The Old Main, the oldest building located on the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s campus, is one of the most recognizable buildings on campus and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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Dear Professor Gates:

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to know more about my ancestors. All I know is that my great-grandfather Alex McMillan was born a slave in 1860 and came from Robeson County, N.C. While this is vague, it is precious to me to even know that tidbit of my family history.

I’m a graduate of UNC Pembroke, which is in Robeson County. There I frequently came across a statue of Hamilton McMillan, an influential 19th-century government leader. I wondered for years as I walked around the campus if he could be a link to unlocking my family history. Unfortunately, no plantations were listed under his name, leaving me lost as to where to begin. Any information you could provide would be most helpful. —Michael McMillian

It appears that your ancestor Alex McMillan hailed from a place with a rich and varied multiracial history. According to the official Robeson County government website, “Anglos who settled from the Scottish Highlands in the early 1730s found the local American Indians, descendants of the Tuscarora, Cherokee, Cheraw and remnants of other tribes speaking English. They also found a group of both freed and runaway slaves living in the area. Today, Robeson County is home to the Tuscarora and Lumbee Tribes.”

Hamilton McMillan (1837-1916), the man who you think may be key to unlocking the secrets of your heritage, was a politician of Scottish descent who took a keen interest in the American Indian tribes of Robeson County. According to the State Library of North Carolina’s NCPedia, he thought they were descendants of members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” of 1587, who had settled Roanoke Island in Virginia before disappearing. Hamilton McMillan advocated on behalf of local Indians, sponsoring legislation to create the Croatan Normal School in 1887 to train American Indian teachers. Today the institution is known as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, your alma mater.

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You were unable to identify Hamilton McMillan as a slave owner, but that certainly does not rule out the possibility that a white McMillan in the region—who may or may not have been related to him—owned Alex McMillan.

What We Found Out About Alex McMillan

The best way to learn about Alex McMillan is to collect as much information as possible from records after the end of slavery so that you can compare them with potential documents for him during slavery.

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With that in mind, we searched for a record of Alex McMillan in the 1870 U.S. census, since that was the first year that former slaves were recorded by name. We were unable to locate a likely record for him. However, on Ancestry.com (subscription required), we did locate a marriage record for an Alex McMillan and a Harriet F. Brown in Robeson County, N.C., on May 1, 1874. If this is a record for your ancestor, it places him in Robeson County very shortly after the Civil War, which means that this was likely where he was living during slavery.

According to the record, Alex McMillan was 22 years old at the time of his marriage, placing his birth around 1852, which is a bit earlier than the birth year you provided but is still close enough to be a match for your Alex McMillan. The document records that both Alex McMillan and Harriet Brown were black and that they were married by Henry McNeill, the minister at the Methodist Episcopal Church.

We also noted on the same page the marriage of an Owen McMillan and Conoly Mahala, which was also performed by Henry McNeil, on Nov. 2, 1874. Two of the witnesses to the marriage had the surname Brown. This could indicate a relationship between Alex and Owen McMillan.

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Searching for Alex McMillan’s Owner

In order to work backward in time, we started by searching the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedule for individuals with the surname McMillan in Robeson County. It is important to note, however, that not all ex-slaves adopted the surname of their former owner, so it is possible that Alex McMillan’s former owner had a surname other than McMillan. Nevertheless, individuals usually did not choose a surname without a reason, so you will want to pay attention to white and black individuals in Robeson County with the surname McMillan, since Alex McMillan could have adopted the name because of an association with other individuals who had it.

When we performed the search via Ancestry.com, we noted two slaveholders in Robeson, N.C., in 1860 with the surname McMillan: Alex and Duncan are listed directly next to each other in North Division, Robeson, N.C. It appears that the white Alex McMillan owned 23 slaves, and Duncan McMillan had one. Alex McMillan had a few young boys in his household in 1860: a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. If the marriage record we located is for your Alex McMillan and his age was properly noted in the record, he could be the 8-year-old recorded in Alex McMillan’s household. If his birth was closer to 1860, it is possible that he was not yet born at the time of this record.

