Grave of John Jefferson Driggers, a likely descendant of the enslaved Emmanuel Driggers
Barbara LeClaire/Find a Grave

Dear Professor Gates:

I am wondering if you can give me any advice on how to research one of my family lines: the Driggerses. I have learned that the Driggers family was one of a few free African-American families in the South during slavery. I didn’t know that was even “a thing” until I read about it.

My research indicates that the first Driggers was a slave named Emmanuel Rodriguez in the 17th century, whose surname was eventually shortened to “Driggers.” I am trying to trace this line to see if I’m able to connect it for sure to this family and/or Emmanuel Rodriguez, but I am having trouble tracing it back beyond a John W. Driggers from South Carolina, born around 1803. He eventually left the South with his family, including his son, John Jefferson Driggers. They spent time in Texas before ending up in San Bernardino, Calif.

My maternal great-grandfather Walter and grandfather, Delbert, were both born there. My grandfather ended up in Seattle as an adult.

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Do you know any tricks on how to research family members who may have been part of these free African-American families? I have looked through the other family lines on my mother’s side of the family and am pretty sure that the African and Iberian DNA trace through the Driggers line and not one of the others. I had my parents test their DNA, and my mother’s results came back with about 3 percent African—about 1 percent each for Mali, Nigeria and Africa south-central. She also has about 4 percent Iberian Peninsula DNA. The rest of her heritage is from various European countries.

Thank you in advance for any advice you can give me. —Summer Whitesell

You have already made a great deal of progress in your search for a connection between your known ancestors and the free black Driggers family. However, before we go any further, we want to assure you that the existence of free African-American families in the South during slavery was definitely “a thing.”

Free Black Families in the Antebellum South Weren’t Actually Rare

As Professor Gates previously wrote on The Root, referencing research by historian Ira Berlin in his book Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, “[T]here were a total of 488,070 free blacks living in the United States, about 10 percent of the entire black population. Of those, 226,152 lived in the North and 261,918 in the South.”

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As for who they were, Gates wrote:

[F]ree blacks in the South largely resided in cities — the bigger the better, because that’s where the jobs were (in 1860, 72.7 percent of urban free blacks lived in Southern cities of 10,000 or more). They were predominantly female (52.6 percent of free blacks in the South were women in 1860), because, according to Berlin, free black men had a greater tendency to move out of the region. They also were older than the average slave, because they often had to wait to earn or buy their freedom, or, in not uncommon cases, be “dumped” by their owners as weak or infirm (in 1860, 20 percent of free blacks were over the age of 40 compared to 15 percent of slaves and whites). Free blacks also were lighter in color (40.8 percent of Southern free blacks in 1860 reported mixed racial ancestry versus 10.4 percent of slaves); not surprisingly, slaves with their master’s blood were more likely to be favored by him and, as Berlin shows, favored slaves were more likely to be freed.

We highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Berlin’s book to learn more the conditions under which free black people lived in the South.

What We Know About the Free Black Driggerses

As for the Driggers family: According to Paul Heinegg, the author of Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina From the Colonial Period to About 1820, the Driggers family’s descent from “Emmanuel Driggers,” a “Negroe” slave from Magotha Bay, Northampton County, Va., has been verified for a few generations. Heinegg’s article on the family, published on FreeAfricanAmericans.com, is a pretty reliable source to use, namely because it provides citations for the information. For instance, it backs up your assertion that Emmanuel’s original surname might have been “Rodriguez”: “The name Driggers was apparently short for the Portuguese or Spanish name, Rodriguez, since he was called ‘Manuell Rodriges’ in 1660-1663 when he was head of a Northampton County household, taxable on three tithes [Orders 1657-64, 102, 176].”

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Locating the documents used in the article on the free black Driggers family may also be helpful to your search, since they may contain additional information that was not included in the article.

As you read through Heinegg’s account, pay attention to any individuals who are in the right geographic location to connect to your family and search for any other clues, such as familiar associated family names, that you know connect to your known family. The surnames of families associated with Emmanuel Driggers’ descendants are highlighted in bold throughout the article, and the same family names—such as George, Morris, Lindsey and Beckett—repeat a number of times. The fact that people with these surnames are associated with a number of Driggers family members over a few generations demonstrates that the free black Driggers family was close to these families. One method of making a connection would be to see if any of these surnames have shown up in association with your known Driggers relatives.

What We Know About Your Driggers Family

Next, you’ll need to focus on working your known Driggers line backward. According to the Find a Grave article you sent us on your last known ancestor, John Jefferson Driggers (1825-1899), his parents were John William Driggers (1800-1840) and Sara Ann Driggers Wilson (1807-1903). Sara Ann married David Wilson after the death of John Jefferson’s father. It also claims that John Jefferson had a brother, William Jackson Driggers (1827-1907). You should always be wary of the information on sites, such as this one, that do not have to provide citations for their claims. Still, they are often a good starting point. If this article is correct, you also have a sibling of your John Jefferson whom you can also research to see if you can locate more information about your Driggers line.

