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Dear Professor Gates:

My family, descended from Thomas Chaffe (1635), is well-documented in The Chaffee Genealogy by William Chaffee (1909) and I’ve traced a direct line back to Thomas in 12 generations. Also well-documented is the fact that the woman who owned the slave Dred Scott, Irene Sanford Emerson, married one of my ancestors. But this isn’t about that. 

One day I was searching Google Images and I came across an African-American man with the surname Chaffee. I started wondering if he could trace his family back to the slaves owned by someone in my family. This is what I have found so far:

Lamb Chaffee, born in 1831, married Martha [surname unknown] and had nine children. Lamb is listed as “mulatto” and “Negro” on various census reports, and is also listed as born in North Carolina. I haven’t been able to find anything on his parents or other family before that.  If he is the out-of-wedlock son of one of my ancestors—I’d like to know. Likewise, if he was simply owned by one of my ancestors, I’d like to know that too. —Kathy B. Chaffee

Slavery’s “peculiar” ability to strip those that were subject to it of all power and personhood is at the heart of the case to which your ancestor’s slave-owning wife was central. That dehumanizing ability also explains why the kind of question you pose is typically a tough one to answer.

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Dred Scott’s lawsuit against Irene Sanford Emerson to gain his freedom resulted in the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, casting African Americans out of citizenship until 1868, when the 14th Amendment extended those rights to all who were born or naturalized in the United States.

Not only could black people not be citizens during that time in American history, but the majority who were enslaved were considered to be property. As a result, enslaved persons were often designated in records only by their age and sex. It was unlikely that they would even be listed by name, much less identified as the offspring of a slave owner.

All of this makes determining familial relationships between slave owners and enslaved African Americans quite difficult. However, with a bit of creativity and deductive reasoning, you can search for insights into the pasts of former slaves and propose connections to slaveholding families.

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Does Being Identified as “Mulatto” in the Census Indicate Mixed-Race Heritage?

When researching the heritage of a former slave, it can be helpful to first gather all records regarding that individual after emancipation. You have already done this by locating Lamb Chaffee and his family in the 1870, 1880 and 1900 U.S. censuses. Study all identifying information included in these census records, such as age, race, occupation, property holdings, location of residence and associated individuals. Noticing patterns in this data allows one to construct tentative relationships between the person of interest and former slave owners.

In the case of Lamb Chaffee, you noted that he was described as “mulatto” in the 1870 U.S. census, which you have taken as a possible indication that he was the son of a white Chaffee man. There can be cases in which an individual consistently identifies his or herself as mulatto in census records, but oftentimes the designator “mulatto” or “black” was assigned based simply on the perception of the census taker.

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Returning to Lamb Chaffee, we can see that in the 1880 and 1900 U.S. censuses his race is designated as “black.” Looking at the racial designations of Lamb Chaffee’s family members is a good idea. We can see that in the 1870 census (via Ancestry.com, registration required), Martha Chaffee is described as “black,” as are two of their children, the rest listed as “mulatto.” The seemingly haphazard assignment of racial descriptors might reflect the census taker’s perception of slight differences in skin tone rather than white parentage.

Furthermore, in the 1880 census, also on Ancestry.com, all members of the Chaffee family are described as “black,” further complicating any concrete determination of their racial heritage. On the other hand, if the family you are researching includes one or more individuals who consistently describe themselves as a different race than the other family members, you could make a stronger case for a white parent.

Who Are the Neighbors in the Years After Emancipation?

It is also wise to pay attention to the identities of all members of the individual’s family as well as their relationships to associated or nearby persons. Particularly in the 1870 and 1880 U.S. censuses, you will often find one white family living among a number of African-American families. This arrangement reflects the circumstances of the area immediately following the Civil War in which many African-American families settled near farms owned by the former slave owners, which they continued to farm after emancipation.

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If you discovered an African-American family living near a white family of the same surname, it is possible that they had been enslaved by that family. Furthermore, multiple African-American families with the same last name could also point to pre-emancipation relationships. While the families might not necessarily have been directly related, they could have been enslaved by the same family whose surname they assumed upon emancipation. Keep in mind that drawing conclusions such as these are most effective immediately following emancipation, and become less likely the more time has passed. Thus, using the 1870 U.S. census is most ideal.

In the case of Lamb Chaffee, you would want to search the 1870 census for white Chaffee families living in or around Madison County, Miss. The closest white family to the Chaffees with significant real estate holdings was that of Gabriel and Emeline Davis. This was probably the family on whose farm Lamb Chaffee and his sons worked.

There is only one other Chaffee individual living in Police District 3, Madison, Miss., in 1870, as did the family of Lamb Chaffee: Edward Chaffee, born in Rhode Island around 1808.

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The proximity of these two Chaffee households is promising, and your next approach would be to search for information on Edward Chaffee prior to emancipation.

The 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses records for the South are less reliable or complete than those in other areas of the country, so your best technique would be to search the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules for individuals with the surname Chaffee living in Madison County, Miss. While Lamb Chaffee identifies his birthplace as North Carolina, it is likely that he had previously been enslaved by a Chaffee family near Madison County, Miss., and had remained in the area after emancipation, as opposed to traveling from North Carolina to Mississippi after emancipation to establish himself.

In the slave schedules can be found lists of all slave-owning individuals in a certain area as well as minimally descriptive accounts of each enslaved person. Generally, slaves are designated only by their age and sex and are arranged chronologically. However, occasionally individuals are mentioned by name and/or are arranged into family groups. If you have already identified slaveholding families based on surname or proximity post-emancipation, you can search for those families in the slave schedules prior to emancipation, looking for matches for your person of interest based on sex and approximate age.

