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Dear Professor Gates:

My research into my family origins reveals that in the 1680s, Maudlin Magdelen Magee, an Irish woman who was married to a white man, George Magee, had a baby girl by an enslaved African man, Sambo Game. The Magees had come to Somerset, Md., from Ireland, and had two sons of their own when Maudlin gave birth to Sambo Game’s baby daughter, Fortune. Sambo Game was an enslaved man, held in bondage by a Peter Douty, who later freed him.

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Fortune was, by virtue of her mulatto status, ordered to be an indentured servant until the age of 31. When emancipated, she had several freeborn children, among them Sarah Fortune, who may have been the mother of Thomas Forten of Philadelphia, and grandmother of James Forten, and great-grandmother of Charlotte Forten Grimke.

My question: My grandmother was Ella Fortune, born in 1882 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of Philip P. Fortune, born in Virginia. We were told that our Fortune family had always been free. I am DNA-matched on Ancestry.com with other Magee/McGee DNA matches, at least one of whom is linked to Maudlin’s son, John (born 1675 or 1686), and to a Fortune descendant.

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I would like to know how my great-grandfather Philip P. Fortune is linked with the family, and if James Forten and Charlotte Forten Grimke are also my ancestors. —Sharon Lawrence Harper

Your search has taken you back to a time in American history where the customs and laws governing free, indentured and enslaved status were shifting in order to address unions between people of mixed status—particularly those between black men and white women, and the children that resulted. At stake were the property rights—as in human property—of white men who owned slaves or held indentures.

The Repercussions of Mixed Unions in Colonial Times

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We began our search into your roots by locating the marriage record for Maudlin and George Magee. We found them mentioned in Maryland Marriage Evidences, 1634-1718. They were living in Somerset, Somerset County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. According to your description, both were from Ireland and were white. However, Maryland Marriage Evidences states: “George Magee, Negro, m. by 1702/05, Maudlin Magee, white woman.” Their status—free, indentured or enslaved—is not mentioned. The book cites the sources as Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware From the Colonial Period to 1810, as well as Somerset County Judicial Court records and Kent County land records.

To put their marriage in context: in 1664, the same Maryland law that rendered “all Negroes and other slaves” slaves for life and made bondage a status children inherited from their fathers, also imposed sanctions on any “freeborn English woman” who, “forgetful of their free condition and to the disgrace of our nation, marr[ied] Negro slaves.”

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The penalties for such mixed marriages were severe: Thenceforth, not only was a transgressive white wife to be forced to serve her slave husband’s master for as long as her husband lived, but any children their marriage produced would be slaves for life. The law was designed not only to draw a line between free whites and enslaved blacks in Maryland and to control the marital choices of white women, but also to protect slave owners, whether their male property produced children with other slaves or with white wives.

Interestingly, the law did not mention the situation of free black men (as George may have been) fathering children with white women or of white men who took black women, free or enslaved, as wives.

Apparently, the law also failed to anticipate the perverse incentives it created. Turns out, the 1664 law unwittingly gave slave owners an incentive to force freeborn white indentured servants to marry black male slaves so that they could “get more service from white women and to procure more slaves,” according to an article on the Maryland State Archives website, “Blacks Before the Law in Colonial Maryland.” To address the situation, a new law was passed in 1681 threatening to fine any slave master who tried to coerce mixed marriages and any solemnizer who made them official. It did not mean that Maryland had changed its tune on mixed marriages, however; it still abhorred them.

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Thus, in 1692, the colony acted again by passing another law. Broader in scope, it punished free white women who took black husbands by forcing them into a seven-year indenture to their church parishes (while their husbands, if free, were to become parish slaves), and this time, it imposed the same penalties on white men taking black wives. In addition, the 1692 law, according to the Maryland State Archives website, reached outside of marriage to pull in children born to mixed parentage out of wedlock: “If the miscegenating couple was not married, the woman was to suffer the seven-year penalty, the child was to serve for twenty-one years, but, the husband, if free, was only to serve for seven years instead of life.”

So-called anti-miscegenation laws continued to be updated, the site states, until, “By the end of the colonial period in Maryland, the law of slavery had established the presumption that all blacks and mulattoes not born of white women were slaves for life…. Sexual intercourse across the color line… was subject to penalties of servitude for all white men and women, all black men and all free black women. Slave women were exempt from any such penalties, probably because any children they had would be valuable slaves. The children of all other cases of miscegenation were to be servants for 31 years.”

