Tracing Your Roots: Did My Wife Descend From Runaway Slaves?

John Henry Shepherd
John Henry Shepherd

A Canadian resident tries to confirm the origins of his wife’s ancestors, who reportedly traveled the Underground Railroad.


Dear Professor Gates:

My wife, Kathy Brooks, and I live in Canada, and she is trying desperately to trace the ancestry of her great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Shepherd, who arrived in Canada between 1845 and 1861. We believe she and her son John Henry Shepherd (and maybe others) traveled along the Underground Railroad. A family story indicates that she may have had her “freedom papers,” but we don’t know for sure. We have no information where she has been enslaved. 

From stories told, she did travel the Underground Railroad with her young child (sometimes described as babe in arms). They could have entered Canada at Fort Erie or Niagara. We have traveled the Freedom Trail here in Canada and tried to find information. All people we spoke with indicated that we may have to look south to the USA, but we have no idea what to do or where to go or who to talk to. 

According to the 1861 Canada West census, Mary Ann Shepherd was born circa 1801 and her son John Henry Shepherd was born circa 1851. Their birthplaces are unknown. From 1871 forward to 1948, we can trace John Henry Shepherd because he is listed on Canadian census documents.

We found, in that 1861 census, that William Bell, a “Negro labourer,” and Mary Ann Bell, a “Negress,” age 61, had married in 1847 and John Shepherd, “Negro,” age 10, was with them. Sometime in the 1860s, Mary Shepherd/Bell died and the farm owner where she worked agreed to raise John Henry until he could support himself. In the 1871 census, John Henry Shepherd is listed with the “Murray” family. The Shepherd family has continued to live within the general area that the 1861 (and after) censuses indicate. John Henry Shepherd married his wife, Sarah (nee Hartley), and raised a family. 

Please help us learn more about Mary Ann Shepherd before she arrived in Canada. —Craig Brooks


The best place to start is always to gather as much information as you can about Mary Ann and people she was associated with from the records that you have already to look for clues that could help you identify her in the United States. The story of John Henry Shepherd and Mary Ann has become something of a legend, which means you’ll have to check the folklore surrounding them against documents you can find to determine what is likely to be true and what is not.

The North Halton Compass newspaper in 1998 described John Henry and his mother as making their way to Canada and settling in Stewarttown, Ontario. She made an agreement with Col. John Murray that he should care for her son if anything were to happen to her.


Doing the Math

As you noted, the 1861 Canadian census (pdf) shows Mary Ann Bell and her husband, William Bell, and John Shepherd living together.


Based on their ages, it seems possible that Mary Ann (born about 1801) was John Henry Shepherd’s grandmother and not his mother as one account about the family suggests, since she would have been 50 years old at the time of his birth. What is curious is that if the couple were married in 1847, as this census record suggests, and John Henry Shepherd was born about 1851 in the United States, the couple should have been together prior to their venture to Canada, and yet none of the folklore surrounding the family mentions William Bell traveling the Underground Railroad with them.

Don’t rule out the possibility that they were married in Canada, even if that conflicts with the commonly assumed escape-to-freedom timeline for Mary Ann and young John Henry. Before 1869, vital records recorded in Canada, and more specifically Ontario, are likely to be in church records. There are collections of Catholic Church records, such as the Druin Collection available digitally through (subscription required) and on microfilm via the New England Historic Genealogical Society, where this column’s co-writer, Meaghan Siekman, works; however, the couple’s reported religion in census records is not Catholic. Based on the date, it is possible their marriage could have been recorded at the district level. There is an index of Ontario Marriages on Family Search; however, when we did a search for William Bell between 1845 and 1849, none of the results appeared to be a match.


Even if you assume they were together in the United States, and informally wed in 1847 (as we have previously noted, slaves could not legally marry), you still could look forward in time to locate more information on William Bell to see if that leads you to more information on Mary Ann and John Henry Shepherd.

By 1871 John Shepherd was living in the household of John Murray, which aligns with the family lore about the Murray family caring for him after Mary Ann’s death, but it does not tell us what happened to William Bell. He could be the same William Bell who was residing in Camden, Bothwell, Ontario, in 1871 and who was born about 1812 in the United States and was a widower at the time the census was enumerated. He is a close-enough match to what is known about the William Bell in question, and if he is one and the same, he had not ventured too far from the family’s original location in Canada.


This William Bell was living among several other families of African descent who were all born in the United States. It is possible that members of these families knew each other in America prior to their arrival in Canada, so further investigation into the other black families may help you pinpoint a location of origin in the United States for Mary Ann.

