hall in Precinct 1, Brazoria, in 1900. Also in her household was a son, David, born in October 1871; a daughter, Rosa, born in June 1893; and a daughter, Beckey Franklin (born in January 1879), with a husband, Webber Franklin. Edward’s brother William Hall was also listed on the same page of the census enumeration. These facts confirmed to us that we are looking at the same family in both censuses. Notably, Ellen’s entry states that she had given birth to 10 children but only six were living by 1900.

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In 1910 Ellen was still in Brazoria, and she had her two adult sons, John and Dave, in her household, along with a daughter, Rebecca, and a 10-year-old grandson, Isiah P. Hall. Edward and his wife, Phoebe, were recorded on the very next page of the census. According to this record, both of Ellen’s parents were born in South Carolina. This contradicts the information provided in the 1880 census about their origins. It does, however, suggest that her parents did not originate in Texas.

We could not locate Ellen in 1920, but she was residing in Precinct 1, Brazonia, in 1930. She had grandchildren residing in her household and was not far from her son William, who was recorded on the next page. All of these records suggest that Ellen spent her lifetime in Brazoria, so we knew we had a great chance of finding her in earlier records there.

We located a death record for Ellen Hall on Dec. 27, 1937, in Brazoria, and her son Ed Hall of Angleton, Brazoria County, was the informant. From the 1920 U.S. census, we know that your Edward Hall and his wife, Phoebe, were residing in Angleton by that year, so we consider this to be proof that this is a record for his mother. The record states that Ellen was born March 1, 1852, in Chenango, Texas. Her father was listed as Ed Matthews, who was born in Alabama, and her mother was Rebecca, born in Virginia.

Identifying Edward’s Father Through His Siblings 

Thus far, the records we had found recorded Ellen Hall as a widow, but with no indication of who Edward’s father might have been. This is where examining Edward’s siblings proved helpful. A death record for John Hall dated Feb. 15, 1970, in Angleton records his birth on Jan. 2, 1872, to parents Edmund Hall and Ellen Matthew. From Ellen’s death record, we know that her maiden name was Matthews, so this is most certainly a death record for her son John Hall, whom we noted throughout the census records that we located for her.

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Another death certificate in Brazoria records Ellen Matthews as the mother, but a George Hall as the father: the death record of Willie Lawrence Hall, who was born May 16, 1876, and died Feb. 7, 1959. So now we had two names for Edward’s father. Keep in mind that the discrepancy could be due to informant error or the use of a middle name.

With this information, we located a few other death records for Ellen’s children, including one that is likely for your Edward Hall. The death record of Ed Hall on June 28, 1960, in Brazoria records his birth on April 13, 1890, to parents George Hall and Ellen Matthews. While his birth is 20 years different from what is recorded for him in other records, it is possible that his age was recorded incorrectly, since the place of residence and parents’ names all match what we know about him.

There is also a death record for Rebecca Granville on June 12, 1940, in Houston that records her birth in 1880 in Brazoria, and a death record on July 13, 1956, in Brazoria for David George Hall, who was born Oct. 28, 1894. Both records name their parents as George Hall and Ellen Matthews. (Note on David’s death record that his mother’s name was recorded as Esteller Matthew.) It seems that a majority of the records we uncovered name the father as George Hall, so we went forward using that name in searches.

Work Records Reveal Possible Slave-Owner Ties 

Our next step was to look for Ellen and George together in records earlier than 1880; we found George and Ellen Hall residing in Brazoria in 1870. Ellen’s age is a good match for the other records we located for her. In searching for more records for George, we located a few employment records for a George Hall in the East Columbia Historic District of Brazoria between 1865 and 1867. One dated Jan. 1, 1868, included both a George Hall and an Ellen Matthews in a list under “Miss Ann Ward 28.” Another one records George Hall under “Collins R.M. No. 16” as receiving a “share of net proceeds” on Jan. 1, 1867. And yet another, under “Ann Ward & Co.” in 1866, records both Ellen Matthews and “George Hall, Junior.”

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These records are very close to the end of slavery and show that George Hall and Ellen (Matthews) Hall each had a connection to the same employers following slavery. It’s reasonable to assume that those employers may have been former slave owners, since, as the TSHA notes, the Freedmen’s Bureau pressured Texas’ emancipated black people “to stay where they were and to sign contracts to work for wages or on shares.”

Working on that assumption, we located an Anna Ward, born around 1843, residing in Brazoria in 1860 in the household of a William Ward. She would have still been a young woman in 1867, which could account for the “Miss” recorded by her name in the work agreements we located. Two doors away was an R.M. Collins, a planter from New York who would match the Collins employer in the work agreements we located.

According to the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedule, William Ward owned more than 60 slaves in Brazoria in 1860. What is even more telling is the fact that in the slave schedules, the slave owner R.M. Collins is recorded directly after William Ward’s household. It is probable that George Hall and Ellen Matthews were enslaved by either William Ward or R.M. Collins prior to the end of slavery. Further research into these slave owners may lead to even more records mentioning members of the Matthews/Hall family.


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.