(The Root) — In the search for clues about our ancestral roots, answers can lie in the stories of those to whom we are not related by blood. The following reader wonders if that is the case for her.
"I am white, and occasionally my family history intersects with African-American families, especially in New Jersey. For example, there is a man named Alexander Banks who is buried with my ancestors in Burlington. I do not know the reason for this, but I think it's connected with his service as a sergeant in the United States Colored Troops, and in fact his grave is still decorated, even though he died in 1910. His name also appears on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I think he was hired as a substitute for one of my ancestors during the Civil War draft, but I don't know for sure.
"Banks is an interesting man who worked in a number of industries, and when he died he was litigating a claim for a $1 million family fortune in 'the South' (probably North Carolina, where he was born, I think, as a free man). Do you have any suggestions for pursuing this connection?" —Marian Gold
First you must determine when or if he came in contact with your family. Despite the fact that your relatives and Mr. Banks are buried in New Jersey, a free state, I would suggest that you start by determining whether there was a relationship between any of your ancestors and him during slavery.
Remember that all African Americans (except recent immigrants from Africa) are descended from slaves; the only question about our black ancestors is when they gained their freedom. About 220,000 black people were free in the North in 1860, while another 260,000 were free in the South at the same time. Slavery was legal in New Jersey until 1846, so it is possible that Banks could have been descended from a slave family in New Jersey, even if he was born free.
It is just as important that you determine whether your ancestors in New Jersey had familial connections to slavery somewhere in the South, since it is possible that he moved to New Jersey after his service in the Civil War. (Remember that many of the black men who served in the U.S. Colored Troops were former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation when they fled their former masters.)
Either possibility could explain Banks' relationship to your family and why he might be buried in your family's plot. If any of your ancestors living anywhere in the United States owned slaves in 1850 or 1860, their ages and genders will be listed in the Slave Schedules of the federal census. Try to find a male of approximately Banks' age on the slave schedules of any of your ancestors who were, in fact, slaveholders.
Otherwise, try searching for Alexander Banks in the U.S. federal and state census records. Depending on when he died, he may appear in the 1910 census; if not, then you would need to search the 1900 U.S. federal census and continue to trace him backward. The state of New Jersey took state censuses from 1855 to 1915, and these are available at the New Jersey State Library, Rutgers University. The most relevant censuses would be the 1855, 1860, 1865 and 1870 censuses because they were directly before and after the Civil War.
The next step in researching Banks' possible connection to your family would be to research the cemetery where he is buried. You need to determine if the cemetery belonged to one specific family, was public or belonged to an organization. If Banks was buried in a family cemetery, then his service as a replacement or substitute soldier could be the reason for his burial there.
If the cemetery was a public burial ground or belonged to a church, then you would need to locate the burial records for the cemetery from either the town or the church archives. Those records would need to be searched to see if Banks' burial plot is part of your family's plot or if he was buried near it in a separate plot.
The records might indicate who paid for the burial plot and when. If the family of the man whom you believe Banks replaced purchased the burial plot, then his service as a replacement soldier could be a reason for his being buried there. You can also check with the local history society to see if it has the cemetery records. If he was buried in a church cemetery, then you should contact the church or cemetery association. Those records might provide clues into his background.
Another source of information about the possible connection would be family papers. The personal papers might include a diary or correspondence that could indicate some type of family servitude of Banks. Oftentimes, well-to-do people paid for substitute soldiers if they wanted to avoid the draft, so it is also possible that some family personal papers are held by a larger institution as part of a collection. You can do a general search to see if his name comes up on World Cat, which lets you search participating libraries' holdings for information.
You can also search for a pension record for Banks or his widow. To see if Banks received a pension, search the database General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, which is available at FamilySearch.com and Ancestry.com. A pension record often includes correspondence that proves the veteran did serve in the Civil War and why he is in need of a pension. If Banks served as a replacement for someone else, there might be a letter from a family member stating that he served as a replacement. If he is found in the index, you would then need to contact the National Archives and Records Administration to obtain a copy of the pension.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Jason Amos, 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.