Help Me Trace the 3 Enslaved ‘Wives’ of William Dawkins

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Original Paradise AME Church building, before 1965
Courtesy of E. Giddings Ivory
Original Paradise AME Church building, before 1965
Courtesy of E. Giddings Ivory

Dear Professor Gates:

How can one find the place where one’s ancestors originated when the names of locations change over time? 

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My family oral history indicates that William Dawkins (1790-1872), who died in Union County, S.C., went from his plantation in Fish Dam, S.C., to a place called Maddox/Mattox in Virginia and brought back four enslaved women. Dawkins, who was from a large family, never married, but he had about 23 children with three of these women, who were his “wives,” beginning first with Katy/Kate (born in 1802), then Milley (born in 1805) and Rosetta (born in 1805). The descendants of these women still meet annually and will have the 88th family reunion at the end of July in Chicago.

William Dawkins left property to them. It was challenged, through delay, by his nephew Spencer Morgan Dawkins. The judge found in favor of two of the women, and they took possession of the property, in Carlisle, S.C., where they built the Paradise AME Church at the center.

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All of that we know, but we are trying to find where Maddox/Mattox could have been. Could this have been Appomattox or Maddox Creek? Could it have been a family plantation in Virginia or West Virginia named Maddox? How do I find where the women came from and any records connected with the origins and early family history of Katy/Kate, Milley and Rosetta? Were they born in Virginia, as the 1870 census indicates, or were they born in Africa?

William Dawkins is this family’s slave master, as well as my third great-grandfather, since I am a descendant of Katy/Kate. —Elenora Giddings Ivory

You learned from family tradition that these three enslaved woman who had children with William Dawkins came from a place called Maddox or Mattox, Va. However, when we look at a map of Virginia today, we don’t see a place with either name.

Over time, the names of places can change, and this can make researching African-American ancestors before the Civil War even more challenging. There are two ways you can approach the problem of finding these women’s origins in Virginia and more information about their lives before they moved to Dawkins’ property in South Carolina. It’s a good idea to work backward as you do.

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Records of the Dawkins Family in South Carolina

First, find as much information as you can about the women and their families in Union County, S.C., where they ended up. The records you pull up may give you some clues about their places of birth and when they became enslaved by William Dawkins.

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It will be useful to determine approximately when the women came to live in South Carolina. A good first step in figuring this out is to research the children of Milley, Rosetta and Katy to find their birth dates. You shared with us your extensive research on this family, and you have already identified many of the children of these three women. Next you’ll want to organize your research by finding out the oldest child of each woman.

For example, the 1870 U.S. census record for this family shows that the oldest person living with Kate Dawkins was 37-year-old Nancie. Although the 1870 census does not explicitly state the relationship between the head of the household and everyone who was living there, given the difference in ages between Kate (then 70 years old) and Nancie (who was born circa 1833), they were probably mother and daughter.

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There is also a Randel Dawkins living nearby who was born circa 1825. In addition to census records, William Dawkins’ will also lists the children of “Millie” (Charner, Mary and Barnet) and Rosetta (Riley, Bob, Wash, Mike, Barthena, Henrietta, Araminta) who were still living when he wrote his will sometime in 1866.

Records of William Dawkins’ children are also useful because if they died after 1915, their deaths were recorded by South Carolina’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. Death records in South Carolina from 1915 to 1943 are available for free at the site FamilySearch. We searched this collection by typing in the name “William Dawkins” into the field for the father’s name and then “Union County, South Carolina” for the place of death.

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This search returned two interesting records. The first was a death record for Charner Dawkins, the son of William and Millie Dawkins. William’s birthplace was listed as Union County, whereas Millie was born in Virginia. Charner was born on May 17, 1847.

The second interesting record shows that a Barthenia Dawkins, born in 1848, was the daughter of William and Rosetta Dawkins. Once again, the record shows that Rosetta was born in Virginia, whereas William’s birthplace was listed as Fairfield County, S.C. The record also stated that she was buried at Red Point, S.C., at the Paradise Church, the same church that was built on the land William Dawkins gave to Rosetta and Millie in his will.

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These records both provide more support for your family’s story. Unfortunately, we did not find death records for Kate/Katy or her children. We think that’s because all of them probably died before South Carolina started to record vital records in 1915. Although there may not be “official” state records of their deaths (or of Milley/Millie and Rosetta and many of their children, for that matter), there may be burial records for them at the Paradise AME Church in Red Point.

Church burial records generally do not have as much information about a person’s parents or even place of birth, but they may give you a more exact birth date. Also, given that the family is associated with the Paradise AME Church, it would be worth contacting the church to see if it has any records that contain more information about Kate/Katy, Milley/Millie, Rosetta and their children.

