Dear Professor Gates:
I am the daughter of the light heavyweight champion of the world for 1935-1939: John Henry Lewis. From stories handed down and articles from 1935 newspapers, it was said that my father’s great-granduncle was Thomas Molineaux. I have been unable to find any census records or records of Thomas, only that he won his freedom boxing on Algenon Molineaux’s plantation in 1801, left for New York and went on to England to join Bill Richmond’s boxing camp.
Thomas had a twin brother whose name may have been Franklin. My father’s older brother was named Frank, and another brother, Christy, was named after his grandfather. On top of that, my father and my four grandsons resemble the illustrated images of Thomas Molineaux. There are five generations of boxing men on my father’s side. I’ve traced their lines to Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania. I have had my DNA tested on 23andMe and recently connected with a fourth-generation relative who gave me information about Thomas Molineaux’s father, Zachariah. I have contacted the Virginia Historical Society and several other Colonial history archives. Can you help me find records that can confirm the connection? —Joan Reid Lewis
It just so happens that earlier this week, The Root published a 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column that mentioned the man you believe to be your ancestor! Thomas (Tom) Molineaux was born in Virginia (in what would become Washington, D.C.) in 1784. Like his father, Zachary (whom you refer to as Zachariah), he was a slave and a fighter whose owner, according to David Dabydeen in The Oxford Companion to Black British History, was “a wealthy playboy who frequently used him in fights against other slaves.”
What Historians Report About Tom Molineaux
As written in that column about black boxers:
“In one particular event,” Dabydeen writes, “Molineaux’s master bet $100,000 that he would defeat another slave in a match and promised to grant him his freedom should he win. Molineaux won and left for England in 1803, where he met and subsequently trained under Bill Richmond.”
In Molineaux’s first fight in England, he “punished his opponent so severely, that it was impossible to distinguish a single feature in his face,” Paul Magriel wrote in Phylon in 1951. Soon, he, too, set his sights on Cribb, the English champ. Their first match, on Dec. 18, 1810, at Copthall Common in Sussex, “was an especially trying one,” Dabydeen writes, “as the weather was severe and Cribb’s supporters became rowdy following Molineaux’s impending triumph.” At one point, Dabydeen says, “[t]hey entered the boxing ring, attacking Molineaux and consequently breaking his finger.” Somehow Molineaux “persevered and knocked Cribb out in the 28th round.”
Check out the article for more about that wild matchup. Unfortunately, a rematch with Cribb didn’t go so well for Molineaux. As Professor Gates writes, “On Sept. 28, 1811, the black boxer again went home brokenhearted, and this time broken-jawed, too, with Cribb winning in 11 rounds.”
Furthermore, it was reported in the Nov. 19, 1811, edition of New Jersey’s Sentinel of Freedom newspaper that Molineaux suffered a broken jaw and ribs in that match. Professor Gates continues:
Descending into ‘the drink,’ Molineaux nevertheless continued to box—and even wrestling on tour—losing his last fight, against George Cooper, in 1815. Molineaux died in Ireland in 1818, ‘a wasted skeleton, a penniless beggar, a shell of his former self,’ Al-Tony Gilmore writes in Africana.
We found other accounts of his matches in the New York Herald and the New Jersey Journal. In fact, newspapers dating from the early 1800s can be a valuable resource for your research. Many libraries have microfilmed copies of local newspapers among their collections. Several free and subscription newspaper databases may also be of use in your research, including GenealogyBank, which has newspapers dating back to the early 1700s, and Newspapers.com. One of the newspaper databases available to members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society is Early American Newspapers, Series I, 1690-1876, which includes New York and New Jersey newspapers dating from the early 1800s.
Researching Molineaux’s Family, Slave Owner and Others Close to Him
To gain more leads on records that might be able to help you trace your lineage to Tom Molineaux, start with the entries on him in The Oxford Companion to Black British History; Africana; and The First Black Boxing Champions: Essays on Fighters of the 1800s to the 1920s, edited by Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott.
The essay on Tom Molineaux in First Black Boxing Champions mentions an Algernon Molineaux as his owner. However, a search of the 1800, 1810 and 1820 U.S. census records did not produce a listing for that name. You might contact Aycock and Scott to see if they did find such records.
You may also be able to find information about Algenon/Algernon by looking for records related to Thomas’ father, Zachariah (Zachary) Molineaux. It has been noted in several biographical sketches of Tom Molineaux that in 1788, Zachary Molineaux was brought before the court magistrate in Philadelphia for assaulting a man named Silas Freeman. It is reported that this case was dismissed after he apologized for his actions.
To learn more about this case, and to find additional details on Zachary Molineaux, you may wish to contact the Pennsylvania State Archives because it has a number of court documents in its collection. Since Tom Molineaux would have been a young child during this time frame, you may be able to learn more about the Molineaux family and their whereabouts during the late 1780s through these documents. Pinning down names and locations may help you find the appropriate vital and/or census records (the first census was in 1790, though it would have listed only free individuals).
If the distant relative you found through 23andMe was able to provide you with information about Zachariah Molineaux’s location in the late 1700s, we suggest that you also contact local libraries and genealogical societies pertaining to those particular areas to try to obtain additional documentation about your family. Many of these repositories and societies have local history collections and may have sources that could benefit your research.
Another way to search for additional information about Tom Molineaux is to conduct research on Bill Richmond, his boxing trainer. Richmond’s boxing academy was located in Leicester Square in London. The London Metropolitan Archives may have documents pertaining to Richmond’s career, as well as those individuals who were trained by him.
Locating Death Records
Death records can contain a wealth of information about a person’s life and kinship ties. Several newspapers reported on Tom Molineaux’s death in 1818. Some accounts state that he died in Dublin, while others report that his death took place in Galway, Ireland. Published on Page 1 of the Oct. 13, 1818, edition of the Spectator newspaper—also known as the New York Spectator—is the death notice of Tom Molineaux:
On the 4th Aug. at Galway, (Ireland), Molyneux (sp.), the celebrated pugilist.
The Aug. 18, 1818, edition of the Times newspaper in London (available via Newspapers.com) reported the following:
Molyneux, (sp.) the pugilist, died at Galway, Ireland on the 4th inst., in a room occupied by the band of the 77th Regiment, where he had been maintained the last two months, and very humanely attended by three people of his colour.
The 77th Regiment mentioned in this death notice was the 77th (East Middlesex) Regiment of Foot. The National Army Museum in England has among its collection documents pertaining to this regiment. Since Tom Molineaux reportedly spent the last few months of his life with members of the 77th, you may wish to contact this museum to see if it has among its holdings records of the regiment dating from 1818. This will help you determine whether it was stationed in Dublin or Galway at the time of Tom Molineaux’s death, and you may also learn more about members of this regiment who were acquainted with Molineaux.
Good luck with your research, and let us know how it goes!
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.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, 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.