Do I Have South African Ancestry via Antebellum Tenn.?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900 

Dear Professor Gates:

Recently I came across an amended birth certificate, which I am sending to you, that my great-grandfather Governor Burnett Crossing filed in Nashville, Tenn., in 1944. It says that my great-grandfather was born in 1879 in Martin, Dyer County, Tenn. The certificate states that his father, Zonnie Crossing, was from Tennessee and his mother, Hettie Tlouas Milligan, was from South Africa. How can I trace her history? I am so curious about having South African roots. —Gerrifrances Walker


You have a valuable document in that amended birth certificate; however, there are limitations to any document filed years after the events it describes.

What you sent us actually was a delayed certificate of birth, which your great-grandfather had filed in 1944. The birth date on it makes him 65 years old at the time the record was created. According to the document, Governor Burnett Crossing was the one providing the information for the record, and the proof document he provided was a decree of Blount County Court on Sept. 26, 1944. While it is likely that Governor knew his birth date and the information regarding his parents, you must keep in mind that since the record was created so many years following his birth, not all the information may be correct. For instance, could Governor Burnett Crossing’s mother have been from South Africa?

Feasibility of the Family’s ‘South African’ Roots

The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was in effect by March 1, 1808. The law made it illegal to bring any new slaves into the United States. There were inevitably cases where this law was broken; however, in most cases, slaves born after this date were likely born in the United States. Based on the birth date of Governor Burnett Crossing, his mother was most certainly born after 1808, making it probable that she was born in the United States.


We asked David Eltis, co-editor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, if it was possible for her to have been born in South Africa. The database lists over 35,000 voyages that transported enslaved Africans to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries. He told us, in an email, “Hettie could not have been born that long before 1850 and we have no record of a vessel arriving from Southeast Africa in that period. I think it most unlikely that such a voyage occurred at such a late period.

“I mention Southeast Africa [rather that South Africa] because although Cape Town was not a major source of slaves for the U.S., slave vessels from the Indian Ocean world always called at Cape Town, sometimes staying for several weeks,” he continued. “It is possible that some slaves could have been taken on board there. The last records we have of slaves arriving from the Indian Ocean to the U.S. were in the years 1803-1808.” The records show that they disembarked in South Carolina, Florida and the Gulf Coast.


If Hettie Tlouas Milligan did have any South African heritage, it is more likely to have come from an ancestor of hers, rather than her directly. You might consider taking a DNA admixture test from 23andMeAncestryDNA or FamilyTreeDNA to confirm if you have any Southeast African heritage.

Confirming Other Details in the Delayed Birth Certificate

You’ll also want to do some more research on that delayed birth certificate for additional clues about your great-grandfather, his parents and the accuracy of what he stated in the document.


Try locating the court decree that was used as evidence for his birth on his delayed birth certificate. The record states that this was on file with the state registrar, file No. A-66636. You could check with the circuit court clerk for Blount County, Tenn., to see if the office has a copy of the record. If the office does not have a copy, it will likely be able to direct you to the repository that has it. The document may include further information about Governor Burnett Crossing and his parents, since he probably had to present evidence of his birth in Tennessee to the court.

Searching for more information about your great-grandfather may help suss out the accuracy of the information in the delayed birth record. When we searched for more information on Governor Burnett Crossing, we located G.B. Crossing, via FamilySearch, living in Alcoa, Blount County, Tenn., in 1940, and just four years before he filed for his delayed birth record. He was living at 47 Hood St., the same residence he provided for his delayed birth record, so we know this is the same person.


According to the 1940 census record, G.B. was 59 years old, placing his birth around 1881—about two years later than what the delayed birth certificate states. It also states that he was born in Pennsylvania instead of Tennessee.

Granted, census records are not always reliable sources for vital information, since the accuracy of the records was often dependent on who in the household answered the census taker’s questions. Perhaps someone other than your great-grandfather provided this information. However, the inconsistencies in the records may also reveal that some information on his birth record may be incorrect. They also provide some clues as to where to look for more information about Governor Burnett Crossing and his parents. For example, he may not have been born in Pennsylvania, but perhaps he lived there for a time as a child, which is why someone in the household thought he was born there.


Interestingly enough, the 1920 U.S. census, which we pulled up via (subscription required), also records that Governor Burnett Crossing was born in Pennsylvania. This record further states that both his parents were born in Tennessee, and there is no mention of South Africa.

You will want to search for as much information on Governor’s parents in additional records. Based on his delayed birth record, Governor was born in Martin, Dyer County, Tenn., on Dec. 3, 1879. This is very close to the enumeration of the 1880 U.S. census, so the family would most likely have been residing in Martin at that time. However, we searched 1870 and 1880 U.S. census records for the surname Crossing in Dyer County, Tenn., and did not locate a record for anyone who appeared to be Zonnie Crossing or Hettie Tlouas Milligan.


We also had difficulty locating African-American individuals with the surname Crossing in either census across the country. However, while searching, we saw that there were black families in Tennessee with the name Milligan in Knox, Henry and Cannon counties in Tennessee. None had a member named Hettie, but you may be connected to one of these families, so they could be worth investigating further.

Although we were not able to locate a Hettie Tlouas Milligan in Tennessee, there was a Hattie Milligan living in Corinth, Alcorn, Miss., in 1880 who may be a match for your great-great-grandmother. According to this record on, Hattie Milligan was 21 years old and had an 8-year-old son named John. Their race was recorded as black. According to the record, Hattie’s birthplace was Tennessee, and both her parents were born in Pennsylvania.


This seems enough of a coincidence, with the records for Governor Burnett Crossing sometimes recording him as being born in Pennsylvania, to make this Hattie Milligan worth further research. Additionally, if her son, John, is a potential sibling of your Governor Burnett Crossing, information on John may reveal more about Governor and his parents.

It is very possible that Governor Burnett Crossing’s parents were both former slaves. Since it was not uncommon for former slaves to adopt the surname of their former owner, we also searched the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules for the surnames Crossing and Milligan in Tennessee. The search did not return any results for the surname Crossing, although there were slave owners named Alexander Milligan and James Milligan in Cannon, Tenn., and a W.M. Milligan in Henry County, Tenn. It may be worth researching these individuals further to see if they can lead you to more information about Hettie Tlouas Milligan and her origins.


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


This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, 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,, 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.

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