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We noted this page with interest in comparison with the marriage record we located because next to the slave owners Alex McMillan and Duncan McMillan are the households of Malcomb C. Brown, Isabella Brown and D.C. McNeill, all surnames that were recorded on the marriage record for your ancestor Alex McMillan and Harriet Brown.

Next we searched probate records in Robeson County for the McMillan family. Many North Carolina probate records are available to view digitally through the Family History Library. These records are not searchable, but you can browse the collections. First, via FamilySearch, we looked at the index to Robeson County wills for the surname McMillan. We located a number of McMillans in the index, including an Archibald McMillan, whose probate record dated to 1824.

From this information, we located the will of Archibald McMillan, which records the names of a number of his slaves. He also mentions his son, Alexander. The will dates to 1823, so it is well before your ancestor Alex McMillan was born, but the enslaved individuals mentioned in Archibald McMillan’s will may have been ancestors of your Alex McMillan.

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It appears that Archibald made a number of wills over the course of his life, all of which are included in this collection and all of which name the same children, so they are certainly for the same Archibald McMillan. Each of his wills provides different names and descriptions for Archibald McMillan’s slaves. Examining all the records together may give you an opportunity to piece together family units among Archibald McMillan’s slaves.

There are also a number of wills for other members of the McMillan family in the pages after Archibald McMillan’s wills. It may prove helpful to examine all of these records and take notes on the individuals they mention in order to gain a better sense of how the slave-owning McMillan family is connected, while also mapping the relationships of any of the enslaved persons mentioned in the documents.

One document for Neill McMillan describes the names and ages of all the slaves he left to each of his siblings, noting the familial relationships among them. In his will, Neill mentions slaves he left to his brother Alexander—namely a woman named Sarah (age 32) and her three children: Denny (age 6), Hannah (age 4) and Handy (age 2). The will was made March 25, 1835, which is still too early to mention your Alex McMillan by name, but if he was born in 1852, as the marriage record we located suggests, this record is just 17 years before his birth, and his parents could have been one of the children of Sarah mentioned in the will. This could prove a valuable resource for identifying potential ancestors of your Alex McMillan.

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Could Freedmen’s Bureau Records Hold Clues?

You could also search the North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Assistant Commissioner Records, 1862-1870 in FamilySearch for any McMillans of Robeson County. This is a searchable database with the original records available to view. When we performed this search, we located a number of McMillans of Lumberton, Robeson County, mentioned in records relating to indentures (which were often work agreements).

One agreement in particular involved an A.A. McMillan as one party and a number of McMillan families, namely those of David McMillan, Sandy McMillan, William McMillan, Isaac McMillan, Nelson McMillan and Peter McMillan, all freedmen. The agreement describes how much produce should be paid to A.A. McMillan each harvest and also describes the goods A.A. McMillan would provide to each of the freedmen’s families—namely coats, boots and medical items.

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In 1865 your Alex McMillan was still a child, but one of these indentured men could have been his father. It also seems a high possibility that A.A. McMillan was Alexander McMillan, since the location is correct for his residence. It is likely that this is an indenture document for A.A. McMillan’s former slaves after emancipation. As such, it could have been a sharecropping agreement, a common arrangement between the freed and their former owners. You could compare the names in this document with the names of individuals in the McMillan family’s probate records to see if they are likely the same people.

Additionally, the Family History Library has a microfilm collection entitled Slaves and Free Persons of Color, Robeson County, North Carolina, 1814-1867. According to the catalog record, the collection is a microfilm of original records held by the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, N.C. You could order and view these microfilms at your locate Family History Center to see if they contain any information about your Alex McMillan or any other former slaves with the name McMillan.

Expanding your search to other related surnames, such as that of Alex McMillan’s wife, Harriet Brown, may also prove helpful, since records for related families can often provide clues for locating your own ancestors. Because this collection also tells you that there are slavery records for Robeson County at the North Carolina State Archives, you could also search the archives’ catalog directly to see if it holds any records that might be relevant to your search that were not included on these two microfilms. The archives may also hold deed records or bills of sale that could help you trace your ancestors back even further.

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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 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 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 about researching African-American roots.