Wade Hampton III, between 1865 and 1880
Library of Congress via Wikimedia

Dear Professor Gates:

I visited Charleston, S.C., last week and walked past a statue of Wade Hampton III and stopped dead in my tracks. You see, my great-grandfather's name was Wade Hampton Shields.

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Wade Hampton III was a Confederate general, U.S. senator and governor of South Carolina. He was one of the largest enslavers of people in the South and one of the largest landowners in South Carolina. Can you help me determine the connection between my great-grandfather and the Hampton family? Was my ancestor a slave on Gov. Hampton's plantation?

My grandmother was Lucille Shields McKnight, and she was born in Sumter County, S.C., on Dec. 28, 1913. Wade Hampton Shields was her father. —Yvette McKnight Johnson

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It is certainly plausible that your great-grandfather was given the first and middle names Wade Hampton because of a historical connection between the Shields and the Hamptons. Keep in mind, it’s also possible that he was named after a historical figure the family somehow admired or believed had a prestigious name.

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As you noted, Hampton was a Confederate general. In the Reconstruction era and beyond, he had a second career in public life, serving as governor and U.S. senator of the Palmetto State, then as U.S. commissioner of railroads. A quick search of the 1870 United States federal census for the name Wade Hampton without a surname returns a number of results across the country, suggesting that this may have also been a popular combination at the time.  Nevertheless, we focused our search on finding out whether the Hamptons could have enslaved members of the Shields family.

After surrendering to the Union Army in Durham, N.C., Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton III discovered “his childhood home was destroyed during Sherman's March to the Sea and all of his slaves were freed,” according to the National Park Service. Before the war, in 1860, Wade Hampton III was residing in Richland, S.C. He was still residing there in 1880 following the Civil War, so it is likely that his slaves would have been freed in Richland County. Sumter County, where your Wade Hampton Shields originated, borders Richland County, so it is well within reason that there could be a connection. 

The slave schedules from 1850 reflect that Wade Hampton III owned a large number of slaves, though with the schedules only recording these individuals by age, sex and race, it would be impossible to connect the ancestors of your Wade Hampton Shields to Wade Hampton III using the slave schedules alone.

Tracing the Shields Family Back in Time

Your best option is to work backward from your Wade Hampton Shields to see if you can determine the identity of his former slave owners. The 1920 U.S. census was the first to enumerate your grandmother, Lucille Shields, in Shiloh, Sumter, S.C., in the household of her father, recorded here as Hampton Shields. In 1930 his name was recorded in the census as Wade H. Shields, which matches what you know about him, and he was still residing in Shiloh at age 54. It seemed likely that he remained in Sumter County until his death, so we searched for his death certificate to see if it named his parents.

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According to Hampton Shields’ death record (note that his name was transcribed incorrectly in the database as Hamilton Shields), his parents were Spencer Shields and Caroline Gibbs, both of Sumter County. The death certificate also tells you that he was born about 1876. With this information, we located him in 1880, at 2 years of age, residing in the household of his father, Spencer Shields, and his mother, Caroline, in Shiloh. This record gives us an approximate birth date for Spencer in 1830 and Caroline in 1845. We noted the oldest children in their household, since they are likely to appear on the 1870 census: Fanny, born about 1864; Mary, born about 1867; and Jim, born about 1870. We also noted the names of Spencer’s other children for comparison with other records, namely, Elly, Ladson and Dozin.

We initially had difficulty locating the family in 1870. But when we searched just for women named Caroline born about 1845 residing in Sumter County, we located the family under the name “McLeod” in the household of Lewis and Amery McLeod. “Shields McLeod” (who we assume to be your Spencer Shields), Caroline, Fanny and Mary all appear in the household and are of the right ages to be a match, though their relationship to Lewis McLeod is unclear. This record places the family in Shiloh at a time close to abolition, suggesting that they may have resided in the county prior to the end of slavery.

Probate Records Reveal Valuable Information

Since former slaves sometimes adopted the surnames of their former owners, we searched probate records in Sumter County for the surname Shields to see if we could identify a potential former slave owner. While it’s heartbreaking that people were listed as property in such records, they at least sometimes provided names.

