Ancestor of L. Moody, circa 1900
Courtesy of L. Moody

Dear Professor Gates:

I am trying to confirm whether my free-person-of-color ancestors in and around Northampton County, N.C., emigrated there from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic around 1800. Of particular interest are what I believe to be familial ties to the well-respected Robertses of Northampton County. It appears that my maternal line descends from John Roberts, born around 1710, and a prominent resident in Northampton County by 1734.

According to Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina From the Colonial Period to About 1820, the Roberts lineage in Virginia began with Mary Roberts, a former indentured servant who was born around 1664. Heinegg does not state the racial identification of Mary Roberts or her spouse. However, there may be a tie to John Roberts (a “mulatto”) and John Sherly (a “Portuguese”)—both servants of William Wise in York County, Va., who completed their indentureship during the mid-1690s.

Furthermore, according to an aunt, all of my ancestors were from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and one other place (either Cuba or Brazil). Apparently, some of these ancestors claimed European-only ancestry, and there were subsequent family rifts due to intermarriage with mixed race and Afro-Hispanic people. Spanish was apparently spoken by some of these ancestors until 1900 or so.

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Are there records proving immigration from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Brazil or other Spanish/Portuguese-speaking location? My question is not an effort to distance my family from our African ancestry but, rather, to confirm whether we have Hispanic roots, too.

My 91-year-old mother was kind enough to undergo mtDNA testing at 23andMe. Her L2C2 results clearly show ties back to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Brazil. I have sent the results to you. —L. Moody

Congratulations on how far you’ve gotten in your research into your heritage! Before we get into how you can trace the immigration of your ancestors into the United States that early in its history, we’d like to address the DNA results that you sent us.

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Determining and Tracing Hispanic Heritage

We asked CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist, to look at the raw-data file you sent us on your mother’s test results. She told us in an email: “Using James Lick’s mthap online tools, I was able to further refine Mr. Moody’s mother’s mtDNA subclade from L2c2 to L2c2b1b. Studying the academic literature did not reveal any connection to Brazil or the Caribbean for this subclade. Instead, research shows that this mitochondrial DNA signature has been found in Angola, Zambia, Botswana, the Khoisan people and South Africa.”

We also asked Jane Landers, a historian who specializes in colonial Latin America and the Atlantic World (particularly the history of Africans and their descendants in those regions), about possible migration waves to North Carolina around 1800. She said that if someone migrated from the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti), it could have been as a result of the turmoil surrounding the Haitian Revolution.

If you wish to continue exploring possible Hispanic heritage, a collection that may prove extremely helpful to you is Pasaportes, 1795-1889, which contains Puerto Rican emigration records and may contain details on individuals surnamed Roberts who departed Puerto Rico circa 1800. This collection is not available to search online, however. You can order it on microfilm from the Family History Library and have it delivered to your nearest Family History Center for a fee of $7.50.

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Another way to determine if your ancestors from Northampton County came from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico circa 1800 is to locate passenger lists. However, it’s difficult to locate passenger lists prior to 1820. That’s because, according to the U.S. National Archives, “Until January 1, 1820, the U.S. Federal Government did not require captains or masters of vessels to present a passenger list to U.S. officials.”

Some passenger lists of ships arriving in North Carolina prior to 1820, however, can be found online using the website Olive Tree Genealogy, as well as information on additional resources. You’ll have to browse the passenger lists by voyage.

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Finding Leads on the Roberts Family

One effective technique to find how an immigrant ancestor came to America is to trace back the family line in question as far as possible in America. This tactic provides you with a list of names of individuals who may have been the immigrant. With these names in mind, and using available records, you can then search for the earliest dated record for each individual to attempt to narrow down his or her time of arrival.

One good resource for doing this is probate records. The records for Northampton County, N.C., can be found through FamilySearch. The earliest record mentioning an individual surnamed Roberts is the will of Francis Jones, dated March 1784, in which he bequeaths “one negro named Buck” to his friend Thomas Roberts. The book Northampton County, North Carolina, 1759-1808 also includes an abstract of the will of a Margaret Roberts, dated June 6, 1789, in which she mentions sons Ishmael, James and John Roberts and daughters Mary Roberts, Faitha Scott, Christian Stewart, Phebe Roberts, Hannah Roberts, Milla Anderson, Delpha Roberts and Elizabeth Roberts.

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Land records can also help with determining the earliest date that a surname appears in a particular location. In the book Abstracts of Deeds, Northampton County, North Carolina, 1741-1759, a John Roberts is listed as a witness to a deed in which Philemon and Ann Maurice sold 100 acres of land to Sebestin Squire of Northampton County in May 1745. Additional land records for Northampton County can be viewed through FamilySearch.

The earliest deed involving the name of John Roberts was recorded in 1768, at which time Jonathan Roberts sold land to Joseph Johnson in Northampton County. Additionally, he also sold land to Mathew Powell in 1771 and to Nathan Gardner in 1788. There was also a man named John Roberts who sold land to Francis Boykin in 1799. A careful search through all of these land deeds (in fact, through all of the Roberts land deeds) may uncover a clue to a family member of yours.

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Also helpful are early census records for North Carolina. In addition to the 1790 and 1800 U.S. federal censuses, which can be accessed through Ancestry.com, North Carolina also conducted a state census between 1784 and 1787, providing researchers with additional records of the locations of ancestors. Within those years, there were John Robertses living in Surry County, Caswell County, Perquimans County and Chowan County, N.C., and an Esther Roberts living in Northampton County. These census records tell only the name of the head of the household, not the family members living within that household.

Other collections that may aid your search for Roberts connections include Tax Records (Northampton County, North Carolina), 1784-1879 and Civil and Criminal Actions, Slave Records (Northampton County, North Carolina), 1785-1867.

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An examination of newspaper databases may also lead to additional information regarding the Roberts surname in North Carolina. GenealogyBank contains advertisements and articles mentioning the name Roberts published in Halifax, N.C., just 10 miles from Jackson, the county seat of Northampton County. We found mention of Daniel Roberts and William Roberts in these newspapers in 1796. Further examining these online digital newspaper copies may reveal clues regarding your ancestors.

If you are able to establish when and where your ancestors arrived from, additional resources are available to aid the continuation of your research. FamilySearch contains a database titled Puerto Rico, Catholic Church Records, 1645-1969 that can be searched for any reference to your family. In addition, the database Dominican Republic, Catholic Church Records, 1590-1955 may prove helpful. Both of these online databases are arranged by city or county, so a specific knowledge of where your ancestors are from is imperative.

Although a lack of passenger lists may make the task of tracing ancestors difficult, there are a multitude of resources that may allow you to piece together a family history and trace your ancestors back to their place of immigration.

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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 Zachary Garceau, 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.