How Did My Free Bajan Ancestor End Up in North Carolina?

Eileen Pironti, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
Bajan pottery vendors in 1910
Popperfoto/Getty Images

My great-great-grandfather Sandy Powell Sr. moved to North Carolina in the late 19th century. The story is that he came from Barbados after 1865, as a free man. No one knows why or under what conditions. We don't know from where in Barbados he traveled, either. Was he part of a larger migration from the Caribbean to the Carolinas? If so, how do we trace that information? —Bettina Judd

Several factors may have influenced your ancestor’s decision to emigrate from Barbados in the late 19th century. Sugar production was a major industry in Barbados, and by the 1800s it had at least 10 sugar factories. However, by the latter part of the 19th century, rising production costs and competition with places like Cuba and Brazil led to the closure of most of the sugar factories in Barbados.


Another issue Barbados experienced during this time period was overpopulation, and many people left for places like the United States with the hope of finding better economic opportunities elsewhere. Your ancestor may have chosen to settle in North Carolina to work in the textile, tobacco or furniture industry.

Depending upon when Sandy Powell Sr. died, one way for you to determine his arrival date in the United States is by locating his household in the 1900-1930 U.S. Federal Census records. One of the questions asked in these records is the household member’s year of immigration.

A caution here: The information contained in census documents is not always accurate, depending upon who spoke to the census taker, but comparing the arrival dates listed for Powell will help you narrow down when he immigrated to the United States.

Another source is U.S. passenger-ship arrival records, which are available through websites such as Most of the late-19th-century ship-departure records for Barbados pertain to a ship’s cargo and do not contain passenger information. Some records contain only basic information on the passengers, but reviewing the names of other people on a particular list may provide some insight regarding friends or family members who could have immigrated with your ancestor.


Libraries or historical societies located in the town and county in North Carolina where Powell settled may hold records related to members of their communities, including Barbadian immigrants. A number of county-level records are also available through the State Archives of North Carolina website. The State Library of North Carolina has an array of genealogical resources posted on its website, including Bible records, family genealogies and cemetery photographs.

Newspapers are always a valuable resource for family-history research. Obituaries and death notices, as well as other articles related to Powell, could provide additional information on his Barbadian roots and list the names of surviving family members who may have remained in Barbados.


Also try searching for obituaries and articles pertaining to his wife and children, in case they include details about Powell’s Barbadian origins and immigration to the U.S. Links to a number of North Carolina historical newspapers, both free and subscription-based, are available online.

In addition to North Carolina sources, there are several databases and books pertaining to Barbados genealogy that may help you learn more about your Powell ancestors. Tracing Ancestors in Barbados: A Practical Guide, by Geraldine Lane, contains information on the various probate, deed and church records available through the local archives and libraries in Barbados, and provides suggestions on how to order these documents. Caribbeana: Being Miscellaneous Papers Relating to the History, Genealogy, Topography, and Antiquities of the British West Indies was published in a six-volume set between 1910 and 1919. This collection of genealogical information has been digitized and is searchable by name through the Digital Library of the Caribbean’s website.


A number of vital records are available online through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including “Barbados Baptisms, 1739-1891”; “Barbados Burials, 1854-1885”; “Barbados Marriages, 1854-1879”; and “Barbados Church Records, 1637-1887.”

In addition to vital records and family genealogies, online message boards and mailing lists are other ways to try and learn more about your ancestor’s Barbadian roots and immigration. You might try the Barbados Genealogy Forum; the message board for Barbados research; and the Caribbean Surname Index, which includes the surnames of Barbadian families.


You may also wish to subscribe to a Caribbean research mailing list, available through Rootsweb. In addition to signing up for the mailing list, you can search the previously posted messages for information on the Powell family of Barbados.

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 the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researcher from 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.

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