Dear Professor Gates:
In building my family tree, I have found a direct ancestor from Africa named Judah Reese. I would like to find out which plantation she was on. The 1880 census for Jefferson, Marengo County, Ala., says that she was born in Africa circa 1780 and lists her as living with her daughter (possibly she is actually her granddaughter) Cumsey Kelly. I'm pretty sure I found her in the 1850 Slave Schedule for Marengo County, Ala., under a slave owner named Wm. J. Reese. It lists a 70-year-old female slave. Can you give me any more tips for finding her plantation and her life under slavery? —Cassandra
We have some promising leads for you, as well as advice that anyone can use to learn more about an ancestor that he or she believes is listed in a slave schedule record.
Sadly, You Must Start With the Owner
The best method of locating further records of Judah Reese during slavery is to conduct research on her slave owner. Since slaves were the property of their owners, they often appear in account books, deeds, bills of sale or probate records of the slave owners.
In this case, you have a strong lead that your Judah Reese was the 70-year-old woman listed in the household of Wm. J. Reese in 1850 at Marengo County, Ala. This is a fair speculation, since she is the right age, in the same location and shares the same surname as the slave owner. According to the 1850 United States Census Slave Schedule, Wm. J. Reese owned 85 slaves, suggesting he was likely a wealthy plantation or business owner in the area. This may be helpful for your search, since there may be records remaining from his estate in a local archive.
What’s also helpful is making note of any potential relatives of the owner in the area. In the 1850 Slave Schedule, there was also a Henry W. Reese living in Marengo County, Ala., with 119 slaves recorded in his household. It seems likely that the two men were related. If you have trouble locating information on W.J. Reese, you could search for records of Henry W. Reese, since they may reveal more about the Reese family in Marengo County, Ala.
Since you know that Wm. J. Reese owned slaves in Marengo County in 1850, it would be logical to search for him in the 1850 U.S. census in that location to learn more about him, including his age and place of birth, and to identify any family members.
Unfortunately, we did not locate a Wm. J. Reese in that census for Marengo County, which seemed strange, since he was recorded as a slave owner in the 1850 Slave Schedules. Perhaps he owned slaves that were working in that county, but he lived and was recorded in the census in a neighboring county in 1850.
We did, however, find a couple of will references for you to explore. There is a published Index to Alabama Wills, 1808-1870, which you can view through Google Books. The index includes references to the will of William J. Reese of Marengo County, Ala., Wills Book A, Page 295. It also records a William J. Reese Jr., also of Marengo County, in Wills Book A, Page 329. Both of these wills were recorded on or before 1864. If either is the same as Wm. J. Reese and if Judah Reese was in either household at the time of their deaths, she may have been mentioned in one of the wills.
You could contact the Marengo County Probate Office about obtaining a copy of the wills. The Alabama Department of Archives and History also holds a number of records for Marengo County, including probate and land records. You can search its holdings to see which collections may pertain to your search. It is possible that while Judah Reese was still enslaved, she may also have been mentioned in deeds or probate records within the Reese family.
Search Beyond the Dates, Places and Names You Already Have
If somehow your efforts haven’t borne fruit at this point, you’ll need to cast a wide net to learn more about your ancestor. That brings us back to our old friend, Henry W. Reese. We found a man by that name in the 1850 census in the county of “Merengo,” where he was a physician. According to this record, Henry W. Reese was born in Virginia about 1813. You could investigate the possibility that Wm. J. Reese also originated in Virginia, which may help you determine whether Judah Reese also spent time there before Alabama.
You also could search for her in the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedule. Since you know her age and likely location, you could expand your search to include an 80-year-old woman in Marengo County, since by 1860 she may be in someone else’s household. If Wm. J. Reese died between 1850 and 1860, Judah Reese may have been in someone else’s household by that time.
Tom Blake compared the largest slaveholders from Marengo County, Ala., in the 1860 U.S. census with surnames matched for African Americans in the 1870 U.S. census. His article lists the Reese surname and may be helpful in providing some context and direction for your search.
Search Records From After the End of Slavery
The Alabama Department of Archives and History includes a database of 1867 Voter Registration Records. Voter registration was a direct result of the Reconstruction Act, which required male citizens over the age of 21 to take an oath of allegiance to be registered to vote. Recently emancipated slaves were then citizens under the law and could also register to vote.
If you search this database for the surname “Reese,” you’ll notice a number of white and African-American Reese men registered to vote in 1867. The only Reese men from Marengo County were Elijah W. Reese and G.W. Reese, both white. However, there were a large number of African-American Reese men in other counties. This indicates that African Americans in other parts of the state had the Reese surname, opening up the possibility that your Judah Reese may have been related to one of them.
You could explore the possibility that Judah Reese chose her surname for her relation to one of these individuals, rather than taking the name of her former owner.
Finally, the Black Belt African American Genealogical & Historical Society created a great list of online resources for research in Alabama. Included on the site is a list of 1866 Alabama State Census Colored Population, Marengo County, Ala. There is a “Jack Reese” on this list, which gives you another name to explore.
The more records you are able to locate on Judah Reese, as well as her possible family, relations and former slave owners, the better chance you have of piecing together the story of her life.
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.
This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan 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.