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A reader wants to know if and how the black and white branches of his family connected during slavery.

Dear Professor Gates:

My entire life, I’ve never met another person with the surname Tillage that I wasn’t related to. They all have originated from Murfreesboro, Tenn. My great-great-grandfather was named Jesse Tillage and was born in 1850, and on all documents he is listed as mulatto and born in Virginia.

I wasn’t surprised that after I took the Ancestry.com DNA test, I’ve had several relative matches to non-African Americans from that area. I reached out to the relative that had the highest probability and was pleasantly surprised at how excited she was that I reached out. She is a 75-year-old retired professor and historian, and both her grandparents were direct descendants of two Tilledge/Tillage brothers. In fact, there has been a published book that details the families from the original husband and wife that settled in Gloucester Point, Va., in 1705. I’m excited about the reconnection with the white Tillages, and I’m planning a visit with them.

However, I’m still on the trail of Jesse Tillage. I’d like to know the best way to narrow which Tillage slave owner was the direct relative. I’ve concluded that many of the Tillages who are listed as mulatto have to be close relatives. One was Coleman Tillage: I traced him back to who I think his father was (Coleman R. Tillage, a slave owner recorded in the 1850 Slave Schedule) and found out when the younger Coleman enlisted in the 37th Colored Infantry during the Civil War. —Keith Tillage

Your journey to discover your roots has been a remarkable one, based on what you describe. As Professor Gates noted in a previous column, the average African American has roughly one-quarter European ancestry, according to the range of estimates by major DNA testing companies. However, because of the dislocation caused by the slave trade and the long-standing American taboo of acknowledging blood ties across the color line, most black people in this country do not know the identity of their white relatives (much less who their kin are on the African continent). Some are understandably content to let those blood ties remain unknown because they were often created through the rape and coercion of enslaved African-American women. Others, like you and academic leader Ruth Simmons, are willing to confront the past.

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Simmons, who is president of Prairie View A&M University and past president of Brown University, was reconnected with a descendant of her first white ancestor, a Texas man who enslaved her great-grandfather, in a 2012 episode of Professor Gates’ PBS television show Finding Your Roots. The distant cousins, black and white, approached the meeting with openness while acknowledging that older members of their respective families would have frowned upon it. The Boston Globe quotes her:

“We can accept the fact that slavery resulted in this kind of mixture—often involuntary on the part of slaves—and that we have a whole country filled with people who are attached to each other in these invisible ways.” But, she added, “without the knowledge of it influencing how they see their lives and how they see the country, that’s the sad part of it.”

Like Simmons, you have a unique opportunity to work with your white kin to uncover your common history.

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Starting With Jesse and Working Backward 

The 1920 U. S. census recorded Jesse Tillage and his wife, Mollie, residing in Rutherford County, Tenn., with a grandson, Robert Tillage. Jesse was born about 1855 in Tennessee. The household was directly next to the household of a Robert Tillage, who was likely their son, born in Tennessee about 1898. In 1880, Jesse Tillage was living in Rutherford County, Tenn., with his wife, Mary. According to the record, they were both mulatto, and Jesse was born about 1850 in Tennessee. Both of his parents were born in Virginia.

Jesse Tillage died on July 2, 1920, in Murfreesboro, Rutherford, Tenn. His death record incorrectly states that he was born in 1864, but this could have been an error by the informant. His gravestone in Evergreen Graveyard (the burial location given on the death record) records his birth as 1849, which is much closer to what we know about him. What is interesting about the death record is that his mother was given as Sallie Mason, who was born in Virginia, and his father was unknown.

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His wife, Mollie, died Dec. 20, 1934, in Murfreesboro and is buried in the same cemetery. Her death record indicates that her parents were Harry Mentor and Nancy Varnes, both of Bedford County. It is always good to note information on records for relatives, since they may contain more clues to help you work backward.

Seeking the Connection to a Black Civil War Soldier 

Could Jesse have been associated with the slave owner Coleman R. Tillage? As you noted, Coleman R., who died in 1855, owned slaves in 1850 at James City, Va., though they were all female. Unfortunately, many of the records from James City, Va., were housed in Richmond and were destroyed in 1865 when Richmond burned. Because of this, you might not be able to locate his probate file, though you could contact the county clerk to see if the office has any records or substitute records that may be able to help.