Tracing the Underground Railroad for Clues

The nature of Mary Ann Shepherd’s entrance into Canada illustrates the increasing lengths that the enslaved went to in order to gain freedom in the final years leading up to the U.S. Civil War—and the lengths enslavers went to in order to thwart them.


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of a group of laws designed as a compromise between free states and territories and slaveholding states. The law required that any runaway or escaped slaves be returned to their slave owner upon capture. One of the more controversial elements of the Compromise of 1850, the act was hated by abolitionists and sent a growing number of escapees through the already-legendary Underground Railroad.

It was no longer safe for runaway slaves to settle in Northern American states, and they had to make their way all the way to Canada to ensure that they would not be returned to slavery. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “While an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 freedom seekers entered Canada during the last decades of enslavement in the US, the decade 1850­­–60 alone saw 15,000 to 20,000 fugitives reach the Province of Canada when it became the main terminus of the Underground Railroad.”


Understanding the law and the general workings of the Underground Railroad will help you better understand what records might be available to help you trace Mary Ann back to her place of origin.

In order to narrow your search within the United States, you might examine some of the general migration patterns for runaway slaves determined by the fastest path to freedom from where they originated.


Since you know that Mary Ann Shepherd and John Henry Shepherd entered Canada at Fort Erie or Niagara, you can work backward to determine that she likely originated in one of the Southern states on the Eastern Seaboard, but likely not as far south as southern Georgia or Florida, where she would have been more likely to have fled south.

It is also not probable that she came from interior states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, since she likely would have entered Canada through Ohio, Indiana or Illinois were this the case. While it is still a large area to cover, understanding these patterns narrows your search to Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and possibly Georgia.


Searching Runaway-Slave Ads

Since you do not know much about Mary Ann during slavery—who her owner may have been or where she came from—newspapers may be your best option for trying to work backward. Knowing the likelier paths she took to get to Canada, you could work backward and check newspapers in those locations for mention of runaway slaves that match Mary Ann Shepherd’s description. Newspapers included runaway-slave advertisements, particularly if it was believed that the slave made his or her way to that state, and often newspapers covered incidents along the Underground Railroad.


Based on where she ended up, Mary Ann very likely traveled through New York City, Philadelphia and probably Baltimore if she had not taken a ship to one of the other two. (Historian Eric Foner’s book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, provides valuable information on the route through New York City.)

You could start with newspapers from these three cities. Many newspapers have been digitized and can be searched through subscription-based databases, such as and Genealogy Bank, or they may be available through local historical societies. Google Newspapers also has several historical newspapers you could search free of charge. Try using search terms such as “Mary” and “runaway” or “fugitive” to help limit your results, as well as the surnames “Bell” and “Shepherd.”


Searching for slave advertisements can be a tedious endeavor depending on the availability of newspapers digitally. Some projects are working to make them more accessible, however. Cornell University is working on an exciting project, Freedom on the Move, which will create a database of runaway-slave ads from all of North America.

Until that is available, you could also try some more localized projects, such as the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements Project. Runaway-slave ads usually contain a wealth of information, such as the slave owner’s name, a physical description of the runaway and any trades or special skills he or she possessed.


For example, we searched the North Carolina database for the name Mary, and an ad from 1837 offers a $50 reward for the return of Samuel, Judy and their four children, Henry, Burton, Nelson and Mary. In addition to telling you that the escaped belonged to the estate of Sacker Dubberley, it includes the ages and physical descriptions of the individuals and notes that Samuel can read and write. This type of information was included to help would-be captors identify the escaped and to make it harder for them to get employment in their new homes, since revealing a trade—or, in this case, the ability to read and write—could help identify them.

If you can find a newspaper ad with a description that seems like it could be your Mary Ann and John Shepherd, you will then want to investigate the slave owner to see if any of his or her papers could reveal even more information.


Checking Slave Schedules

You could also cast a wider net in searching for individuals who match Mary Ann and John Henry’s description in the 1850 United States Slave Schedules. Start by limiting your search to slave owners with the surname Bell or Shepherd in states where she likely originated, with a female slave in the household born about 1801. You could then narrow it further by identifying those households that have someone matching William Bell’s description. This will be a daunting task, and it should be noted that the surnames may not have been inherited from a slave owner at all. But it is one way you could continue to work through documentation for any clues of Mary Ann’s origins.


Finally, we suggest contacting the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Its research staff may have resources and tips for narrowing your search, and the center does have volunteers who work with people on genealogical queries.

Good luck!

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.


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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior 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,, contains more than 1 billion 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.



Craig and Mary, you can also check out It will give you information on any relatives that are distant, 3rd or 4th cousins and they may have information that traces Mary’s ancestors as well.

They do it through DNA testing, I’m not sure if Ancestry’s DNA service does the relative match.