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We gave it a try and found William J. Driggers residing in Palo Pinto, Texas, in 1880 with his wife, Eliza, and eight children, according to that year’s U.S. census. This aligns with the article about the family on Find a Grave and with what you know about the family: that they settled in Texas before removing to California. In locating his marriage record, we learned that William J. Driggers married Eliza C. Ross in Madison County, Tenn., on Nov. 23, 1854, placing the family in Tennessee before they made their way to Texas. William was living in Madison County in 1850 in the household of Enoch Gaskins, and we noted that his neighbors at that time were the Lindsey family, a surname we recognized from Heinegg’s article.

Meanwhile, in 1850, your John Jefferson Driggers (transcribed as “Jno Drigers”) appears to be residing in Grayson, Texas, in the household of David Willson. The Find a Grave article we located for your Driggers family had suggested that John Jefferson Driggers’ mother was Sarah Ann Driggers Wilson, who married David Wilson after being widowed. The fact that William J. Driggers was also residing in Grayson County, Texas, in 1860 with his wife, Eliza, confirms that we are following the correct family.

To move back further, both John and William would have been underage in 1840, so we searched for Sarah Driggers and located her residing in Carroll, Tenn., with two boys in her household who would match the ages of John and William. This brings the family back to Tennessee, although, according to the census, all of their births occurred in South Carolina.

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Both John Jefferson and William Jackson were born just before the enumeration of the 1830 U.S. census, so we would expect that their family was still residing close to their birthplace in South Carolina in 1830. When we searched the 1830 census for the Driggers surname in 1830, we located a John Driggers residing in Marlboro, S.C., with sons in his household the right age to be John Jefferson and William Jackson. At this point the family was recorded as white in the census, which suggests that they were considered to be so by the census taker, and likely by their community. However, just 10 years earlier, John Dridgers (who appears to be the same person) was enumerated in Marlboro, S.C., as a free person of color.

Have We Found the Connection Between You and the Free Black Driggerses?

This finding is significant; however, from here on, as we work backward, you’ll notice that the racial designations of individuals or between family members vary. Be careful about the conclusions that you draw from those variations. There were phenotypically European individuals with African ancestry who deliberately shifted to a white identity (known as “passing”) and shed the stigmas and dangers of enslavement that came with being black, even when legally free. However, as we have written before, you cannot always rely on records to reflect the racial designation that an individual presented to the world. Such designations also could have been based solely on perceptions of the person recording the information, or because of inaccurate information provided to the recorder by a household member or third party.

One individual in the Driggers-family article by Paul Heinegg is in entry No. 14, Mark Driggers, who first received a grant in Craven County, N.C., and then sold his land in 1760 and moved to South Carolina. He was “counted as white” in 1790 and 1800. The children he “may have been the father of” include a son named John, who was the head of household “of 7 ‘other free’” in Marlboro County, S.C., in 1800. This would be the correct location where we know your Driggers family resided, and it suggests that this would be the Driggers line to focus on to make a connection. Perhaps Mark’s son John was the grandfather of your John Jefferson Driggers, based on their birth dates and location. According to Heinegg’s footnote, Mark Driggers’ son John was recorded as white in the 1800 census.

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To solidify this connection, you will want to search land, probate, tax and court records for these members of the Driggers family to see if any of the records for them mention family members. There are digitized copies of probate records for Marlboro County, S.C., available to browse through FamilySearch that you could search for the Driggers family to see if John Driggers left a will or if any of his underage children were given guardians at the time of his death.

Court records for Marlboro County will also likely be very helpful and are available on microfilm, which you could order and view at your local Family History Center. Free people of color often appear in court records in particular because of the prejudice they faced in their communities that required them to defend their right to their land, property and sometimes even their freedom.

Using census records, we were able to determine a likely connection between your Driggers family and the Driggers family that Paul Heinegg identified in his work in Marlboro County. Focusing your efforts on records from this county may help you find definitive proof of these connections.

Placing Your DNA Test Results in Context

As for your mother’s DNA test results showing “about 3 percent African” and “about 4 percent Iberian Peninsula,” we consulted with genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, who told us the following in an email:

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Three percent is roughly equivalent to what one would inherit from a third-great grandparent of full African ancestry and 4 percent is consistent with inheritance from a third-great grandparent of full Iberian ancestry. If they were both coming from the same ancestral line, then added together this would be roughly equivalent to what one would inherit from a second-great grandparent of approximately half African and half Iberian ancestry. That is quite recent, however, and doesn’t seem to fit with what is known about this family, so I would not be surprised if some of this ancestry is coming from other ancestral lines as well. In order to determine if all of the African and Iberian ancestry is coming from one relatively recent ancestral line instead of multiple, more distant ancestors, I would recommend the 23andMe test. This is because their Ancestry Composition includes a chart that maps an individual’s admixture across the 23 chromosome pairs. From the pattern of inheritance, we can often gather evidence to answer this question.

In other words, it is possible that your nonwhite ancestry might go beyond the Driggers family and occurred more recently than you previously thought. Good luck in your continued search for answers.

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 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.