Edward Damboh Tucker
Courtesy of Sara Tucker

Dear Professor Gates:

Both of my parents were born and raised in Monrovia, Liberia. For much of my life I thought that I was a mix of indigenous and Americo-Liberian ancestry.

This summer I did the AncestryDNA genetic test. I knew the results would come back largely African, and they, in fact, came back at 100 percent. But since my last name is Tucker, I’ve been curious about how that came to be. Are we, on the Tucker side, part of the people who went back to Liberia as free blacks? Did someone in the family many generations back simply take on the Anglo last name as a way to rise above their station with all the missionary work no doubt taking place? 

I know that my great-grandfather was born Richard Vah Tucker in Monrovia. According to Ancestry.com, he died Jan. 9, 1965, at Queen Victoria Hospital for Seamen in the Canary Islands. What I later discovered via Ancestry were two different Tuckers: one born in Liberia, the other in Sierra Leone. I don’t know what, if any, connection they have to my great-grandfather, though, and that is where I’m stuck.

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There’s Cornelius Edward Tucker, born in 1854 in Newtown, Liberia. His name appears in the U.S. Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1871. Then there’s James Tucker, born August 1836 in Sierra Leone. His name shows up in the U.K. Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services, 1853-1928. His record stood out, not only because of the Sierra Leone birthplace but also because of the military service, considering that my great-grandfather was also in the military and passed in a military hospital.

Which of the two men is likely my paternal ancestor? —Sara Tucker 

Why Would an African Family Have an Anglo Name?

The histories of both Liberia and Sierra Leone, the two West African countries bordering each other, include settlements of free black people from English-speaking lands. Liberia was settled in 1822, largely through the efforts of the American Colonization Society, as a colony for emancipated and freeborn African Americans in Africa. Their descendants are known as Americo-Liberians, a heritage that you say you share. In 1847 Liberia declared independence from the ACS and became a nation.

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Similarly, in 1787 the British settled freed black people from North America, England and the Caribbean in their colony of Sierra Leone. Their descendants are the Krios, and their creole language (Krio) is widely used in Sierra Leone. The nation became independent in 1961.

To learn more about the early settlement of both countries, see two of Professor Gates’ previous articles on The Root:Who Led the 1st Back-to-Africa Effort?” and “Did I Have a Scottish Ancestor in Africa?

Given the settlement histories of Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is likely that the Tucker surname was adopted in the West by that line of your ancestors during slavery and then brought back to Africa, rather than taken in an attempt to “rise above their station.” We did not find a particular slave owner with that name during our own search, but we encourage you to continue your own search with that in mind.

The colonial connections that Liberia had to the United States and that Sierra Leone had to the United Kingdom also mean, as you have already found, that it will be helpful to search archives in all four countries for records. Wherever possible, you are going to want to examine any records you can find in their original form to extract as much information as possible. A challenge you will run into with your research is that there are not a lot of sources for Liberia or Sierra Leone available digitally or on microfilm, so your search will likely require you to contact repositories local to those regions to see what sources they may hold.

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You noted the death of your great-grandfather Richard Vah Tucker recorded in the England & Wales National Probate Calendar (via Ancestry.com; subscription required), which states that he died Jan. 9, 1965, at Queen Victoria Hospital for Seamen in the Canary Islands. This is just an abstract of the original record, and the original may include many more details about him that can help you trace his origins. You could order the original record through “Wills, Probate and Inheritance” at Gov.uk. Using the Wills and Probate 1858-1996 tab on the “Find a Will” page, you can enter the information known about Richard Vah Tucker’s will from the abstract and order the original.

Likewise, for Liberia you can see what records in the United States may contain information about early settlement by former slaves there. An 1843 census of Monrovia, Liberia, was included in the 28th U.S. Congress entitled, “Information Relative to the Operations of the United States Squadron on the West Coast of Africa, the Condition of the American Colonies There, and the Commerce of the United States Therewith,” starting on Page 308 of the report.

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FamilySearch has a searchable index for this census, and a quick search did not reveal anyone with the Tucker surname, but you could search the report to be sure there was not a transcription error. Keep in mind that this record is also not an exhaustive list of those in Liberia at the time, so it is possible that there were Tuckers who were not recorded. You may also want to search for any known related surnames, since this could give you some more clues about the Tucker name’s origins.

Investigating the Liberian Line

The U.S. Freedman’s Bank Record that you located for a Cornelius Edward Tucker, who you said was born in 1854 in Newtown, Liberia, shows him as a 22-year-old “light brown”-complexioned resident of New York who opened an account on March 19, 1874. His occupation was listed as “waiter.” The record also states that his father was David I. Tucker, his mother was Julia A. Tucker and he had a sister, L. Matilda.

However, closer examination of the original record shows that it recorded his birth as being in “Newtown L.I.,” which is more likely to mean Newtown, Long Island, in New York state (now a part of the Queens borough of New York City), than it is to mean Liberia. This is an example of the type of transcription error that can occur when records are indexed. This is why it is always a good idea to examine the original record.

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Before dismissing him completely as an ancestor, you could try searching for other records of Cornelius Edward Tucker to see what they say. Presumably, if he was opening a bank account with the Freedman’s Bank, he was living in the United States during the enumeration of the 1870 U.S. census. A search for his name in the records for that year returns several possibilities, though none of them record a birth in Africa. One of them is a 21-year-old Cornelius Tucker, who lived in New York City and was a “waiter,” according to the original record. The location, age and occupation are close enough to be a plausible match for the person who opened the bank account.

Given all of this, we think it is unlikely that there is a connection between the Cornelius Tucker you found in the bank record you located and your Liberian family, but if you wish to keep investigating this man, we suggest that you use clues from the bank record, such as his parents’ and sister’s names, in your search.

Investigating the Sierra Leonean Line

You identified James Tucker, born August 1836 in Sierra Leone, as a possible ancestor. This is a service record for James Tucker, and according to the preview of the original document, it is 12 pages long. The preview blocks out parts of the document, but it seems as if there is a lot more information included about James Tucker in the pages than what is included in the index. You could pay to download the record and see whether the information contains any other clues that could help you work forward from him.

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This record is held by the U.K. National Archives, which may have even more records that could be helpful to your search. We searched for the Tucker name in Sierra Leone to see whether there were any more records of James Tucker, and noted another service record for the same man. We also located a James Tucker who was born in 1880 in Sierra Leone and received a medal for his service. Perhaps this is a descendant of the James Tucker born in 1836; it’s worth doing further research on your own to see if you can find a connection between them.

A search of the U.K. National Archives for “Tucker Sierra Leone” reveals a number of service and medal records for men with the surname Tucker born between 1880 and 1900. There is also a birth certificate for James Tucker born Nov. 24, 1880, in Sierra Leone, as well as for a Nelli Agatha Blazy-Tucker, born in Sierra Leone on Sept. 17, 1910. Most of the results of the search are for crew lists for ships that include Tucker men from Sierra Leone. These records together demonstrate that the Tucker surname was one established in Sierra Leone by the early to mid-19th century.

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, a senior 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.