Tracing Your Roots: How Did My Ancestor Escape Slavery?

A slave revolt is depicted in Struggle for Freedom in a Maryland Barn, an engraving from The Underground Rail Road by William Still, 1872. (Wikimedia Commons)
A slave revolt is depicted in Struggle for Freedom in a Maryland Barn, an engraving from The Underground Rail Road by William Still, 1872. (Wikimedia Commons)

In revisiting the story of black refugees to Trinidad, we came across the tale of a foiled slave rebellion in Maryland.

Dear Professor Gates:

I am a Trinidadian who has been searching for information on my ancestor Henry Ransom, a black Colonial Marine who joined with the British in 1814 and was resettled in 5th Company, Moruga, Trinidad, in December 1815. I have managed to uncover bits and pieces of information here and there, but some are contradictory.


Henry Ransom may have escaped from the plantation of Joseph Fox of Westmoreland County, Va. My attempts at gathering more information on Joseph Fox have been unsuccessful so far apart from one vague census record. Recently, however, I searched the Maryland State Archives and found the name of Hannah Ransom of Calvert County listed as a refugee. Is this my ancestor? I suspect she may be related to me because I also heard that Henry Ransom arrived in Trinidad with “Anna” Ransom and three children. Please help me learn more about them. —Korinne Louison

As your question and others we have answered in previous columns illustrate, numerous enslaved people resisted their servitude. While our research did not turn up a definitive link between Henry Ransom and Hannah Ransom, or Henry and Joseph Fox, we found some leads that you should follow. We also noticed that the surname “Ransom” in Maryland and Virginia has a striking association with resistance to slavery.

The War of 1812 Provides Freedom for Some 

In fighting on the side of the British during the War of 1812 and settling in the English Caribbean colony of Trinidad in 1814, your Henry Ransom apparently followed a similar path to that of Ezekiel Loney, an escaped Virginia slave whose background we traced in the column “My ‘Merikin’ Ancestor Escaped Slavery.


As mentioned, during that war, the British military invited escaped American slaves from mainly coastal Virginia, Maryland and Georgia to fight on their side in exchange for freedom and land in the West Indies. Those who immigrated to Trinidad after their service, as well as their families, were called “Merikins.”

As you mentioned, Hannah Ransom of Calvert County, Md., is listed as a “War of 1812 Refugee” on a website of the Maryland State Archives. Given the relative closeness of Westmoreland County, Va., and Calvert County, Md., it’s plausible that she is your Anna Ransom. Unfortunately, the website is not very clear on what records were used to compile this list or where you might find more information. You could contact the Maryland Historical Society to inquire about Hannah Ransom to see if it has any more information that could connect her to a former slave owner, to Henry Ransom or to the emigrés.


An Earlier Attempt to Escape Bondage

While researching this, we came across information about a widely documented slave insurrection associated with the surname “Ransom” more than 70 years before the War of 1812. The Maryland State Archives has a list of people who were “gibbeted” for crimes between 1723 and 1775, including a “Negro Jack Ransom” in 1740 for “insurrection” in Prince George’s County (near Hannah Ransom’s Calvert County). Gibbeting refers to a practice of hanging the body of an executed criminal on display to deter others from committing the same crime.


Writing for the William and Mary Quarterly in April 1978, historian Allan Kulikoff described the events that led to Jack Ransom’s execution:

The Negroes spent eight months in 1739 planning to seize their freedom by killing their masters and other white families in the neighborhood. Their leader, Jack Ransom, was probably a native [African American], but most of the conspirators were [born] Africans, for it is reported that the planning was done by the slaves in “their country language.” The revolt was postponed several times and finally the white authorities got wind of it. Stephen Boardley, an Annapolis lawyer, reported that whites believed that 200 slaves planned to kill all of the white men, marry the white women, and then unite both shores of Maryland under their control.


With the alleged plot foiled, Jack was arrested, tried and executed for conspiracy to raise an insurrection.

According to a chart compiled by the Maryland State Archives and based on court records, Jack Ransom was charged with his crime on Dec. 1, 1739, convicted in March of 1739-40 and executed on April 4, 1740. He had been enslaved by Jane Brooke (pdf).


