Celebrants at a Juneteenth Emancipation Day observation June 19, 1900, in Texas (Wikimedia Commons)

On the trail of a great-great-grandfather from Louisiana who farmed in Texas at the height of Jim Crow.

Dear Professor Gates:

I have been working on my family history for several years; now I have hit a brick wall with my great-great-grandfather John H. McCants. I have only been able to locate him in the 1910 census in Angelina County, Texas. In this census, he is living with my great-great-grandmother Azalea/Azilee; their their daughters, Izora, Mattie, Verona; and Azalea’s father, Matthew “Mat” Hackney.

My great-uncle told me that John was a very light-skinned man and a reverend. Azalea died shortly after her last child, my great-grandmother Sammie Cleo McCants, [who] was born in 1918. Everyone seems to disappear from the census records until 1930, where you find the oldest girls married and the younger children living with either their siblings or with future in-laws. John is nowhere to be found. 

I have tried searching Texas and Louisiana and have found a few people with the same last name, but I can’t seem to tie anything together. How else do I go about solving this mystery? —Quinette

There are a few clues you can gather from the record that you have of John H. McCants. According to the 1910 U.S. census, the family was residing at Justice Precinct 1, Angelina, Texas. John, a farmer, was born in Louisiana about 1863, and his father’s birthplace was North Carolina, and his mother’s was South Carolina.

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Life in Challenging Times 

The census record indicates that John was working “on his own account” as a farmer, which, according to the instructions for enumerators that year, meant that he was not an employee and did not employ any helpers in his work. He rented his farm, which was typical for African Americans of that era. According to the Texas State Historical Association:

The most common arrangement after the Civil War was a share tenant or sharecropping arrangement. Since the crop would not be split until after the harvest, tenants could only receive payment for their labor after the crops were in. Most tenants in the period just after the Civil War were black, and the Freedmen’s Bureau supervised the signing and implementation of tenant-farming agreements in areas where it had local agents until it closed its local offices in December 1868.

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At the top of the hierarchy, continues TSHA, “were share and cash tenants who supplied the mules, plows, seed, feed, and other supplies needed. … At the bottom were sharecroppers who supplied only their labor.” The former “received a larger portion of the crops, but also because they were considered the owners of the crops,” while “[s]harecroppers were generally considered laborers whose wages were paid with a share of the crops, which were owned by the landlord.”

It is not clear which type of farmer your great-great-grandfather was or his circumstance, but as Cary Wintz writes in the “Texas” chapter of the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, the tenant-farming system left many black people “mired in poverty and peonage. Impoverished, lacking access to decent schools, and facing a deteriorating racial situation, their daily lives hardly seemed to improve with the end of slavery.”

They entered the 20th century firmly in the grip of Jim Crow. “In the twenty-one year period ending in 1903, 199 blacks were lynched,” according to Wintz. “Segregation and violence were becoming more prevalent, and the political gains blacks had made during Reconstruction disappeared at the end of the century. Between 1899 and 1967 no African Americans served in the Texas legislature, and in the first decade of the twentieth century ‘voter reforms’ eliminated the black vote in most statewide elections.”

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Uncovering Another Decade of Life in Texas 

Through all of that, your ancestors lived their lives as best they could, and left records to show it. There is a marriage record for J.H. Mccants and Azilee Hockney at Cherokee, Texas, on Nov. 19, 1903. The original record does not give any additional information about the marriage other than that it occurred in the town of Rusk. This record tells you that John McCants was in Texas at least by 1903. We noted that this was the same county where Azalea’s father, Matthew Hackney, was recorded in 1900. Matthew did not have any children in his household, but a few doors down in the household of George Hackney was an Azalee Hackney born about March 1884 (top line on this page) that could be a match for your Azalea. Paying attention to where the family was living over time may also help you locate John in earlier records.

If you search the 1900 census for any variation of the name John McCants, who was born in Louisiana between 1860 and 1870, there is only one result. A widowed farmer named “Jno Cants,” born about May 1867 at Louisiana, was residing at Justice Precinct 7, Shelby, Texas. If you examine a county map of Texas, you’ll note that Shelby County is very close to Cherokee County, where we know your John McCants married Azalea Hackney, and Angelina County, where the family resided in 1910. Because he is the only one who matched the description of your John McCants and he is in the right place, this is likely a record for your John McCants, which places him in Texas by 1900.

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Intriguing Leads From Earlier Years

One of the hurdles you’ll have to tackle is that the 1890 census does not survive for most of the country, so you will have to go back another decade to locate John McCants in an earlier federal census record. One avenue you may try to bridge the gap are county tax records. You could start with Shelby County, Texas, where you know he was residing in 1900, and see when he first appears on the tax rolls for this county. This will give you a better idea of when he moved from Louisiana to Texas. This may be a bit time-consuming, as the records are digitized and browsable but not easily searched. Be sure to remember that within each book, each precinct will be recorded separately, so you’ll want to browse through the book in its entirety.

You could also see if there are any court or probate records for John McCants in any of the counties where you know the family resided. Be sure to always pay attention to variations of the name, as it is always possible that something was recorded incorrectly. For example, the Cherokee County Court Records index includes a “J.H. McCarty.” It is close enough to the name of your ancestor to make it worth further investigation.

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While this might not be your ancestor at all, you will not know until you look at the original record to rule it out as a possibility. For instance, perhaps the name was transcribed incorrectly and examining the original reveals that the surname is actually McCants. You could request the original record from the Cherokee County Courthouse and see what other useful records that county holds.

In the meantime, you could try to locate John McCants’ relatives for leads. Since you know he was likely born in Louisiana and lived in Texas at least from 1900 forward, search the 1880 census in both of these locations to see if you can find a likely match. Searching the 1880 census for the surname “McCant/McCants” among those who were black and living in Louisiana brings up three family units all residing in East Feliciana, La.

None of these households includes a John, but many of the young people in the households are close in age to what we know about John. Your next step would be to trace the individuals in these households forward in time to see if you can locate any connection to your John H. McCants.

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Looking Forward, the Trail Cools 

As you noted, the family is difficult to locate in 1920. We tried a variety of search terms, including just using the children’s first names and ages in Cherokee and Anderson counties, but still could not locate them. It is possible that if both of the parents were deceased, they could have been living with family members and recorded under a different surname. You may also try searching for the neighbors they were living near in 1910 and then browsing the original records for families near them in 1920 to see if you get any matches for your ancestors that could have been transcribed incorrectly.

Some of the McCants children reappear in 1930 residing in Precinct 4, Anderson, Texas. This record includes your great-grandmother Sammie McCants and her sister Mattie, residing in the household of their sister, “Izola” (is this Izora?), and her husband, Sers Johnson. One thing we noted was that all of the women claimed that their father was born in Louisiana, which would match the information that John provided about himself.

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Good luck in your continued search!


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, 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.