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What Can the Slave Schedules Tell Us?

In the case of Lamb Chaffee, you would want to search the 1860 Slave Schedule for slave owners with the last name Chaffee residing in the Madison County, Miss., area. Fortunately, there is only one such individual, Hester C. Chaffee. Take note of this name, which is similar to the Hester Chaffee mentioned in the Chaffee family genealogy, because its significance will become clear later on.

Viewing the original document, you can see that she is named as Mrs. Hester C. Chaffee, suggesting that she was either married or widowed. The fact that Hester, and not her husband, was listed as the slave owner is telling and suggests that she likely inherited from a prior husband property, which would also have included enslaved African Americans. The enslaved persons listed under her name are organized according to both age and sex, with men and women separated. Lamb Chaffee would have been 38 or 30 years old in 1860, based on the various estimated birth years gathered from the three post-emancipation census records. You can see that Hester C. Chaffee owned two enslaved men, ages 32 and 31, who are possible matches for Lamb Chaffee.

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If you refer again to the census records, it appears that Lamb and Martha would have already had at least three children by 1860 (all boys), so you would also want to take note of any young boys that could be matches. However, it was not uncommon for enslaved men and women to form relationships and begin families across property lines, and his wife and children could have been listed under another slave owner. You can also see from this record that all of the men were described as “black” and the five oldest women were designated “mulatto.”

As is the case when speculating an individual’s race based on census records, a similar degree of caution must also be applied to the slave schedules. However, in the latter, such designations tend to be more accurate as they likely were provided by the slave owner.

You would also want to search for Hester Chaffee in the 1850 Slave Schedule and compare that data with the one below to further speculate about the presence of Lamb Chaffee.

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What Other Kinds of Records Can Yield Clues About Black-White Family Connections?

After identifying possible slaveholders, you would then want to research those individuals, looking for further evidence of a connection. Apart from the slave schedules, the other documents most likely to mention enslaved African Americans are land and probate records. As mentioned above, African Americans were, unfortunately, considered part of the property passed down through wills or exchanged through deeds. In fact, these kinds of documents are often the best places to find slaves mentioned by name, since they needed to distinguish between individuals.

We have already speculated that Hester C. Chaffee was previously married and received her property and slave as part of a bequest from her former husband. Researching who Hester was married to previously can uncover a probate record naming the enslaved persons who were transferred to her.

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Ancestry.com has recently begun uploading various probate records for a number of states that were previously unavailable digitally. You could search the collection Mississippi, Wills and Probate Records, 1780-1982 for the probate of Hester C. Chaffee’s first husband, or for her own. While she likely died after emancipation, she did leave a large probate record. These documents could quote, reference or include prior documents, which could mention any enslaved persons that she received from her first husband.

If you are having difficulty locating the name of Hester’s first husband, you could search the Chaffee sources that you are already aware of (such as the genealogy you mention) for Edward Chaffee, her second husband. If he can be found in a Chaffee genealogy, it may also mention his marriage to Hester and the name by which she was previously known. This could also help you connect Edward Chaffee to your Chaffee ancestors and situate him within the lineage.

Finally, you could return to a post-emancipation approach and search the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau marriage records, which are conveniently available for free through FamilySearch. These records were compiled between 1861 and 1872 in order to record the previously undocumented marriages of formerly enslaved African Americans. You can search the database by name, date and location, but given naming conventions of the time, you might try a number of spelling variations or associated names to increase your likelihood of finding a match.

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There are other records that were collected by the Freedmen’s Bureau that have not been digitized, but which you might be able to request from other repositories. The National Archives possesses many of these records.

You could also follow the Lamb Chaffee family even further, searching for death records for Lamb and Martha Chaffee and records pertaining to their children. It does not appear that there are many Madison County death records (available via FamilySearch) from this time period available online, so you would benefit from contacting libraries or other institutions in Madison County or Mississippi more broadly to inquire about their record holdings and the possibility of having someone perform a search for you. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History would be an excellent place to begin such contacts. Extending your search to the children of Lamb and Martha Chaffee could also unearth potentially useful clues.

A last tip that is useful for any genealogical inquiry is to make use of the GenWeb and RootsWeb databases and others like them for the area in which your person of interest lived. As with family trees on popular sites like Ancestry.com, these websites offer places for genealogically-minded individuals to connect and share records that might not be found through other avenues.

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In particular, the Madison County GenWeb page and the Madison County page of the Mississippi Genealogy and History Network have a number of transcribed probate and other records that might help you learn more about the Chaffees in that area.

When we searched Madison County probate records’ index of probate records mentioning enslaved persons for the surname Chaffee, we discovered a match in the probate record of Charles Moore, who left his wife, Hester C. (Moore) Chaffee, some property from his estate, including an enslaved man by the name of Lamb:

I give and bequeath to my dear wife all the ready money I have on hand all the household and kitchen furniture. [sic] I have except two beds and furniture all my stock of horses, cattle, hogs, and sheep except one gray mare Nashville I give my wife three eights of land where my dwelling house is and all things appertaining thereto in Section fourteen township Eight Range three and my eighty acres of land laying in Pearl River bottom also to my wife Hanna, Harriet and all her increase, Emma, Lewis, Clary, Lamb, and Albert, and my interest to Rhubin.

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Given that Lamb is not a very common name and that this probate connects him to Hester C. (Moore) Chaffee, it is likely that this is the family who had possession of Lamb Chaffee before emancipation and from whom he took his surname.

For additional tips on breaking down the brick wall of emancipation, refer to our previously published column, “A Cheat Sheet for Researching African-American Ancestors.”

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 Anna L. Todd, 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.