This legal timeline suggests that if Fortune Game/Magee was indeed born in the 1680s, she would have inherited her father Sambo’s slave status. Yet you describe her condition of indenture as one that was common later in Colonial Maryland. Either her approximate birth date or indentured status may deserve a second look, though there could be an explanation that we simply have not uncovered. Whatever the timing, one thing is clear: If the slave Sambo Game was Fortune’s father, and thus the progenitor of the Fortune family line, saying the “Fortune family had always been free” would be a denial of his existence.

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There is also a broader point to make. By the time Fortune was born, Maryland had begun moving past its earlier era of a more fluid labor force, composed largely of indentured servants, including some blacks referred to as “Atlantic Creoles.” In the new era, whiteness was, on one hand, increasingly associated with freedom, while blackness, on the other, was increasingly tied to slavery for life and for generations.

As historian Ira Berlin writes in his 2010 book, The Making of African America:

The first men and women of African descent arrived in mainland North America in the sixteenth century, often accompanying European explorers. For the next century or so, they trickled onto the continent in small numbers, often not directly from Africa but from Europe, the Caribbean islands, or other parts of the Atlantic littoral. … Entering frontier societies in which many Europeans also labored in some form of unfreedom, black men and women employed their knowledge of the Atlantic world to integrate themselves into the European settlements. … Slaves imported directly from Africa—distinguished from Atlantic Creoles—first landed in large numbers in the Chesapeake during the last decades of the seventeenth century. Following the codification of chattel bondage in the 1660s, the new African arrivals slowly replaced European and African indentured servants as the main source of plantation labor. Between 1675 and 1695, some 3,000 enslaved black men and women arrived in Maryland and Virginia, mostly from Africa. During the last five years of the century, Chesapeake tobacco planters purchased more African slaves than they had in the previous twenty years. … By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Africans composed a majority of the enslaved population.

This does not mean that no free black families emerged in Colonial America, only that the free-slave line was closing in around them. One of the most dramatic examples of a family with such deep roots is comedian Wanda Sykes, Professor Gates’ guest on the first season of Finding Your Roots (which on Jan. 5 began its third season on PBS).

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Sykes descends from a long line of free Negroes, one of a very few African Americans who can trace their ancestors by name back before the American Revolution. In fact, in Sykes’ case, the paper trail led Professor Gates and his team all the way back to her eighth great-grandmother, a woman named Mary Banks, who was born in Virginia in 1683, the same decade in which you suggest Fortune was born to Maudlin Magee and Sambo Game.

In Mary Banks’ case, her mother, Elizabeth Banks, Sykes’ ninth great-grandmother, was a white servant whipped for fornicating with a black slave. When Elizabeth gave birth to their child Mary out of wedlock in Virginia, Mary followed her mother’s condition, not her slave father’s, and Elizabeth was free. This was because the law in Virginia resolved questions over children’s status by looking to their mothers, not their fathers, as we saw in Maryland’s 1664 act above.

As historian Edmund Morgan wrote in his groundbreaking book, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), in 1662 in Virginia, “an act to determine the status of children of a Negro woman by an English father declared that children should be slave or free according to the condition of the mother.” Morgan cautioned against seeing this “unequivocally as dictated by racism,” instead explaining, “English ideas of property rights and the prudential considerations of keeping a child with its mother and reimbursing the mother’s master for its support could have been involved.”

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Interestingly, while this early law was silent on the issue of interracial marriages, Morgan found such unions existed, and eventually the assembly took action to thwart them by passing a law in 1691 to banish any white person “who married a Negro, mulatto, or Indian” from the Virginia colony; and when this proved too severe (and “deprive[d] the colony of a potential laborer”), the law was amended in 1705 to punish the guilty with prison and/or fines.

White women who couldn’t pay were ordered into indentured servitude along with their mixed-race children, even though they were freeborn, while women who already were servants had time tacked on to their indentures. “By providing severe punishments for white women who gave themselves to blacks,” writes Morgan, “the authorities not only discouraged the fraternization of slaves and poor whites but also assisted white freemen to find wives.”

As with Sykes’ ancestor Mary Banks and your ancestor Fortune, the story of freedom, however long, ultimately can be traced back to Colonial-era slavery and the then-transgressive connections between white women and black men in bondage.

