Tracing Your Roots: How Did My Black Ancestor Come to Own Land?

Man leading oxcart with cotton to cotton gin in South Carolina (J.A. Palmer, circa 1870/New York Public Library)
Man leading oxcart with cotton to cotton gin in South Carolina (J.A. Palmer, circa 1870/New York Public Library)

Finding out how a great-grandfather came to own 300 acres of land in post-Civil War South Carolina.


Dear Professor Gates:

It is a mystery to me how and when my great-grandfather Peter Golphin obtained his wealth and holdings. He was born about 1858 in Barnwell, S.C. Somehow he obtained 300 acres of land.

I have not been able to find documentation of where and how he obtained this many acres of land during that era. As a young man, he lived on the property of William Green (who was white) and his family in Barnwell. Green’s occupation was listed as farmer. This information was obtained from the 1880 census. I have no information that my great-grandfather received the land from Green or that Green was a former slave owner, but I wonder about the connection.

I also obtained information from the South Carolina Archives on Peter Golphin showing that upon his death on Jan. 12, 1896, he had considerable holdings of property, equipment and miscellaneous items. He died with no will, and his wife (Nellie Ashley Golphin) filed documents in probate court in Barnwell to be the administrator of his estate. It took her about three years to complete the process, but she eventually succeeded. All of his items were appraised for their value and sold per the appraised value established, outstanding debts to be paid and so forth. I have no information about where he is buried. —Mildred Walker Jones

While searching records for Barnwell, S.C., we picked up a promising trail of research that may extend back into the late 18th century and include free people of color. First, how we got there:

Searching Local Property Deeds With a Twist 

Your ancestor Peter Golphin would have acquired his land during an era in which Barnwell was transitioning from a booming slave-dependent cotton trade into an economy dominated by food crops. As the South Carolina Encyclopedia describes:

[B]y 1850 only neighboring Edgefield District produced more cotton than Barnwell. Cotton wealth led to a concomitant rise in the district’s slave population. Although whites comprised almost eighty percent of the Barnwell population in 1800, they had become a minority by 1850. The district’s wealth of waterways, including the Savannah, Edisto, and Salkehatchie Rivers and their many tributaries, were significant sources of timber and lumber for lowcountry markets. The completion of a railroad from Charleston to Hamburg through Barnwell District in 1833 spurred additional development, transforming quiet villages and turnouts into bustling centers of local trade. …

Federal troops destroyed most of the businesses in Barnwell County in February 1865. After the Civil War, Barnwell farmers continued to produce cotton. But as prices declined, many turned to truck farming, especially asparagus and melons. In 1880 a new railroad connected Blackville and Barnwell.


There are two options for how Peter Golphin could have acquired his land: 1) He received it in a bequeath from an estate, in which case you will need to identify the person who may have given it to him and examine his or her probate record. 2) He may have purchased it or had it gifted to him through a deed.

As we looked into the latter scenario, we checked to see if he was recorded as a grantee in a county deed index. The digitally available Barnwell County deeds index extends through 1884 and is only a direct index (meaning that it is organized only by grantor, the person selling the land). We assumed that if Peter Golphin purchased the property before 1884, it would be recorded in these records. If not, there could still be some clues to gather just by an examination of this index, since it provides an idea of who owned land in the county.


The direct index for Barnwell County is a subindex, meaning that it is arranged alphabetically but organized into sections based on the first two letters of the name. We checked the beginning of the G’s in the index, and on this first page we noted the name Galphin as a variation of Golphin (one contained in some of the documents that you sent us). The page for “Go-” names did not include the name Golphin, which means that the Galphin variation should be considered in all record searches.

The direct index for the name Galphin includes several records for Thomas Galphin in the early 1800s as well as some for George Galphin. There were no obvious connections to your Peter Golphin that we could discern from the information in the index, but there are a number of records that are described as slave sales and emancipations. We also examined the page for “Green” to see if the William Green with whom Peter was living in 1880 sold land to Peter, but it does not look as if anyone with the Green name listed in the index ever transferred land to a Golphin. Unfortunately, the index does not include a reverse index, which would go by grantee, so there was no easy way to search for whether Peter Golphin received land.


A Revealing Find Opens Up New Possibilities 

At the end of the Galphins recorded in the index, we saw a deed from a William Galphin to the Methodist Episcopal Church (colored) on Dec. 8, 1879, for $1 on the 1A. Alfred Floyd Tract. Such a small selling price suggests that this is a gift to the church, suggesting a close relationship to it. The digitized records extend only to 1851, so we were unable to examine this document, but you could request a copy from the county court, which has the original records. It is possible that the county court may have a reverse index that would make it easier to search for Peter as a grantee buying land. Try calling the Barnwell County Courthouse, specifically the register of deeds, to see if they have any land records for Peter.


Because the index tells you that a William Galphin/Golphin sold land to the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1879, we checked to see if he was living in the county during the enumeration of the 1880 U.S. census. You noted that your ancestor Peter Golphin was residing in Richland, Barnwell, S.C., in 1880, recorded in the same household as William Green (dwelling No. 151). If you examine the very next page, dwelling No. 155 shows a William Golphin, born about 1838, recorded as mulatto! Perhaps this is the same William Golphin who sold the land to the church. Because he is in close proximity to your Peter Golphin, we suggest that you investigate him further to see if you can establish a connection between them.

Tracing this William Golphin forward reveals that in 1900 he owned his own property in Barnwell. Working backward, this William is the right age to be the son of George Galphin, who was recorded as mulatto in the 1850 census. We noted that this household also had a Milledge Galphin recorded in it. “Milledge” happens to be a surname that the white slave-owning Thomas Galphin in the deed index exchanged property with many times, suggesting that he was closely related to the Milledge family.


In summary, it seems a strong possibility that your Peter Golphin is related to or associated with William Galphin, and therefore may also be associated with the Galphin family in Barnwell County. The fact that family members were recorded in the 1850 census means that they were free prior to the end of slavery. Perhaps your Peter Galphin was born free if he is a descendant of this family.

Slave-Owner Records Contain Leads Extending Back to 1791 

Meanwhile, we suggest researching the slave-owning family who bore the surname Golphin/Galphin. We looked at deeds for Thomas Galphin that dealt with slaves or emancipations. While no one named Peter appeared in any of these records, you may want to follow up and record the names that do appear, in case you find them in records related to your Peter Golphin. In 1803 Thomas Galphin sold a woman named Minervy and her children, a boy named Ketch and a girl named Carlinda, to Barbara Holmes. In 1791 Thomas Galphin freed a girl named Judy, who at the time was about 10 years old and was the daughter of a slave named Hannah. Thomas notes that the girl was in the possession of George Galphin at the time of her emancipation. Thomas Golphin sold a slave named Jacob in 1818 to Zedakiah Churoy.


These records all occurred before the birth of your Peter Golphin, but there is always the possibility that they are records for his ancestors. This also gives you more names of potential former slave owners to investigate. Your best option will be tracking down the deeds and performing cluster research on all the individuals bearing the Galphin/Golphin name in Barnwell County.

We hope that this information helps you solve the mystery!

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.


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