The Battle of New Orleans, January 1815. Copy of engraving by H.B. Hall after W. Momberger., circa 1900-1982 (National Archives).
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My third-great-grandfather Hypolite LaFargue Jr. (born 1819) shows up in the 1850 census in New Orleans as a mulatto tailor with his family. It also appears that his father, Hypolite LaFargue Sr., fought in the War of 1812 in the 2nd Battalion of the Louisiana Infantry led by d’Aquin.

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How do I find out when or if this line of my family were ever slaves? Not many people can find free black people in their family trees that far back. I am curious as to my ancestors’ origins, but have hit a roadblock in uncovering more information.

As a side note: Hypolite Jr. had a son named Leopold LaFargue who married a woman named Henriette Vignaud (born 1862) (they were my second-great-grandparents), who also comes from a line of free mulattoes in New Orleans, well prior to the Civil War. —Jeannine Fisher

To find out if Hypolite LaFargue Sr. or his ancestors were ever enslaved, you could first search for clues on records you have for him that may lead you to other family members or perhaps a previous slave owner.

Looking at the Black Battalions in the War of 1812

Your family history appears to be linked with a period of time when people of African descent chose to fight under several flags in pursuit of freedom and empowerment. In the War of 1812, black men fought for both the Americans and the British in the hope of defending their liberty, and ensuring their freedom permanently.

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In the final major engagement of that war, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson (who later became the seventh president of the United States) thwarted the British attempt to take New Orleans in a series of battles between December 1814 and January 1815.

Both the British and the Americans invited black people to fight on their side, with those answering Jackson’s direct appeal to Louisiana’s free men of color to fight in exchange for equal treatment with white men before and after the war (a promise that fell short of being fulfilled). Over 600 of them fought under two black battalions. One, drawing from free Louisianans of color, fought under Maj. Pierre Lacoste. The other, organized by the black Capt. Joseph Savary, consisted of refugees from Saint-Domingue who had fought on the side of the French during the Haitian Revolution. Leading them was Maj. Louis d’Aquin.

In the list of Louisiana Soldiers in the War of 1812, Hypolite LaFargue is listed (viewable via Ancestry.com, subscription required) as having served as a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Louisiana infantry led by d’Aquin.

Additionally, there was a “Fa” LaFargue who served as a sergeant in the 1st Regiment led by Dejan. Despite the fact that nothing in the record indicates this soldier’s race, we cannot rule out this individual’s being related in some way to Hypolite. In fact, we’ll come back to him later.

Meanwhile, to learn more about the environment in which your ancestor fought, pick up a copy of the black historian William Cooper Nell’s 1851 book, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812. To Nell and his abolitionist contemporaries, the brave service of black men in America’s early wars bolstered their arguments for emancipation and civil rights in the years before the Civil War.

Also informative is Rosemarie Fay Loomis’ 1991 book, Negro Soldiers: Free Men of Color in the Battle of New Orleans, War of 1812.

Searching Records of Free People of Color for Leads

While we did not find any records for your ancestors between the War of 1812 and the 1850 census, there are collections available on microfilm through the Family History Library that may have more information on the family during those decades. For instance, the Register of Free Colored Persons Entitled to Remain in State, 1840-1864 may include individuals with the LaFargue surname. You could order these records on microfilm and view them at your local Family History Center.

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You could also search collections such as the Assessment of Property and Census of Slaves and Their Owners, 1837 to see if there were any LaFargue slave owners that year in New Orleans.

Casting a Wide Net in the 1850 Census

Moving to the 1850 census, we find 33-year-old Hypolite LaFargue (born two years earlier than the date you gave, so presumably Jr.) as the head of a household in New Orleans. His name is transcribed in the index record as “Hyppotive Lafargue.” According to the record, he is living with Juliette (transcribed in the index record as “Julaia”) and children Alice and Joseph, and a “Widow Lafargue” (transcribed as “Widon”), aged 61. The widow’s age places her birth about 1789, the right age to be Hypolite’s mother, although she could be related to him in another way. It also seems possible that the Ophelia Lafargue, age 25, in the household could be Hypolite’s sister or cousin. The record claims that all of these individuals were born in Louisiana.

