Jacob Milton Sampson (1891-1987), the great-grandson of Jacob Sampson
Courtesy of Milton E. Brooks

Dear Professor Gates:

My third-great-grandfather Jacob Sampson (1786-1870) of Goochland County, Va., owned a 500-acre plantation in Goochland before, during and after the Civil War. I know he was a slave until 1821, and the land is listed on an 1863 Confederate map of the county. It seems odd that there is so little information about a former slave surviving in the Confederacy. —Milton E. Brooks

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Your ancestor has left quite a paper trail for a black person living in the antebellum South! However, don’t be overly shocked about his circumstance. As noted before on The Root, about 10 percent of the black people living in the United States in 1860 were free, and just over half of them—261,918—lived in the South.

Why did people like Jacob Sampson stay in the South after freedom? As covered in a previous 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column on The Root, many did not want to move away from family members who were still enslaved, or from communities where they had the contacts to find employment. At least one of those reasons may have applied to Sampson, as you will see from the information we pulled up about him.

Head of a Household Where Not Everyone Was Free

The earliest census record for Jacob Sampson in Goochland, Va., was the 1830 U.S. census. This aligns with what you know about him, since he was a slave until 1821 and would not have been included in the 1820 U.S. census as a head of household. You can access this census record through Ancestry.com (subscription required). Census records prior to 1850 included only the name of the head of household and the number of individuals in the household in certain age brackets.

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When one is examining these earlier census records, it is important to look at both pages of the document because free people of color and slaves are recorded on the second page. In this census, Sampson’s household included eight total free persons of color and two slaves: one male between the ages of 55 and 100, and one male between the ages of 10 and 24.

There could be a number of reasons that Jacob Sampson had slaves in his household. One option to keep in mind is that they may have been relatives. As previously written on The Root, a number of free black people owned their relatives or spouses as a way to keep them safe from harm and exploitation.

Sampson was also recorded in Goochland, Va., in 1840 (subscription required), this time without any slaves in the household. There was only one person recorded in the column for “Free Colored persons—Males—36 thru 54,” and that was Jacob Sampson. Based on this evidence, it seems that the two slaves listed in the 1830 census were not in his household in 1840. Perhaps he had freed the two men and they had moved to another household. (There is another option, which we will get to shortly.) When examining the census, you may gather clues by looking at neighboring households with other free persons of color that may help you determine who these men were and what their relationship was to Jacob Sampson.

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A Man of Means

By 1850, everyone in Jacob Sampson’s household was listed by name, which could provide you with a better idea of who was in the household in the earlier census records. Jacob Sampson was recorded as Mulatto. The record includes Franky Sampson, who was the same age as Jacob and was likely his wife, and eight individuals, all under the age of 24, who were likely his children. If you look at the original view of the record at FamilySearch, you will also notice that the value of the real estate owned by Jacob Sampson was $3,000. This is a significant sum for the time, particularly if he was formerly a slave.

Jacob Sampson was also recorded on the 1850 United States Census Slave Schedule. This census recorded the slave owner’s name along with a description of each slave in the household by age, sex and color. In this record, Sampson had four slaves in his household: a 19-year-old female, two 16-year-old females and one 16-year-old male.

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To be sure this is your Jacob Sampson, examine the other slave-owner names next to his and compare them with the record of him in the 1850 U.S. census. You will note in both records a William O. Page and a Joseph E. Pleasant recorded as residing on either side of Jacob Sampson. This confirms that this is a record for the correct Jacob Sampson. This means that Sampson still had slaves in his household in 1850.

A slave schedule was also recorded in 1860 (available at Ancestry.com with a subscription), and the interesting this about this record for Jacob Sampson is that he is listed as the employer of slaves owned by Jas. Gray and Joseph M. Watkins. Based on this, it appears that Sampson was employing slaves owned by other people. This could be the reason the slaves in his household in 1830 were not there in 1840.

Following Jacob Sampson through census records, you can trace his success through the valuation of his estate. For example, by 1860 the value of his real estate had increased to $4,000, and $2,000 for his personal estate. For an even more detailed look at his estate (subscription required), you could examine the U.S. Federal Census Non-Population Schedules at Ancestry.com, which include information regarding acreage of land, livestock and crops grown.

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Court records can also reveal details about the life of your ancestor. If you examine the Race and Slavery Petitions Project available through the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, you’ll locate a petition filed by Jacob Sampson of Goochland County, Va., on Dec. 9, 1830, Petition No. 11683008. In the petition, Sampson claims that he is the husband of Frankey Cross (a variation of the name we pulled up in the 1850 census), who was the daughter of Moses Cross.

Moses Cross was deceased the year of the petition, and Jacob Sampson requested that Moses Cross’ estate be released to him and his wife. This is valuable information because it provides information about Jacob Sampson’s father-in-law, who was also a free man who owned property. You could search census records for Moses Cross, too, since they may reveal further relationships and other individuals who were a part of your Cross-Sampson family.

The Limits of “Free” Enterprise

Jacob Sampson filed another petition on Dec. 13, 1844. In it he stated that “he has Kept a house of private entertainment for the last fourteen or fifteen years in the County of Goochland.” He claims that he has not broken any laws and sees no reason that his license to maintain such an establishment should not be renewed.

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The Library of Virginia holds on microfilm a collection titled Goochland County (Va.) Various Loose Free Negro and Slave Records, 1813-1844. In the description of the scope and contents of this collection, it states, “The free negro affidavit (1844) is titled on the folder ‘conduct references for Jacob Sampson.’ It consists of two affidavits of individuals acquainted with Jacob Sampson and his household and certifies his good character and that he kept an orderly house.” This certainly related to Sampson’s petition dated Dec. 13, 1844, for his license renewal to keep a house of private entertainment.

John Henderson Russell addresses Jacob Sampson’s petition in The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865. Russell explains that Sampson’s license to maintain an inn was revoked “without any portion of the tax being refunded to him.” Sampson then appealed to the Legislature that he had not broken any laws to have his license revoked, providing testimonials from white citizens who could attest to his good character. Ultimately, all of his appeals were rejected and his license was revoked. These petitions offer a rare glimpse into the personality of your ancestor, as well as how he was treated as a free man of color.

There are a number of ways to begin your search further back in time to locate documents such as Sampson’s manumission or deeds that might explain how he came to own land. We know that 1830 was the earliest census in which Jacob Sampson appeared as the head of household, and you know that he was freed in 1821. Because there is the possibility that Sampson adopted the surname from his former owner, you could search the 1820 U.S. census for slave owners in Goochland County with the surname Sampson. Two Sampson men were recorded in Goochland County in 1820—Richard Sampson and Robert Sampson—and both of them owned slaves. You could investigate these two men further to see if they left probate or land records that mention your Jacob Sampson.

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Also, if you are interested in more information about how free black people fared in the years leading up to (and during) the Civil War, read these previous 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro columns on The Root—Who Legalized Arming Black Men to Kill Confederates?” and “Which Black Man Was Responsible for Burying Bodies at Gettysburg?”—as well as John Stauffer’s article on The Root,Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why.”

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 co-founder 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 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, 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.