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Dear Professor Gates:

I would like to know where my paternal grandmother, Mariah Green (also spelled Maria or Marie; maiden name unknown), is buried, as well as who her parents were. She was born circa 1888 in Bastrop County, Texas. My father is her son, Floyd Green.

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According to family oral history, she was the daughter of Yager Hill of Bastrop County, her mother being the maid and cook there. Yager Hill was apparently the owner of a general store and large tracts of “bottom land,” per that oral history. Family lore also states that Mariah was reared by her grandmother. The 1920 census lists her as mulatto. I know I have white ancestry because my AncestryDNA test results say that I am 59 percent sub-Saharan African and 40 percent European. Yager Hill’s descendants are still located in the area of Bastrop County.

I found Mariah in the 1910 census in Bastrop County, married to my grandfather Eddie/Eddy Green. They lived in Smithville, Bastrop, Texas. I was hoping I could work backward to locate her, following my grandfather, but they are not listed together in the 1900 census. I found him listed that year with his mother, Rebecca (born circa1849), and all of his brothers in Matagorda, Texas.

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The family resided in Coffeyville, Montgomery County, Kan., in Kansas’ 1925 state census. My father said that he was 16 when his mother died, which would be 1928; however, she is enumerated in the 1930 census. In that census my grandmother indicated that she never went to school but could read and write.

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I cannot find a burial site for Mariah, or any church records for her. I would appreciate your help getting closure about her. —Gail Chanel Green

We’ve uncovered some leads that should get you closer to closure on the life and death of your grandmother Mariah Green.

Who Are Mariah’s Parents?

Like you, we found her in the 1910 census, recorded as a black woman living with her husband, Eddie Green (also black), in Smithville, Bastrop, Texas. Your family lore tells you that Mariah was the daughter of Yager Hill and that her mother was a servant in Yager’s household. In the 1900 census via FamilySearch, we found Yerger Hill, a white man who was born in October 1869. With Mariah’s birth being in 1888, this means that Yerger would have been about 19 years old at the time of her birth.

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Keep in mind that the fact that Mariah was listed as mulatto in one of the federal censuses alone is not proof of biracial heritage. As this column has stated before, the status of a person listed in the federal census (black, white or mulatto) was ultimately the personal interpretation of the census taker, based on assumptions made regarding skin color and other aspects of an individual’s appearance, regardless of what the occupant of the home told her or him. It’s clear from the DNA results you describe that you have white ancestors, but the information you sent us was not detailed enough to indicate whether Mariah’s father could have been white.

Even if Yerger was her father, it is a high possibility that he did not officially acknowledge Mariah as offspring, since she was the product of an interracial relationship. In fact, after a prior state law banning interracial marriage was struck down, the Texas Legislature adopted a new act in 1882 (six years before Mariah’s birth) “which forbade all interracial sexual relations,” according to Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528-1995 by Alwyn Barr. “The State Convention of Colored Men in 1883 protested, however, that the authorities generally enforced it only with regard to marriage,” while the racial caste system continued “to wink at white men” who had sexual relations with black women outside of marriage, Barr notes.

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All of that being said, whether or not Yager/Yerger was her father, it’s likely that Mariah did not have the Hill surname. Therefore, if you searched for her that way in the 1900 census, it’s not surprising that you were unable to locate her.

If your family lore is true about her being raised by grandparents, it’s useful to focus on learning more about the servants in the Hill household, namely two couples: Arthur and Julia Matheys and Jim and Annie Anderson. When we conducted searches for them in census records, we noted that in 1920 Arthur and Julia’s surnames were recorded as “Matthews,” so look for variations of the surnames as you continue researching on your own.

When we searched the 1900 census for girls named Mariah about 12 years of age living in Bastrop County, Texas, we noted Mary Mathews, a black girl who was 12 years of age living in the household of her grandfather Aleck James in Justice Precinct 1, Bastrop, Texas. This may be a coincidence, but since Arthur and Julia Matheys/Matthews have a similar surname, there may be a connection. She is the right age and in the right location to be your Mariah, and she was residing in the household of her grandparents, which would align with your family lore. Federal census records may not be of much use as you continue to trace backward, since the only one in which she would have been enumerated is the 1890 census, which was badly damaged in a fire in 1921. Expand your search to birth certificates, church christening records and related indexes. FamilySearch has a number of Texas historical-record collections that you can check out.

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Also, if you are able to make contact with living descendants of Yager/Yerger Hill, you could ask them to do a DNA test. You noted that you have already done a DNA test through AncestryDNA, which has tools that may enable you to compare your results with those of others and see if you can find a match among his known descendants. FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe have similar testing services and tools.

Where Is Mariah Buried?

When you’re searching for a burial place, it’s always prudent to start with the last location where you know your ancestor was living. You noted that Mariah was living in Coffeyville, Montgomery County, Kan., in 1925 and that she was recorded in the 1930 census. We located her living in Caney Township, Montgomery County, Kan., when that census was enumerated. These townships neighbor each other, so it appears that the family remained in about the same location. The instructions on the census in 1930 were to list all people living on April 1, 1930, so you know that Mariah was likely still alive on that date.

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We also know that she had died by 1940, since she was not listed in that year’s census and her husband was recorded as widowed. We noted that Eddie Green was living in Independence, Montgomery, Kan., which also neighbors Coffeyville and Caney. This suggests that while the family did not remain in the same house between 1930 and 1940, they did remain within a small region. This will help you concentrate your search for her burial on these locations. Based on this information, you know that you are searching for a death record between 1930 and 1940 in either Caney, Coffeyville or Independence, Montgomery County, Kan.

To try to narrow the range of dates in which her death may have occurred, we searched for other records of her living in Kansas. Via Ancestry.com (subscription required) we located her and her husband, Eddie, in a city directory in 1930 in Coffeyville. We noted that she was not listed in the 1933 city directory. This may suggest that she was deceased by this date, which would place her death between 1930 and 1933. With this information, you can narrow your search to a death record or burial between these dates.

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Mariah’s death occurred during a time when the county recorded vital records. Because of this, you may be able to request a copy of her death record from the county, now that you have a narrowed time frame to search. You could contact the Montgomery County Clerk’s Office to see if it holds a death record for her. It is possible that the records are not held in the county office and that her death record is with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Office of Vital Statistics. As a descendant, you should be able to order a certified copy of the death record. The website has instructions for doing so.

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There are websites available that could help you track down the cemetery where she is buried, such as Find a Grave and BillionGraves. A basic search in these databases for Mariah Green’s name in Montgomery County, Kan., did not produce results, but keep in mind that these are sites created by their users, so her grave may not have been uploaded even if it exists.

Even so, you can still use Find a Grave to help narrow your search. All the records for her family place them in the townships of Caney, Coffeyville or Independence. These three towns are very close to one another within Montgomery County, so it is very likely that she was buried in one of these towns. To get an idea of which cemeteries are in these towns, we did a search on Find a Grave of cemeteries that have been recorded in Montgomery County. You’ll notice on the results page that many of the cemeteries have only a portion of the interments uploaded to the database, meaning that Mariah Green’s burial many not be recorded yet.

Use the list to help you identify cemeteries close to where your family was living by starting with those in Caney, Coffeyville and Independence. Some of the cemeteries have contact information, so you could call and ask if they have an interment for her. In other cases, the cemetery may be attached to a church that you could contact to see if it has any records that may be helpful.

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We hope you are able to find her and gain closure.

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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.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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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.