Map of the Republic of Texas from March 2, 1836, to Feb. 19, 1846
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My great-grandfather Abe Davis was born in Texas (well, actually, Mexico) in September 1835. As of 1870, he was living in Nacogdoches County, but he may have been born in a different county. His brother Wash Davis was also born in Mexico in 1823. 

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They are alternately described as black and mulatto, so I’m guessing they were mestizo.  My DNA would back that up. According to DNA testing I have had done via African Ancestry and Ancestry.com, I have Kru and Mandinka ancestry. I believe I also have Native American and Spanish ancestry.   

My question: Why can’t I locate any census records for my ancestors prior to the 1870 enumeration? I wonder what happened to my ancestors when the Texans brought back slavery. Finally, I’d like to know how my ancestors got the name Davis, since they were born in Mexico. I am sending you some additional information that I have found in my search. —Donal Davis

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The history of Africans in Mexico is one that Professor Gates has covered before on The Root. As was noted in another Tracing Your Roots column, by 1810, Mexico had about 624,000 free blacks, making up 10 percent of the total population. Most of them resided around the country’s two coasts, and some of their descendants retain an Afro-Mexican identity, particularly in areas such as Costa Chica of Oaxaca in the west and Guerrero, Veracruz, in the east.

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If you haven’t already, take time to read Professor Gates’ columns about the 16th-century African conquistador Juan Garrido; the black Mexican president Vincente Guerrero (yes, there was a black president in North America 179 years before Barack Obama); and Yanga, North America’s first black town.

Is Your Ancestry Afro-Mexican?

You appear to believe that you have mestizo (Spanish and Native American) ancestry in addition to your African heritage. However, the DNA test results you sent us don’t support that belief. We asked genetic genealogist CeCe Moore to review the report you sent, and this was her response in an email:

An individual of Mexican or Spanish ancestry would show a substantial amount of DNA originating from the Iberian Peninsula in his or her AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimate, which Donal Davis does not. Furthermore, if he was of Mexican ancestry, there would typically be a significant amount of Native American reported as well. Again, there is none detected in Davis’ DNA. His results are very similar to what I see for most African Americans who are descended from enslaved persons—primarily West African, with a secondary signal originating from Northern Europe.

It is possible that Abe and Wash Davis descended from enslaved people who were relocated to Texas from elsewhere, and that your ancestors never mixed with the Hispanic population. As the Texas State Historical Association states, “The great majority of slaves in Texas came with their owners from the older slave states.” That might explain how the Davises could have been born Mexican, but were not Hispanic.

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Under What Kind of Conditions Did Your Ancestors Live?

As you note, during the time that your ancestors were born, Texas’ nationality was in dispute. “In the span of 30 years, the same land between Mexico and western Texas changed governance four times,” according to that previous Tracing Your Roots column. “Spain lost control to the Mexican government following the Mexican War for Independence in 1821. The region then became part of the Republic of Texas, established March 2, 1836, as an independent sovereign nation that existed until Feb. 19, 1846, when it was annexed by the United States.”

The changes in governance certainly affected free blacks in the region, as you mentioned. According to the Texas State Historical Association: “From 1821 until 1836 both the national government in Mexico City and the state government of Coahuila and Texas threatened to restrict or destroy black servitude. … The Constitution of the Republic of Texas (1836) provided that slaves would remain the property of their owners, that the Texas Congress could not prohibit the immigration of slaveholders bringing their property, and that slaves could be imported from the United States (although not from Africa).

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“Given those protections, slavery expanded rapidly during the period of the republic. By 1845, when Texas joined the United States, the state was home to at least 30,000 slaves.”

Nacogdoches County was created in 1826 as a municipality of Mexico and organized as a county in 1837.

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How Can One Find Early Records of Black Texans?

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According to the Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, the republic of Texas never took a national census, but there were yearly county tax lists, which can provide a partial substitute. You can examine these collections on Ancestry.com (subscription required) as Tax List Indexes 1820-1829; Tax List Indexes 1830-1839; Tax List Indexes 1840-1849 as part of the Texas, Compiled Census and Census Substitutes Index, 1820-1890.

However, since Abe Davis would have been only 5 years old in 1840, he would not have shown up until the 1850 census, when each person in a household was named. Because Abe would have been only about 15 years old in 1850, he would have been most likely living in someone else’s household. If he were free, he would appear in the 1850 and 1860 census records with his own name listed—whether or not he was head of household. Since you have not been able to locate him in these censuses, then he most likely was not free, and you would therefore need to search the slave schedules for 1850 and 1860.

You will want to first search the 1850 U.S. Federal Census—Slave Schedules  via FamilySearch using the surname Davis (Abe may have taken the surname of a slaveholder, which was a common practice). Additionally, since you found him residing in District No. 4, Nacogdoches County in the 1870 census, you will want to look for the Davis surname in this county, as well as in San Augustine, since you have found Abe living there in later census records.

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We found four records listing males around age 15 (as we have noted in previous columns, enslaved people were listed by gender and age in the schedules). The first two records listed males, ages 13 and 15, in the household of George W. Davis in Nacogdoches County. The third record listed a 14-year-old male in the household of Allen Davis in San Augustine County. The fourth record was for a 14-year-old male in the household of E.K. Davis in San Augustine County.

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We then searched the 1860 U.S. Federal Census—Slave Schedules on Ancestry.com and found three men ages 27, 24, and 22 in the household of G.W. Davis in Beat (District) 4, Nacogdoches. We also found a 25-year-old man in the household of D.D. Davis in San Augustine, and a 25-year-old man in the household of Mary Davis in San Augustine. Additionally, we located a 21-year-old man in the household of Allen Davis in San Augustine. We did not locate an enumeration for E.K. Davis.

You could look first for a further connection to George W. Davis in Nacogdoches County, since that is the county in which Abe resided after slavery, by searching the censuses to see in which district George resided. You can also use the census records to follow George’s residences and to get an approximate year of death. By doing this, you might locate land and probate records for George W. Davis to see if there are any references to the slaves he once owned.

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What Other Records Might Contain Valuable Information?

After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 required Southern states to register voters—men, both black and white, over the age of 21. In Texas they had to register to vote between 1867 and 1869. You can search for Abe on Ancestry.com in the Texas, Voter Registration Lists, 1867-1869 database. The records should show you when and where he registered. You can see if he registered in the same district as George W. or G.W. Davis. You can also search this database for Abe’s brother Wash Davis.

You can also gather information from the Selected U.S. Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880 on Ancestry.com. We found a record for Abe Davis in the Agriculture Schedule for the county of San Augustine in 1880. The record stated that he owned 160 acres; therefore, you may be able to locate a record of the deed. Try conducting a land grant search on the Texas General Land Office website by first searching the surname index to locate a name and file number. Then you can apply that information to the Land Grant Database to find the record. Click on the link under “Abstr.” to get more information about the record. You may be able to find out who sold the land to Abe, as well as finding out the date of the deed.

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Finally, you may also want to explore the links on the Nacogdoches County, Texas GenWeb page, as well as contact the Nacogdoches Public Library and the Texas State Historical Society to look for local history resources.

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 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.