I'm White. Did My Ancestors Own Slaves?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman, Kyle Hurst
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(The Root) —

"Although we can trace my maternal grandmother's heritage back to Europe, she periodically received family-reunion invitations from another family with the last name 'Ellzey,' which was her husband's last name. Turns out there must have been a slave owner named Ellzey, too, because I'm pretty sure my grandma was the only white woman invited. How do we research to find out whether or not we are related to the slave owner?" —Mara Blesoff  

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Using a variety of methods, you can research not only whether your maternal grandmother married a man descended from a slave owner but also if he was actually related to the Ellzey family sending the reunion invitations.

As with any genealogy project, you should work backward from what you already know. First, gather everything you know about the Mr. Ellzey who married your maternal grandmother. It would be especially helpful to have his full name and those of his parents, as well as to know where they lived. We saw a likely match for this man's obituary in the Chicago Tribune. If he was the correct man, he was born about 1924 and grew up in Texas.

Usually the easiest way to track a family back in time is through the U.S. federal census, taken every 10 years. Based on the information you have gathered about Mr. Ellzey, you can search for him and his parents. If he was born in 1924, you could expect to find him in the 1930 and 1940 census records (perhaps still living with his parents in Texas). Once you know his parents' names and approximate birth dates and places, you can continue to follow them back through earlier census records until you have determined the names of their parents and so on.

Based on the 1924 birth, we would expect Mr. Ellzey's grandparents or great-grandparents to have lived through the Civil War and subsequent freeing of slaves. If you have not been able to clearly follow the line back using census records, try birth, marriage, death and church records; newspaper articles; and wills. The goal is still to identify the family members living before the abolition of slavery.

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The census records from 1850 and 1860 will be the most likely to tell you if his family owned slaves. If you can find Mr. Ellzey's grandparents and/or great-grandparents in these two census records, you can then refer to the slave schedules enumerated with the census records. Typically, the slave schedules only listed the slave owner by name and the slaves by age and gender. Identifying your ancestor by name on these schedules would show that he was a slave owner and even show how many slaves he owned at the time. A search showed us that there were at least the following slave owners with (close variations of) the surname in 1850:

* William Ellzey in Pike County, Miss.
* William W. Ellzey in Fairfax County, Va.
* William Elza in Western District, Calwell County, La.
* Thomas Elzy in Loudon County, Va.
* Robb Elzey in Subdivision 11, Sussex County, Del.
* Letitia Elzey in Baltimore, Baltimore County
* James Elzey in Pontotoc County, Miss.

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Even if you cannot place the Ellzey family members in these census records and slave schedules, you may still be able to learn whether they owned slaves at some point. Just knowing where the ancestors lived before the Civil War could indicate the likelihood that they were slave owners.

If they did not live in one of the 15 slave states or few slave territories in the 1850s and 1860s, they probably did not own large numbers of slaves. Texas had been a slave state since it was brought into the United States in 1845, but Mr. Ellzey's family may not have originally been from Texas. However, if the family can be traced back even further, perhaps they owned slaves before earlier abolition laws were passed.

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Other than the slave schedules, you can search probate, land and tax records to see if Mr. Ellzey's ancestors owned slaves. Unlike ancestors of those enslaved, you will be able to search the indexes and records directly for the Ellzey ancestors in question. Once you have found them, your goal will be to see if they owned, bought, sold or freed any human property. For more information about what probate and land records can tell you, refer to this previous Tracing Your Roots article.

As an example concerning tax records, take the first slave owner listed from the 1850 slave schedule. Through the Mississippi State Archives, you can go through a variety of digitized tax rolls for Pike County in search of William Ellzey and his family members. Many other states kept similar tax rolls that are available to researchers.

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In some years, these tax rolls included the number of free and enslaved residents on the property of the person being taxed. In other tax lists, the value of the human property may be tallied. Going through different years of tax rolls can show when an owner gained or lost property of all kinds.

If you do find a connection to an Ellzey slave owner, you may be inclined to determine whether the Ellzey family sending your grandmother invitations was also descended from this line. Perhaps that Ellzey family has a DNA project or at least had members of the family submit their samples through specific companies. You could then have a known relative of your grandmother's husband compare his DNA.

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If the DNA samples have enough similarities, it would indicate that both Mr. Ellzey and the Ellzey family from the reunions had common ancestors. Contacting members of this Ellzey family could lead to a great exchange of information about those ancestors.

Another way to approach this is through an analysis of your own autosomal DNA to determine if you are related either to descendants from any of these white Ellzey families or to the black Ellzeys! So we encourage you to take a DNA test from one of the reputable companies offering autosomal analysis, such as 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA or AncestryDNA.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kyle Hurst, 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, 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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