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We noted that the appraisal of sale from the estate of James Shields in Sumter County dated Nov. 16, 1861, records “a boy slave” named Spencer valued at $466. Another document in the estate papers records that Spencer and another slave, Lucy, valued at $750, were sold to A.L. Shields for a total of $1,216. Lucy was described in the inventory as “a girl slave,” but because all the individuals recorded in the inventory were described as a “boy slave” or “girl slave,” it is hard to determine if they were all children or adults, since, unfortunately, this language was often also used to describe adults.

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A petition in the probate files for the estate of Martha F. Shields dated Oct. 22, 1861, suggests that she was the wife of James Shields, since the document reads “Martha F. Shields lately dec’d leaving an estate worth about ten thousand dollars in said [Sumter] district which property had been willed by James Shields dec’d.” This means that James Shields could have died at any point before 1861 and that he left his estate to his wife, which was just then being distributed because of her death in 1861.

In the probate files, we also noted a probate file for John G. Shields in Sumter County that records “one boy Ladson,” valued at $2,155, who was purchased from John G. Shields’ estate by J.B. McWilliam on July 25, 1863. This seemed significant because we know that your Spencer Shields had a son named Ladson, born circa 1872. Also sold that same day was “one girl Alice” to S.G. Frierson. In 1870 a Ladson Shields was the head of household residing directly next to J.B. McWilliam. According to this record, this Ladson was 35 years old, placing his birth about 1835, meaning he was about 28 years old when J.B. McWilliam purchased him from John G. Shields’ estate. We also noted that A.L. Shields, a 31-year-old white male, was residing in the household of J.B. McWilliam in this census, and it seems likely that this was the same A.L. Shields who purchased Spencer and Lucy from the estate of James Shields.

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In 1860 Martha Shields, age 60, was residing in Sumter, S.C., with what appeared to be her son, Alexander L. Shields (age 26), and his wife, Nancy B. (age 26), and another son, John Shields (age 19). The census recorded that the entirety of her estate was worth $10,000 in 1860. This would align with the probate records we located and would suggest that James Shields died before 1860 and his estate was granted to his wife, Martha, who must have died before Oct. 22, 1861, when the rest of James’ estate was sold. The Alexander L. Shields is likely the A.L. Shields who purchased Spencer and Lucy from James’ estate. It is also possible that the probate for John G. Shields that names Ladson and Alice could be for the John G. Shields who was the son of James and Martha Shields.

Martha Shields was recorded as the head of household in 1850 in Marion County, S.C., suggesting that James Shields died before 1850 and that the family moved between 1850 and 1860 from Marion County to Sumter County. Based on this, we located James Shields’ will in Marion County, proved July 20, 1849, in which he gives all of his property to his wife, Martha F. Shields. He specifically names the slaves in his estate: “viz., Ladson, Spencer, Jim commonly called Crow, Phillis and her child Elias, Elsie and her two children Leonard and Lucy, Hannah and her child Zilphah.” He also names his children: Martha Ann, the wife of Daniel A. Brite, Mary Caroline, Allen Shields, Alexander Leonidas Shields (and wife Nancy B.) and John Gibson Shields. This is most certainly the will for the correct James Shields because the names mentioned in his will match those in the inventory of his estate in Sumter County in 1861 after Martha’s death.

Since James Shields’ will was made in 1849 and he recorded his slaves by name, we have a pretty good idea of who the slaves in the household were at that time. Comparing this with the record for Martha Shields’ household in 1850 Slave Schedules gives a better idea of how old the individuals were in 1850 to help pinpoint their approximate ages. The oldest slave in the household was a 28-year-old female, likely one of the three women with children named in James’ will. The ages of the adult males were 27, 20 and 16. It seems very likely that these were Ladson, Spencer and Jim, respectively, placing Ladson’s birth about 1823, Spencer’s birth about 1830 and Jim’s birth about 1834. This age is a good match for the records we located for your Spencer Shields, father of Wade Hampton Shields.

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In 1840 James Shields was residing in Marion County, S.C., with two male slaves between the ages of 10 and 15 who are a good match for Ladson and Spencer, suggesting that they could have been in James Shields’ household for most of their lives.

In conclusion, all of the records we were able to locate strongly suggest that your great-great-grandfather Spencer Shields was formerly a slave owned by James Shields who died in Marion County in 1849, was then owned by Martha Shields who died in 1861, and finally was purchased by their son Alexander L. Shields, with whom he likely remained until the abolition of slavery. 

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, 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 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.