Dear Professor Gates:
My name is Jennifer Grier Fairweather. Yes, the actress Pam Grier is my half-sister through our father, Clarence Ransom Grier Jr. I am trying to trace my ancestry on the Grier side. I have made a lot of progress, but I begin to get stuck when I go past my second-great-grandparents Dock and Martha Jane Grier, who were born in 1874 and 1879, respectively. As you can see from the family trees I am sending you, both of them have ancestry with the surname Grier. I’d like to trace the Griers back as far as I can before the end of slavery.
Dock’s parents were Thomas Grier and Susan Neel (sometimes Neely), but I don’t know who Thomas Grier’s parents were. Martha Jane’s parents were Maurice Grier and Mollie, born in 1857 and 1859, respectively. Maurice’s parents might have been John Grier and Lucinda “Lucy” Dunn, both born in 1816, but I have not confirmed that.
On Martha Jane Grier’s side, her parents were Maurice Grier and Mollie (Grier). I have no additional info on Mollie. I haven’t been able to find vital records to determine the parents of Thomas Grier and Susan Neel or John Grier and Lucy Dunn. A relative of mine thought Thomas’ father was also named Thomas, but I am not finding this. It is also interesting—which my dad knew—that his grandparents both came from “Griers.”
Also, my DNA test shows 2 percent Asian DNA and traces of Native American ancestry. I wonder where the Asian DNA may have come from. Were these possible trade routes into Africa or into Europe? —Jennifer Grier Fairweather
The detailed family tree that you sent us demonstrates that you have done an excellent job of documenting the family to date. This helped us quickly locate a promising avenue of research into the ancestry of the Grier family.
You have both vital records and census records that provide you with Dock and Martha Jane Grier’s parents, and even some that provide their grandparents’ names. Unfortunately, you may not be able to locate any vital records for before the end of slavery, but there are many other sources that may reveal information about your family.
Pick Up the Trail With Freedmen’s Bureau Records
Since your family was living in North Carolina, one source that may prove helpful in your search is the collection of North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau Assistant Commissioner Records, 1862-1870, available to view online through the Family History Library. These records are the product of the establishment of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) in 1865 after the American Civil War. The collection includes applications, labor contracts, account books and employment records. You may also be able to locate information regarding the legalization of marriages, court records and claims, and records pertaining to property and homesteads. There is both a search option and a browse option for this collection, and both may prove helpful.
If you search the Freedmen’s Bureau records for the surname Grier, the results produce a number of documents for a Thomas J. Grier of Charlotte in Mecklenburg County, N.C., mostly dated 1866 and concerning military service. Your Thomas Grier (father of Dock A. Grier) was born around 1850, so he likely was too young to have been the Thomas in these records. However, since we know this is a county where your Grier family resided, it seems probable that these are documents for a relative or someone associated with your Grier family, such as a slave owner.
Now What: Is Thomas J. Grier a Promising Lead?
The documents can also provide more clues about where to look for information. For example, one registered letter in the collection explains that Thomas J. Grier, Esq. entered into a written contract with Sam, a freedman, who was formerly the property of the Rev. P. Nicholson, to work Grier’s plantation. A number of other documents that appear in the search also concern a breach of contract between Thomas J. Grier and Sam Nicholson. The document also states that Thomas J. Grier was 81 years old, placing his birth around 1785.
From this you can determine that Thomas J. Grier was a white plantation owner in Charlotte in Mecklenburg County, N.C. Based on the location of your Grier family and their surname, it is likely that your ancestors resided on or near Thomas J. Grier’s plantation.
Examining all the documents relating to this case in the Freedmen’s Bureau records may reveal even more evidence of your ancestors’ connection to Thomas J. Grier. For example, the letter of testimony by Sam Nicholson also describes the day Thomas J. Grier dismissed Sam Nicholson. In recalling the argument between the two men, Nicholson explains that “Mr. Neal” was called over to witness Sam Nicholson leave.
You know that your Thomas Grier married Susan Neel; perhaps this is a variation of the same name. This indicates that there was a Neal or Neel who was either also working the plantation or living nearby. This all suggests that Charlotte is the location to look for your Grier ancestors prior to the end of slavery.
With this information in mind, the next step in working backward would be to locate documents on Thomas J. Grier and the Rev. P. Nicholson in Mecklenburg, N.C., since they are the most likely sources to mention your ancestors if your kin were, in fact, slaves. You could start with the 1860 U.S. federal census, since you know from the previous documents that Thomas J. Grier was alive at least until 1866 and should be included in the census that year. You also know that he was born circa 1785.
Thomas J. Grier was living in Western Division of Charlotte, Mecklenburg, N.C., in 1860. All of the information that we know about Thomas Grier matches the documents in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. You can then search the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules for the slaves owned by Thomas J. Grier in Western Division, Mecklenburg, N.C., to see if any of the descriptions of his slaves match what you know about your Thomas Grier, father of Dock Grier.
You would be searching for a boy around the age of 10 in these records, since he was born around 1850. Because you are also searching for Martha J. Grier’s family, you could note if any of the other slaves listed match the description of her parents, Maurice and Mollie Grier, or her potential grandparents, John and Lucinda Grier. Since both families have the same surname, it is possible that they all lived on the same plantation or close to one another prior to the end of slavery.
If you have determined that it is likely your ancestors lived on Thomas J. Grier’s plantation, you can research the Grier family through probate and land records to see if your ancestors are mentioned by name. You could search the Wills Index for Mecklenburg County in North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970, for anyone with the Grier surname. The wills are all available to view through the FamilySearch website.
Examining wills prior to the end of slavery may also be of assistance to you in locating your ancestors, since they may mention slaves by name. The papers of prominent men and large estates often make their way into museums or other repositories, so you may also want to contact local cultural institutions to see if any of Thomas J. Grier’s papers survived and where they are located.
One promising source of information may by the Steele Creek Historical and Genealogical Society. Its Web page has articles on both the Grier and Neel, or Neal, families and may be able to point you toward more records. Likewise, the Mecklenburg Historical Association may also have documents that could be helpful to your search.
What About That Asian DNA?
You also questioned the 2 percent Asian ancestry in your DNA test via AncestryDNA. First, we suggest that you do an additional DNA test with at least one more DNA-testing company, such as 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA (through Family Finder). If you get similar results from them, then you can start looking for documentation of this ancestry.
One major reason could be, as we have noted before, that Native Americans are closely related genetically to East Asians, and their DNA can show up as Asian in test results. So perhaps the Asian and Native American results you are seeing have a single origin.
Assuming that this is the case, while you are searching through deeds and probate records for your ancestors, pay attention to the descriptions of individuals, since it was often noted in these records if an individual was “black,” “mulatto” or “Indian.” You could also research the Native groups in the area, such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee and the Lumbee, to name just two.
Since Charlotte rests on a state border, you might also find it helpful to expand your search into South Carolina. Determining if any members of the Grier or Neel families ever lived just across the border in South Carolina may open up even more opportunities for records to search for your ancestors.
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 editor-in-chief 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.