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"My maternal family comes from the Georgia Lowcountry — Savannah and a few of the surrounding Gullah islands. The family story that has been passed down to me is that some of our ancestors came in on a contraband ship, and when it was in danger of being caught, some of the enslaved people in it were thrown overboard. They swam to safety and ended up at the 'Hazzard Plantation.' To me, this sounds similar to the case of the people aboard the ship The Wanderer, which landed on Jekyll Island in 1858. From my research, it seems that the only 'Hazzard' plantations were the West Point and Pike's Bluff plantations owned by the Hazzard brothers on the neighboring St. Simon's Island. Is there any way I can get this story straight?" —Dominique Hazzard

Link Your Ancestors to the Hazzards

Sure, there are many tactics you can use to pursue the truth behind this family legend. You should begin by researching backward from living family members to the earliest known ancestor in this branch of your family. If you can determine the name(s) of the ancestor(s) who served as slaves prior to the Civil War, there are a variety of sources that could confirm their residency at the "Hazzard Plantation."

As has been discussed in previous columns, often the first step in identifying slave ancestors is to trace them back to the 1870 Census as this was the first time every former slave in the country was enumerated by name. Searching this federal census could also show whether the birthplace of the ancestor(s) in question was listed as an African location or elsewhere. Considering that the importation of slaves was banned as of Jan. 1, 1808, anyone born after that time in Africa would be a more likely candidate for having been smuggled into the country.

Once you have the age and gender for each ancestor who could have passed through the Hazzard Plantation, you can compare this information to the lists in the 1860 Slave Schedule. A search of this schedule showed that Georgia only had three slave owners by the surname of Hazzard (and its spelling variations), and all of them were in District 25, Glynn County, Ga. This was the location of the plantations you mentioned (West Point and Pike's Bluff) on St. Simons Island. While there were slave owners named Hazzard/Hazard elsewhere throughout the Southern states, it was more likely that your family remained in Georgia rather than leaving and later returning.

Armed with the name(s) of the slave(s) who likely lived in Glynn County, you can try to track the individual(s) as the property of the Hazzard family. You may be able to learn when each person first became the property of a specific Hazzard family member and sadly, how, as property, each may have been passed along to other relatives or slave owners. There may also be proof of how the person was finally freed.

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One resource for tracking this movement is through the probate records for the Hazzard family members in Glynn County. Typically inventories listing the property and wills or estate distributions detailing which heirs inherited specific property have the best chance of naming particular slaves. For example, Thomas F. Hazzard died without leaving a will, but an inventory of his estate (from 1857) listed the names, ages and value of those considered his property. William Wigg Hazzard did leave a will (dated 1858), which included the names of particular slaves he intended his wife and children to own. The Family History Library has made many of these records for Glynn County available online.

Mixed in with these probate records, the Family History Library has also digitized some deeds and bonds. These records held a variety of sales, including that of slaves. We found at least three cases of Hazzard family members selling slaves (by name). The regular deed records for the county could also hold slave sales or even slave manumissions. These are available on microfilm from the Family History Library, at the Georgia Archives or from the Glynn County, Georgia Superior Court.

Even without the names of your ancestors, you may be able to determine if the Hazzard family members had any sudden increases in slave numbers. This could indicate a large purchase, like from the ship in your family legend. In addition to comparing numbers from the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedule from the federal census records, tax records could assist with this task.

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About The Wanderer

Beyond placing your ancestor(s) within the property of the Hazzard family on St. Simons Island, you can also continue to research the ships that may have carried these ancestors to the area. Since importing slaves became illegal in 1808, you would be looking for ships arriving after this time if they were truly smuggled in. Often local newspapers reported on incidents involving such ships. Northern newspapers also had the reputation for bringing attention to stories about slavery to incite horror over the practice. You can find many digitized historic newspapers from Georgia through the Digital Library of Georgia and Genealogy Bank.

If, like with The Wanderer, you identify additional possible matches, you can look for archives and libraries with manuscript collections containing firsthand accounts (such as letters between those involved) and/or documentation of that particular ship's transactions. To find these kinds of collections, you can check the catalogs for the Georgia Archives or more generally through ArchiveGrid.

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The Wanderer was the most famous of these ships and touted as the last to successfully import slaves to America. For the best account of this vessel's journey, you may wish to read Tom Henderson Wells' The Slave Ship Wanderer (pdf). His bibliography details the sources he found useful, as well as those he found less accurate.