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If the Widow Lafargue is Hypolite’s mother, it indicates that his father had likely died prior to 1850. Unfortunately, the record does not contain his father’s name.

You may also want to investigate further the other individuals in the household who do not have the LaFargue surname, since they are likely related or closely associated in some way. The surnames Duboy, Gayarre and Fitzgerald all appear in Hypolite LaFargue’s household in 1850, so if you have difficulty tracing the LeFargue surname, you may want to explore the possibility that one of these other surnames was adopted from a former slave owner of Hypolite’s ancestors.

You will likely benefit from expanding your search to anyone with the LaFargue surname in the area of New Orleans. Fortunately, there were not that many families with that surname in the area.

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During our own search of the 1850 census for other LaFargues in New Orleans we noted a Mathilde Lafargue, born circa 1821 in Virginia, who was recorded as mulatto. She is living in the household of a Robert Arnet, who was born in Ireland about 1820. There were two children in the household who were 7 years old, a Eugene Lafargue and a Laura Caubette, both born in Louisiana.

Looking at the original document, we noted that in the next household were four individuals recorded as mulatto. The head of household there was Josephine Bowegegne, born circa 1820, and living in the household was Benjamin Xavier, a tailor born circa 1825, Annette Xavier born circa 1832, and a Benjamin Xavier born in 1849.

We found it interesting that Benjamin Xavier was in the same industry as your Hypolite LaFargue Jr. It’s possible that LaFargue Jr. is connected to these individuals, so it would be worth researching them further to see if they can provide clues that could shed light on him.

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Because you are curious to know if your LaFargue ancestors were ever slaves, we also searched for white families in the area with that surname. (Keep in mind that a black person’s surname was not always taken from that of a previous slave owner.)

We noted two very interesting individuals with the LaFargue surname living in New Orleans in 1850. The first was Francois Lafargue, who was born circa 1792 in the West Indies (a region that includes Saint-Domingue, which became Haiti in 1804). Living in his household, was Rosalie Lafargue, born circa 1775 in Louisiana; Clara Lyon, a widow; and two other members of the Lyon family. We also speculated based on his age that this could be the “Fa” LaFargue we located in the list of soldiers that served in the war of 1812.

Additionally, in the same area was a Widow Lafargue, born about 1790 in the West Indies. She was living with a Clemence Lafargue, born circa 1834 in Louisiana. Neither of these families were recorded as being persons of color, however, it does suggest that the Lafargue surname had ties to the West Indies.

Looking at Slave Schedules and Sale Records in America and Abroad

Working back in census records, it appears that Francois Lafargue did own slaves in Louisiana. In 1830, he was recorded with 11 slaves in his household. Knowing that there were slave owners with that surname in New Orleans, you could search the database Slave Sales in Louisiana, Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1718-1820, for the LaFargue surname to see if any slave owners with the LaFargue surname have slave sales included in the database. This database includes the names of the enslaved person, the buyer and the seller, as well as any other information included in the original records that could indicate where different parties included in the record resided and if the sale was of an individual or a group. The database usually also records the age and racial description of the enslaved person in the sale which could be helpful in identifying potential ancestors. In our brief search of the database, we also noted that a slave owner named Antoine Lafargue appears in a number of records.

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Knowing that there were Lafargue slave owners that originated in the West Indies provides you with another location to look for records. It was common for French plantation owners to own land on the islands and in Louisiana, so this could explain why Francois Lafargue moved from the West Indies to New Orleans. Based on the surname, you will likely have the best luck searching for more information in areas that were occupied by the French. A database of Plantation Owners of St. Domingue in 1789 records a number of individuals with the LaFargue surname.

One of the individuals was named Antoine Lafarge, which could be a match to the individual we located in the database of Slave Sales. This suggests that there could be a connection between the Lafargue family of Louisiana and the colony of Saint-Domingue. Reconcile that with Hypolite LaFargue Sr.’s service in a battalion of refugees from Saint-Domingue, and you have a promising avenue of exploration into his early life and origins.

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 Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., 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.