A more detailed description of the Jack Ransom story on the Brandywine, Md., website describes Jack Ransom as an intelligent man between the ages of 40 and 50. Among the other four slaves indicted was a “George,” who was also owned by Brooke. Unlike Jack, George was acquitted. This account also provides more details about Jane Brooke; her husband, Clement Brooke Sr., who had died two years prior to the incident; and the Poplar Neck tobacco plantation she owned, which had at least seven slaves and which was in the Brooke family from 1671 until 1870.

It seems a strong possibility that the Clement Brooke residing at Prince George’s County, Md., in 1790 was a descendant. You might benefit from examining the papers for this family to see if they have a connection to Joseph Fox or if there is a bill of sale between the two families that could connect your Ransom family to Jack Ransom.


Had Henry Ransom Escaped Fox’s Plantation? 

As for Joseph Fox, he was residing at Westmoreland, Va., in 1820, at which time he had 28 slaves recorded in his household. Ten years prior, in 1810, he was also recorded at Westmoreland County, Va., with 24 slaves recorded in his household. It would be between these two dates that your Henry Ransom escaped and joined the British in 1814.


These records do not provide many clues about your relatives, since the recording of enslaved persons in both enumeration did not include their names (which was the practice until the end of slavery). The number of slaves in the household increased from 1810 to 1820, and you know that at least your ancestor escaped in between these years, so it is possible that Joseph Fox was purchasing slaves during that decade.

Locating records for any of those whom Joseph Fox enslaved might provide clues about your ancestors. However, you are not going to find any census records earlier than 1810 for Westmoreland County because fires destroyed the records from 1790 to 1800. Gaining a better understanding of what records are available for Westmoreland County may help you determine where to look for more information.


We located a marriage record for Joseph Fox and Mary Hipkins at Westmoreland County, Va., on April 5, 1788. It is always a good idea to note the women entering a family, since slaves were often brought into estates through marriage, as part of a woman’s dowry or by inheritance.

Genealogies of Virginia Families notes that the Joseph Fox who married Mary Hipkins was the son of Joseph and Anjalettah (Wroe) Fox. The younger Joseph Fox was justice of the peace in 1798 and was elected clerk of Westmoreland in 1799, a position he held until his death in 1823. This also states that Joseph Fox Sr. died in 1804 and the will was proved Oct. 22, 1804, at Westmoreland, Va. The probate record for Joseph Fox Sr. may be the one you will want to focus on, since he may have left slaves to his son.


According to this source, Joseph Fox Sr. also had six daughters. You may also want to investigate records for the estates of his daughters’ husbands because it is possible that your Henry Ransom was owned by someone else in the family but the connection to a Joseph Fox was still remembered.

The Family History Library has probate records for Westmoreland County available on microfilm that you could view at your local Family History Center. It also has digitized copies of some land and probate records, but they, too, must be viewed within a Family History Center. You could also contact the county clerk or other relevant repositories for the county directly to see if you could obtain a copy of Joseph Fox Sr.’s probate record or other records relating to the Fox family and their estates.


Where Did the “Ransom” Name Come From? 

Finally, determining where your ancestors got the “Ransom” surname may lead you to more information. In 1810, there were a few slave owners with the surname “Ransom” residing in Virginia. In Buckingham County, Va., William Ransom owned 15 slaves, and recorded directly under him was Elizabeth Ransom with 18 slaves. Perhaps there is a bill of sale in records for these individuals that could prove a connection to Joseph Fox and your Ransom ancestors.


Paul Heinegg has an article on free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware about a family with the “Ransom” surname who were free in North Carolina in the mid-18th century. Although we found no slave owners with the surname “Ransom” in North Carolina in 1810, you may still want to investigate this free black family to see if you can make a connection to yours. Heinegg has also abstracted tax lists that you may also want to search for the surname.

Finally, searching records linked to Trinidad may turn up leads. There are some collections at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago that might be helpful, such as the Land Ownership Records and Assessment. The U.K. National Archives also have collections of Trinidad correspondence and maps from this era that may include information on Colonial Marine settlement.


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

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.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`


Vulcan Has No Moon

Thank you Professor Gates for another educational and fascinating look into AA family tree!