The Old Plantation, South Carolina, circa 1790 (Wikimedia Commons)

A reader wonders if her family originates from a unique coastal Southern community that has retained many West African traditions.

Dear Professor Gates:

I’m hoping you can help me figure out whether my family is of Gullah origins. My mother’s family is from a tiny town in South Carolina’s Low Country called Brittons Neck. While researching my family’s history, I found my earliest known ancestor, Jupiter Davis, who was born in Brittons Neck in 1803. On the 1870 census, it says that his mother was born in Brittons Neck, too. So it seems that my family wasn’t split up for at least the last 65 years of American slavery. 

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Now I’ve been told that Gullah people were generally left alone on plantations because of the naturally occurring dangers in the Low Country: malaria, alligators and poisonous snakes. Also, the slaves brought to the area were expert rice growers and weren’t sold away because of their specialty. Does my family’s continuous habitation of Brittons Neck mean that we’re Gullah?

Finally: My mother, sister and I are frequently asked if we’re from “the Islands” because of our accent, and I’ve heard that the Gullah accent sounds very Bahamian. Is this another clue? —Ms. Davis

As you no doubt know, the Gullah people are descended from enslaved West Africans who have occupied the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia since the late 17th century. Because of their rice-growing skills, they were brought to plantations in the Sea Islands and coastal Low Country region. The harsh living conditions to which you refer, and geographic isolation, are among the reasons the Gullah retained African cultural practices and a Creole dialect of English with heavy West African influences, not unlike dialects you may hear in the English-speaking Caribbean.

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However, the aftermath of the Civil War also contributed to their isolation through the early 20th century, when bridges began connecting the Sea Islands to the mainland. As described in the “Gullah” chapter of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition (edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Professor Gates):

In November 1861, at the dawn of the Civil War, plantation owners on the Sea Islands fled as United States Navy ships approached. This effectively freed their slaves, who subsequently claimed the abandoned land as their own. Although the federal government did not allow the Gullah to gain title to the lands, the Gullah did acquire experience in independent subsistence farming. In the aftermath of the Civil War, falling cotton prices drove the few remaining white plantation owners from the Sea Islands …

As the Africana chapter on the “Port Royal Experiment” relates: “Soon after the plantation owners fled, blacks on the Sea Islands destroyed the plantation houses and the cotton gins. They claimed the abandoned lands as their own, and began their own independent farms.” However, the titles to most of the land were auctioned off by Treasury agents in 1863 and 1864 mostly to government officials, Army officers, Northern land speculators and cotton companies. If you’ve ever heard of the “40 Acres and a mule” promise, this is where it was made and broken. According to Africana:

In January 1865, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which awarded the remaining unclaimed land on the Sea Islands to freedpeople. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, however, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order, enabling former plantation owners to reclaim their land and forcing blacks either to work as wage laborers or to leave. Only a few blacks were able to retain the land that they had claimed.

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(To learn more about this episode in history, read Professor Gates’ article “The Truth Behind ‘40 Acres and a Mule,’” which is also a chapter in his new book in homage to history writer Joel A. Rogers, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro.)

The Gullah spent subsequent decades in relative isolation through the early 20th century.

You ask if your Low Country kin shared this heritage. We did not find strong evidence of that but did uncover some tantalizing clues for you to investigate further.

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Jupiter’s Life in Brittons Neck Before and After the Civil War 

We found your ancestor Jupiter Davis residing in Brittons Neck, Marion County, S.C., in 1880. Marion County is just over 30 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach, S.C., inland. At the time, the main crop in the county was cotton, which is likely what occupied Jupiter’s time, since the record listed him as a farmer. According to the Marion County Historic Resources Survey (pdf), the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees and Abandoned Lands pressured the area’s newly emancipated African Americans into labor contracts with local planters. “From the beginning, the contract system echoed the work patterns of slavery, such as gang labor, which focused on groups rather than individuals,” according to the survey, which further noted, “Many labor contracts also contained language designed to maintain antebellum social structures.”

According to the 1880 record, Jupiter was born around 1815 in South Carolina. Both of his parents were also born in South Carolina, according to the census, although it does not specifically say that it was Brittons Neck. Jupiter had a wife, Melia, and four children living in his household. Locating records for his children may reveal more information about Jupiter.

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In addition, you may also want to examine Jupiter’s neighbors. In 1880 he was residing near mostly white families, including the households of James Skipper, William Altman, J.C. Rowell, A.D. Hamelson and G.S. Jordan. Ten years earlier, in 1870, Jupiter was in Brittons Neck but was residing near mostly African-American families. There were 13 children in Jupiter’s household at the time. Some of these children are likely grandchildren because of their ages: For example, there was a 4-month-old and a 5-month-old counted in the household who could not have been born to the same mother.