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In addition, you may be able to piece together some of Coleman’s personal estate through tax records that survived. Personal property tax lists may give you an indication of how many slaves he owned each year, which may help you account for the birth of your Jesse. These are available on microfilm through a Family History Library or at the Virginia State Library.

You mentioned another Coleman Tillage who was African American and served in the Civil War. Based on his service record, Coleman Tillage served in Company E of the 37th United States Colored Infantry (via Fold3; subscription required), which was organized in Norfolk, Va., in 1864. To learn more about the 37th USCI and other units of black Civil War soldiers, download a copy of William Dobak’s Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (pdf).

He was 22 years old when he enlisted on Dec. 15, 1863, placing his birth about 1841. He survived the war and mustered out of services at the expiration of his term on Dec. 14, 1866, at Charleston, S.C. This Coleman Tillage filed for a pension on Dec. 27, 1884, and died Sept. 9, 1915, at Fuguay Springs, N.C.—Application No. 528.838, Certificate No. 1086.878. You could order a copy of the pension file to see if his application contains any more details about his service, his family or his life during slavery.

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You may also find some more clues in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. A Martha Tillage and her child were recorded as receiving rations in the Norfolk, Va., area with a notation “Hus (Coleman 3rd NC).” The book is not clear on the dates, though the beginning of his includes lists of rations received in 1862. Likewise, a Mary Tillage at Glasgow, Va., was 9 years old and destitute, receiving rations in 1865, placing her birth about 1856.

There is also an undated letter inquiring about what happened to Coleman Tillage, who hadn’t been heard from since right before the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond in 1865. The inquiry was initiated by Coleman’s mother, Mary Tillidge, and was put forward by J.H. Remington, inquiring whether he was alive or dead at the last muster of Company E, 37th U.S.C. Troops. This letter is certainly related to the Coleman Tillage who served in the United States Colored Troops, and the ration records are likely for a wife and child or another close relative. These were the only records we located in the Freedmen’s Bureau papers with the surname Tillage.

While it is possible that this soldier, Coleman Tillage, was associated with the slave owner named Coleman R. Tillage, nothing we found on either man helps us in determining how your Jesse Tillage relates to them. We know your Jesse Tillage settled in Murfreesboro, Rutherford, which is quite a distance from James City, Va. With the clue that Jesse’s mother was named Sallie Mason, we searched for other Masons in Rutherford County who could be relatives. It is possible that Jesse was sold to a slave owner in Rutherford prior to the end of slavery, but he carried the Tillage name with him.

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Does Jesse’s Mother Provide the Link? 

The only Sallie Mason we located in Rutherford County was white and did not seem to be a likely fit for Jesse’s mother because we could trace her forward with her own family. However, with the Mason surname in mind, we thought it interesting that Jesse Tillage was residing very near a John Mason in 1910 who was just three years younger than “Jessie” and was also recorded as mulatto in the census. This John Mason was in District 9 of Rutherford in 1880. It seems a high probability that this is the same John Mason who was residing in Rutherford in 1870 in the household of Richard Mason, who was born about 1830. In 1880 the census recorded that Richard Mason was born in Virginia about 1829, which we noted because we know that the parents of your Jesse Tillage were born in Virginia.

We then looked for slave owners in Rutherford County who had a slave that might match your Jesse Tillage’s description. We noted a slave owner in 1860 named Jos. Mason in District 3, Rutherford, Tenn., who owned a male slave born about 1849 who could be a match for your Jesse Tillage. There was also a slave owner name W.N. Mason in District 2, Rutherford, Tenn., who owned 20 slaves in 1860, one of which was a 13-year-old boy described as mulatto who may also be a match. You will likely want to see if you can locate any probate, tax or land records for these men, since they may reveal more about their slaves. You may also want to see if they have any relation to the Tillage family in Virginia, which may suggest that they transferred slaves to each other.

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Since you know from your DNA results that you relate to the white Tillage family, it seems likely that your Jesse Tillage was a descendant of one of the white slave-owning Tillage families. This may be why he kept the name. It is not impossible that he settled in Rutherford County, Tenn., following emancipation.

However, since this is quite a distance from where the white Tillage family resided in Virginia, and you know that Jesse’s mother’s surname was Mason, you may want to investigate the possibility that he was taken to Tennessee prior to emancipation as part of a slave sale or inheritance. You could start by asking your newfound white Tillage cousin if she knows of any connection in her background to a family with the surname Mason, or an association with Rutherford County.

Good luck with your reunion and your continued search for answers!


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

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, AmericanAncestors.org, 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.