Enslaved Abyssinian resting at Korti, Nubia
David Roberts, Egypt & Nubia, 1846-1849, New York Public Library

Dear Professor Gates:

We have traced our roots back to our great-great-great-great-grandfather Lar Henry Green (aka Henry G). According to family legend, he was a slave in France or Portugal, and when he arrived in the U.S., he married a 15-year-old Ethiopian girl. Lar Henry was born in July 1831 and died March 31, 1905, in Ladonia, Texas. According to recent research we have done, his wife was Jenny (Jennie/Jensy/Jensie/Jane) Trout-Green. She was born in 1856, but we don’t know her date of death.

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Lar Henry gave all his children, girls included, the first name “Lar.” We guess that was a tradition from whatever country he came from. One of those children was Lar Zinnerman Green, whose daughter, Melissa (Green) Lacy, was the mother of my own grandmother Thelma Lacy.

We have tried for years to determine what country Lar Henry came from, as well as whether Jenny was truly Ethiopian. Interestingly, the World War I military-enlistment record of Grandmother Thelma’s father, John William (aka William) Lacy, lists him as Ethiopian. This is despite the fact that he was related to the Green family by marriage, not by blood.

People tell us there were no Ethiopian slaves, but I always counter with, “How do you know? Were you there?” Can you help us settle these questions? —Daniel D. Hardman

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Discovering the origins of Lar Henry Green and Jenny Trout-Green starts with gathering as much information as you can about them here in the United States. Census records in particular can be helpful in determining when and where individuals were born.

Where Were Lar Henry and Jenny Born?

Your family legend tells you that Lar Henry was a slave in France or Portugal and that his wife, Jenny (Jennie/Jensy/Jensie/Jane) Trout-Green, was Ethiopian. Starting with census records for the family will also provide you with information about the birthplaces of their children, which will give you an idea of where they were living at various points in their lives, indicating where you should look for more records.

It is important to note that census records are not always accurate, since information recorded could have been told incorrectly to the census taker or could have been written incorrectly. With this in mind, census records can be powerful tools if you read them fully, since they provide clues about where to find more records on the individuals included. It is possible that the records will state that your ancestors were born in France, Portugal or Ethiopia, as your family legends claim, but you should be prepared to find out that these stories relate to earlier generations.

It is fortunate that Lar Henry lived long enough to be recorded in the 1900 federal census, since the census that year recorded the birthplace of each individual as well as the birthplaces for both parents. Since we know that Lar Henry died in 1905 in Ladonia, Texas, this census is a good place to look for information on the family. You can access the 1900 census for free through FamilySearch. If you search for Henry G. Green living in Ladonia, Texas, you’ll locate a record for Henry G. Green; his wife, Jensy; and 10 of their children living in Justice Precinct 4, Fannin, Texas.

According to the record, Henry G. Green was born in 1831, and his wife, Jensy L., was born in 1856. This matches the information you provided about the family. It further states that Henry G. was born in Georgia, as were both of his parents. In addition, it states that Jensy was born in Arkansas, her father was born in Missouri and her mother was born in Tennessee. All of their children were born in Texas, suggesting that the family had been in the state for at least 20 years prior to 1900.

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Based on this record, it appears that both Lar Henry and Jensy were born in the U.S. As stated earlier, it is important to note that census records often record false information. A lot of this is dependent on who in the household gave the census taker the information.

What this does provide is some clue as to where to look for more information about Lar Henry Green and Jensy. It could be that Georgia and Arkansas were the first states they lived in when arriving in the U.S., rather than birthplaces. It is also a strong possibility that the record is correct and that your family legend may actually relate to an earlier generation than Lar Henry (Henry G) and Jensy.

What Happens When You Dig Further Into Their Origins?

When you look at census records, it is important to read them fully to gather as much information as you can to locate more records. For example, the enumerator for the 1900 census asked married couples how long they had been married. Henry G. Green and Jensy L. Green both stated that they had been married for 28 years in 1900, placing the date of their marriage circa 1872.

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The census recorder also asked mothers to record how many children they had given birth to and how many were still living. The record states that Jensy had 14 children but that only 13 were still living. This tells us a couple of things. It means that the 10 children in their household in 1900 were not their only children—there were an additional three children not living in the house. It also tells us that one of their children had died, which means there may be a death record for that child.

Death records can provide information about the parents of an individual, including their place of birth. Since it seems likely that the family lived in Texas for a number of years, you can search Texas Deaths, 1890-1976 for death records of Henry Green’s family, including Henry Green himself. The way this collection works is first you search for a person’s name in the index, and the record provides the certificate number. You can then browse the collection—where it states “Browse through 4,476,649 images” at the bottom of the search screen—and browse the death certificates for the original record.