The only white family recorded near Jupiter in 1870 was George W. Woodbery’s, whose real estate was worth $1,300, meaning that he owned land. Since this record is close to the end of slavery, you will want to investigate the possibility that the Woodbery family were slave owners whose former slaves were still residing near them.

In a list of slave owners in Marion County, S.C., in 1860, there are three with the surname Davis recorded: E.M. Davis with 56 slaves, Henry Davis with 61 slaves and T.G. Davis with 34 slaves. There is also a George W. Woodberry recorded who owned 44 slaves and a John Woodbury who owned 49 slaves. Of the white families living near Jupiter Davis in both the 1870 and 1880 censuses, we know that these men were slave owners, so you will want to investigate them further to see if Jupiter could have been enslaved by one of them.

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A Possible Gullah Connection

Interestingly, there is a recording of a Julia Woodberry as part of the WPA Slave Narratives. Her name stood out to us because it is so similar to George Woodberry’s. Julia was interviewed in November 1937 and recounted that she had been born in Brittons Neck. She said that her father was Friday Woodberry and her mother told a story that “her old Massa stole her en her brother John, too, from off de sea beach.” Perhaps some of the people enslaved in Brittons Neck were taken from Gullah communities in or near the Sea Islands to the southeast of Marion County?

We also noted in this narrative that Julia had worked for a Mary Jane Rowell, and the Rowell name is another that Jupiter Davis was residing near in the 1880 census. There was a Friday Woodberry recorded as the head of household in Woodberry, Marion County, in 1870 living near several white Woodberry families. Tracing his family may help you determine whether there is a connection to your Davis family. Investigating all possible connections and casting a wide net will likely help you determine if there was a Gullah community in the area and if your ancestors were part of it.

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Other narratives taken from former slaves in Marion County—Charles Davis (born about 1849), Heddie Davis (born about 1866) and Lizzie Davis (born between 1858 and 1868)—mention Julia Woodberry, suggesting that they knew one another. You will want to investigate further the possibility that this Julia Woodberry is connected to your Davis family. A death record for Charles Davis in Marion on April 19, 1938, records his birth in 1846 in Marion County to parents Peter Davis and Sarah Woodberry. This record is a good match for the Charles Davis in the narrative and seems to suggest a further connection to the Woodberry family. Keep in mind that Jupiter had a son named Peter Davis born around 1849, so “Peter” could be a family name.

You should explore the possibility that the surname Davis was adopted from a former slave owner. There is nothing in the 1870 census that states that Jupiter’s mother was born in Brittons Neck, although it does appear likely that there are other relatives in the area. A Gade Davis (born about 1843) was in the household directly next door, and on the previous page of the census was a Sam Davis (born about 1832) who owned $156 in personal estate. This means that he did not own land but owned something of value to be counted in the census. Since they share a surname and are living closely to each other, it is possible they were related or were once enslaved by the same slave owner.

The only Davis we located residing in Brittons Neck in 1860 was a B.F. Davis, living with his wife, Gabriella, and their unnamed infant child. B.F. Davis was a farmer who owned $5,000 in real estate and $800 in personal estate. He was born around 1834 in South Carolina. One thing we noted is that he was residing near a Jas. Altman, and the next page in the census recorded a William Altman.

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We know that in 1880, your Jupiter Davis was residing near a William Altman, which may suggest that B.F. Davis was living near where Jupiter was living after the end of slavery. We searched page by page in the census records for Brittons Neck but did not locate any free people of color recorded living there in 1860.

A History of Marion County includes a narrative of the white Davis family (search for No. 448). Although this was written in 1901 and you will likely want to double-check its claims, it can provide some valuable information. According to this account, the Davis surname is common, although its first appearance in the county was around 1735 in Brittons Neck. This suggests that the slave-owning Davis family was in the region for a long time. If you determine that your Davis family was once enslaved by this Davis family, this may explain why they were in the same region for generations.

Searching land records in Marion County may help you determine whether the white Davis family had any relationship with the Woodberry family. Perhaps they bought or sold slaves from each other. The Deed Index indicated that B.F. Davis had property transactions with several individuals, including a W.L. Rowell, although we did not note any transactions with a Woodberry. The Woodberry family also had several deeds recorded in the early 1800s. You may benefit from examining all of the deeds for these individuals to see if they contain any mention of their slaves. This may help you gain a better sense of where your Davis ancestors originated.

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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 chairmanr of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

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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, 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.