This yacht converted into a slave vessel likely left Africa with 487 Africans and landed on Jekyll Island Nov. 29, 1858, with 409 having survived the Middle Passage. Since the island was owned solely by the Dubignon family, participants in the conspiracy, this particular landing was successful and without anyone swimming to shore or drowning.

As this was 50 years after the legal cessation of Africans being brought in, the appearance of those clearly raised in Africa caught the public's attention. The crew and owners of The Wanderer were brought to trial, which has led to a variety of federal court records and newspaper articles concerning the events. The National Archives Southeast Region (pdf) has a finding aid dedicated to the files on The Wanderer case.

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About the Newcomers

The public awareness meant that some of the Africans' movements were tracked. On Dec. 2, 1858, 170 of the Africans were sent out of Jekyll Island on the Lamar and ended up in the Tillman plantation near Hamburg, Aiken County, S.C., and in Robert L. Butler's plantation. In late December 1858, two African men from The Wanderer were found at the Macon, Ga., station by the train to Albany, N.Y. A man from New Orleans had 38 Africans sent by train and steamer, and they passed through Montgomery, Ala. Another group of about 37 Africans set out through Southern Georgia heading west. They were caught in Worth County, Ga., but released in March 1859. Some of The Wanderer passengers remained on Jekyll Island and its neighboring islands because Nelson Trowbridge was tasked with distributing the remaining half.

Who were these newcomers? According to the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood, some of the ex-slaves later told interviewer Herbert Montgomery in 1908 that they were from the Kingdom of Kongo in West Central Africa. A language sample they provided was identified as Kikongo. It is likely they hailed from a district called Madimba, and were enslaved during the long-simmering war between the future King Pedro V of Kongo and his rival Alvaro XIII during the back half of the 19th century. The war is well-documented by local artifacts, including several letters by Pedro V.

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Thornton and Heywood say some of the slaves from The Wanderer ended up at the Edgefield Pottery Works in South Carolina, where they became makers, and even inventors of a particular genre of ceramic called the "Face Jug." The jugs became famous among a circle of collectors and are now found quite extensively in museum collections in the United States.

You may be able to connect the Africans who disembarked from The Wanderer in 1858 to the Hazzard family on St. Simons Island through Glynn County records and newspaper announcements of sales. In a more roundabout way, you could also research whether the Hazzard family had any direct connections to Charles Lamar and the others involved in The Wanderer business. The previously mentioned groups of slaves sent out from Jekyll Island were all transported and/or distributed by friends of the Lamar family.

According to the recollections of Capt. A.C. McGhee, a shareholder in The Wanderer, the vessel made a second trip to Africa to take on 750 slaves. This time, The Wanderer ran aground in Jekyll Creek during a storm, and a number of the slaves drowned. Apparently this account was given to the New York Sun in 1894 or 1895 and related in John R. Spears' The American Slave Trade in 1900. However, there weren't any newspaper accounts or records of this sort of event following the 1858 journey. Only various attempts to visit Havana were reported in the first half of 1859.

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In the latter months of 1859, The Wanderer was stolen (though that may have been faked) and sailed again toward Africa. However, although accounts claim that the man captaining her intended to collect 700 Africans, the ship only obtained two Portuguese women from Flores in the Azores. It returned and landed in Boston on Dec. 24, 1859. From that point, it would not have had the chance to return to Africa. Considering the similarity in the numbers of Africans being discussed, it seems very likely that Capt. McGhee was confusing the debacle of the stolen vessel with a full journey.

It is unlikely that the crew would have deliberately thrown what they surely considered to be valuable slaves overboard, regardless of being caught. If the drowning or swimming to land part of story was true, it may have been that the ship was damaged rather than that people were intentionally ejected to evade the authorities. Even without human cargo on board, the authorities would be able to find evidence that the crew was guilty of having transported slaves. The ship would still be outfitted as a slaver, and the typically deplorable sanitation conditions on such a vessel alone would indicate that humans had been carried as cargo. The Wanderer quickly unloaded its passengers on Jekyll Island before moving to Brunswick, Glynn County, to be made over and thoroughly cleaned in an attempt to hide its transgression.

What all this means for your family legend is that it is entirely possible that your ancestor(s) had been smuggled into the Georgia islands on The Wanderer in late 1858. Since you are willing to put in the effort, you should be able to make great headway in confirming this legend considering the available resources.

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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 chairman 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 researchers 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.