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Tracing Maudlin’s Progeny

As for Maudlin Magee’s children with her husband, George: You mentioned that your DNA links you to Maudlin Magee’s son John. Searching the Maryland, Calendar of Wills, 1635-1743 on Ancestry.com, we found a John Magee of Somerset, Md., with a will dated April 20, 1728, in this collection. This record may belong to the son of Maudlin, implying that by virtue of having a will he was free.

Since Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware from the Colonial Period to 1810 has been digitized on Ancestry.com (subscription required), we consulted it to trace Maudlin Magee’s family forward in time. As you may already know, this publication includes genealogies for the Fortune, Game and Magee families. According to the text, the Fortune family of Maryland may have been related to the Forten family of Pennsylvania and the Fortune family of Virginia.

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Fortune Game, aka Fortune Magee, was the mother of Sarah Fortune, born circa 1715. Sarah was the mother of Thomas Forten, born circa 1740; James Fortune, born circa 1745; Humphrey Fortune, born circa 1745; William, born circa 1747; and Charles Fortune, birth not listed.

Thomas Forten was the father of James Forten of Philadelphia. James was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 6, 1766, and, for the most part, lived in Philadelphia; his life is well-documented. But Sarah’s son James was head of a Hanover County, Va., household of three “other free” in 1810. He may have been the father of four sons, all in Hanover County. Sarah’s son Humphrey was a “mulatto” head of household in Essex County, Va., in 1783. He had a son named Major, born circa 1783, who in 1810 was head of household in Accomack County, Va.

Since we found two of Sarah’s children residing in Virginia, where your ancestor Philip P. Fortune was born, we then examined the genealogy for the Fortune family in Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina From the Colonial Period to about 1820, Volume I, Fifth Edition. We found an interesting excerpt: “The Fortune family of Accomack County may have been related to James Fortune, born say 1745, the ‘Mulatto’ son of Sarah Game, who bound himself as an apprentice in Somerset County, Maryland court to James Laws until the age of twenty-one in March 1761 to learn the trade of light cooper.” Members of this family were Shadrack Fortune and Major Fortune; both were free blacks. The “Mulatto” son in this excerpt may be Humphrey Fortune, since he had a son named Major.

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We also found a record for Shadrack Fortune in Virginia Ancestors and Adventurers, Revolutionary War Size Rolls on Ancestry.com. According to the record, he was born in Accomack, Va., and was living there when the information was recorded. He was also listed as age 24.

Perhaps Humphrey and his sons may be the connection to your great-grandfather Philip P. Fortune. You will want to focus your search on him, Major Fortune, Shadrack Fortune, as well as the male children of James Fortune living in Hanover, Va.: Charles, James Jr., Robert and Curtis.

There is a microfilm, Register of Free Negroes, 1785-1863, which consists of original records from the Accomack County Courthouse in Accomac, Virginia. It provides the age (birth date), name of “free Negro,” and whether born free or emancipated (and in what court emancipated). You can order this microfilm (1902237 Item 2) from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and view it at a local Family History Center.

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Because the Fortunes and Magees were free, they should appear in the census records under their own name in pre-1850 records—if they are head of household—and in records in 1850 and after, since every person in the household would be listed by name after that time.

Ancestry.com holds several other collections of early records for Maryland, including ones covering births, christenings and marriages. The Archives of Maryland Online also has many collections that you can access for free.

Tracing Philip P. Fortune’s Line to Maudlin Magee’s

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Now that we’ve traced Maudlin Magee’s line forward, the remaining task is to trace your grandfather Philip P. Fortune’s line back to see where they may meet.

We started with the 1900 U.S. federal census and found Philip Fortune, age 64, born in Virginia in November 1835, and Mildred Fortune, age 48, born in Virginia in April 1852. They were married in 1881. Echoing your description of your forebears, we saw that Mildred had seven children, three of whom were still living: Henry Fortune, age 25, born in Louisiana in January 1877; Ella Fortune, age 17, born in New York in September 1882; and Collis Fortune, 1 month old, born in New York in April 1900. Philip’s parents were also born in Virginia.

We encountered several individuals named Philip Fortune in Virginia who were close to his age in the 1850, 1870 and 1880 censuses, but did not find other household member names matching the names in the 1900 census.

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We did locate the indexed death record for Philip P. Fortune: He died on April 2, 1907, in Kings County, N.Y. You’ll want to order a copy of his death certificate, No. 7153, to see if it lists the names of his parents. That key piece of information will help you to connect the dots, if they are to be connected.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Nancy Bernard, 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.