One way to determine how accurate information in the census records may be is to compare them with other records for the family, including other census records. If the information for their birth remains consistent over time, the more likely it is to be close to the truth. Since you know from the 1900 census that all the children listed were born in Texas, you can search for the family in Texas in the 1880 census. You can view the original record for this through Ancestry.com. Once again living in Precinct 4, Fannin, Texas, is Henry Green and his wife, J.L., and six children. This record also states that Henry Green was born in Georgia and that his wife, J.L., was born in Arkansas.

What Do Their Marriage Records Turn Up?

It seems likely that since all the children were born in Texas, the couple was married in Texas. A marriage record may reveal more information about the families for both Lar Henry and Jensy. Based on your research, you believe that Jenny/Jensy’s maiden name may have been Trout.

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We started our search for Henry Green and Jenny Trout in the Texas, County Marriage Index 1837-1977, available on Family Search, but did not locate a record. However, if you search just for Henry Green in 1872, you’ll find a reference to the marriage of Henry Green and Jinsey Quisinbury on March 16, 1872. Based on the births of Henry and Jinsey’s children starting in 1873 in Texas, and the information in the 1900 census about their marriage in 1872, this appears to be the marriage record for your ancestors (unless this was Jinsey’s second marriage). Obtaining a copy of this marriage document might provide additional information, such as their age at the time of marriage and whether either had been married before.

This marriage document provides a different surname for Jinsey than the one you submitted, which may aid you in further searches. Based on the places of birth provided in the 1900 census for Jensy in Arkansas and her parents in both Missouri and Tennessee, you could search the 1870 census for the Quisinbury name in these three locations and see if you locate anything that looks like it may be Jensy’s family. Since the 1870 census is after the end of slavery but before her marriage date in 1872, you might be able to locate her in the household of a relative.

You could also search those three states for the Quisinbury name in the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules. Often, slaves took the surname of their former owner, so you may be able to locate a record for a household where Jensy may have lived prior to the end of slavery. Because the slave schedules usually listed only the gender and age of a slave under the name of the slave owner, we would suggest searching for a female born about 1856 with the surname Quisinbury. When we performed this search, we located a William Quosinbury living in Fayetteville, Washington, Ark., with a 5-year-old mulatto girl in his household. This could be a record for your Jensy Quisinbury.

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Looking for probate or land records for William Quosinbury may reveal more about his slaves so that you can determine the possibility that this is a record for your ancestor. You may also want to contact the Arkansas chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society to see if it can provide any help in locating records for Jensy. You can perform a similar search for the surname Green in Georgia to see if you can locate a likely record for Lar Henry Green.

So Where Did the Ethiopian Legend Come From?

Based on family legend, Jensy was Ethiopian, as was your ancestor John William Lacy.

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Slavery existed in Ethiopia for centuries as a part of Afro-Asiatic society, but the slaves were not directly a part of the slave trade to America. In fact, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, no slaves came to the U.S. from Ethiopian directly across the Atlantic. Given the distance between Ethiopian and Africa’s west coast, from where the majority of people were taken for the transatlantic trade, that stands to reason.

Could your ancestor have hailed from Ethiopia anyway? As the historian David Eltis told us, “Most transatlantic slave vessels from southeast Africa sold their captives to Brazil and Cuba—mainly in the 19th century—but we do have about 2,000 [slaves] from this region coming into Charleston and New Orleans between 1804 and 1808. However, their slave vessels sailed from Mozambique Island or, in one case, Zanzibar. In the latter instance, an Ethiopian [or several] may have been on board, but the direction of the Indian Ocean trade was usually from south to north [to supply Arab markets] or to the Mascarene Islands.”

Additionally, Neil A. Frankel noted in his resource on the Atlantic slave trade that slaves from the east side of Africa were often brought to Portuguese-controlled Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, citing Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. It is possible that this is where both stories—that Jensy was Ethiopian and that Lar Henry Green was a slave in Portugal—originated.

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However, it’s important to remember that “Ethiopia” was one of Europe’s blanket names for any place in sub-Saharan Africa (“Guinea” and “Sudan” were two other blanket names), and as Eltis pointed out to us, for centuries the term “Ethiopian” was used simply to denote dark skin. Also, as the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood told us, the state of California listed African Americans as “Ethiopian” on birth certificates as recently as the 1950s. (The historians also checked the name “Lar” to see if it is in Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia, but it does not appear to be.)

The best way to know if you have Ethiopian ancestry is by having your autosomal DNA tested. Several DNA companies—including Ancestry.com, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA—excel at tracing complex genetic ancestry back 200 or 300 years. Ancestry.com’s ancestry feature offers the most detailed analysis of a person’s various African genetic roots. We strongly suggest that you take one, if not all, of these tests.

Most family legends have elements based in truth, so do not be discouraged that the records we located do not seem to match the story. It could be that the basis for the legend lies further in the past.

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 editor-in-chief 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 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.