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You also mentioned that there was a dispute between William Dawkins’ nephew and Milley/Millie and Rosetta Dawkins over the land that was given to them after William’s death, but that the judge ruled in Milley/Millie and Rosetta’s favor. You may want to search South Carolina court records to see if you can find any official records of this case, since they may reveal more information about when the women came to live with William Dawkins. The Family History Library has several sets of South Carolina court records available to be borrowed on microfilm at your local Family History Center.

Census records will also help you narrow down an approximate year for when these three women became enslaved by William Dawkins. In the research, you have shared with us the earliest census record you found for William, which is in the 1830 census. In this record, William owns three female slaves between the ages of 10 and 23. He does not own any female slaves between the ages of 24 and 26. Although the three women would have been slightly older than 23 in 1830, it is still possible that this is a record of them in the 1830 census, since these age ranges can be inaccurate.

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You didn’t find a record of him in the 1820 census, which means he could have been living with another family member and therefore would probably not yet be a slave owner. You have also found that William purchased his farm from A.W. Thompson in 1825. From all of these records, it seems likely that William purchased the four women from Virginia between 1825 and 1830.

Now that you have established that they were born in Virginia and that they probably came to live with William in the late 1820s and early 1830s, you can turn your attention to records in Virginia and search for places called Mattox or Maddox.

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Was Maddox/Mattox a Place or Plantation?

You mentioned three possible origins for the three women in Virginia. First, they could have came from Appomattox, Va. Or maybe Mattox Creek, which is further north and leads to the Potomac River. It’s also possible that they came from a Maddox/Mattox farm or plantation. This search is complicated even more by the fact that these women did not use the Dawkins surname before they were enslaved by William, and records of the purchase and sale of slaves are often incomplete, lost or never recorded at all. Despite these challenges, there are still a few places you can search to try to determine where these women came from.

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Newspapers and old books are a great way to find the historical place names that are no longer used today. These are also good sources for finding the names of slaveholders in certain geographic regions. Many Virginian newspapers can be searched online through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling American project, but the collection contains mostly newspapers from the second half of the 19th century. The paid subscription database Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922 also has quite a few historic Virginia newspapers. Check with your local library to see if it has a subscription to this database that is available for your use.

A quick search of the term “Maddox” in the Early American Newspapers database did not give us any results pertaining to a location in Virginia, but it did list several names, including that of slave owners with the surname Maddox. This included a few runaway-slave advertisements. When we searched for the term “Mattox,” the results referred to places rather than people, including Mattox Creek, Mattox Bridge (a small town in Westmoreland County, Va., on the Mattox Creek) and Appomattox.

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In addition to newspapers, you can also search older books and publications through Google Books and Archive.org to see if perhaps there was a place called Mattox/Maddox in Virginia where these women could have been born.

Next you’ll want to look at the geographical location of all of the possible places you found to see by what route these women could have traveled to Union County, S.C. The city of Appomattox is in the middle of Virginia. Both the Appomattox River and Mattox Creek lead into the Atlantic Ocean. Mattox Bridge, Va., is located right on Mattox Creek, which leads into the Potomac River. Perhaps the women were brought to South Carolina by boat through the port of Charleston and sold there. Fish Dam in Union County was still approximately 175 miles away from the Port of Charleston, but that is still much closer than traveling from Virginia by land.

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The genealogy site Fold3.com has a collection titled South Carolina Estate Inventories and Bills of Sale, 1732-1872, which is a collection of estate papers and bills of sale that contain information about the transfer and sale of slaves. Although there are few documents for Union County, it does have many records for the Charleston area. You may want to search this collection to see if you can find any sales that include William Dawkins or one of his farm managers who lived with him according to the census records.

In addition to finding a possible geographic location for Mattox/Maddox, you’ll also want to research the possibility that it was a plantation or large farm in Virginia. The Virginia Historical Society has a great collection titled Unknown No Longer, which contains a wide variety of records that relate to the slaves of Virginia. You can search this collection by the name of the slave as well as the name of the owner. You can also search the Library of Virginia’s online digital collections to see if you can find out whether there was a Mattox/Maddox plantation where these women could have come from.

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Even a simple Google search of “Maddox plantation” or “Mattox plantation” can give you some possible places to research. By typing the words between quotation marks in the Google search box, you will see only results in which the words “Maddox” and “plantation” are right next to each other. You can also substitute the word “farm” for “plantation.” Once you have a list of possible plantations and farms, search for their locations and see if there is any connection to William Dawkins.

Tracing the origins of Kate/Katy, Milley/Millie and Rosetta Dawkins in Virginia will be a challenging search that will take a lot of time and patience. By finding more details about their lives once they arrived in South Carolina and finding out how they arrived in Fish Dam, you will have a better idea of where they could have came from in Virginia.

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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.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, 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.

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