Tracing Your Roots: Is My Family’s Big Secret Presidential?

 U.S. President Andrew Jackson in 1845, months before his death (Edward Anthony, Matthew Brady/Wikimedia Commons)
U.S. President Andrew Jackson in 1845, months before his death (Edward Anthony, Matthew Brady/Wikimedia Commons)

A reader wonders if she could be related to Andrew Jackson through one of his slaves.


Dear Professor Gates:

The story goes that my great-grandmother Laura Emily Jackson shouted to her only daughter, “I found my family. I found my family!” That night my grandmother went downstairs and found her mother burning all the family records, photos, Bibles and more. She told my grandmother that it would be best if the past never came back.

Laura Emily Jackson was born Jan. 4, 1881. She died when my grandmother was between the ages of 12 and 14. Her father was William Sheetz Jackson, born Aug. 7, 1857, in Minnesota. His father’s name was James Jackson, born circa 1823, and we think his wife had a possible first or last name of Snyder. 

The rumor is that we are related to President Andrew Jackson, but since he had no living children, I think it would be through a slave line. My grandmother swears it isn’t true. Am I related to Andrew Jackson? —Heidi Wimmer

We receive questions like yours more often than you might think, despite the fact that Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) had no known biological children. The nation’s seventh president was born in the Waxhaws region on the border of North and South Carolina. As we noted in a previous column, “Am I Related to President Andrew Jackson?” he did adopt or have guardianship over several children, including his wife’s nephew, named Andrew Jackson Jr. (1808-1865), and a Native American boy named Lyncoya (circa 1811-1828), a Creek orphan he purportedly rescued during the brutal Indian Wars that he led. You can read more about the people in his life on the website for his Tennessee plantation, the Hermitage (pdf).

President Jackson was also a slaveholder, and according to historian Mark Cheathem, his estate listed 161 slaves, divided between the Hermitage and Halcyon, the Coahoma County, Miss., plantation that he co-owned with Andrew Jackson Jr. You can view a list online naming his slaves at the Hermitage (pdf) and contact the plantation for more information about them.


Is There a Tennessee Connection? 

Taking the latter lead and turning to your question, we searched for individuals with the surname “Jackson” born in Tennessee and residing in Minnesota between the years 1800 and 1880. There were a number of returns, even one for a William Jackson born about 1855 in Tennessee and residing in the household of E.P. Whiting in 1870. He is also the only one by the name of William Jackson and born in Tennessee between 1854 and 1857 who is recorded in the U.S. census between the years 1860 and 1900. If he were your William Jackson, you would want to determine which of the 32 William Jacksons recorded living in Tennessee in the 1860 census is the right person.


However, this may all be moot because your William Sheetz Jackson, though of similar age, was born in Minnesota. Before you go too far down the path of Tennessee connections, try to work from your known ancestor backward to see if this is even a possibility.

Tracing Your Known Relatives Backward

The article for William Sheetz Jackson on Find a Grave suggests that he was born Aug. 17, 1860, at St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minn., and died May 21, 1914, at Oakland, Alameda County, Calif. The article also claims that his daughter, Hazel Jackson, said that his middle name, Sheetz, was an old family name. This is a clue that you’ll want to keep in mind moving backward.


The article also includes a link to his known relatives, including his wife, Hannah Kaye (Murray) Jackson (who it says died in a mental hospital), and your Laura Emily Jackson. Keep in mind that information on Find a Grave does not have to have citations and can be contributed by anyone, so it is not always completely correct; but it can be a good starting point for research.

Since you know William Sheetz Jackson’s death date, the next step you will want to take is to order his death record. The California Death Index says that William S. Jackson’s death record is certificate No. 13831 at Alameda, Calif. You can order an original from the California Department of Public Health. The original record may include information about his parents and his birth that could assist you in working backward in time.


In the meantime, we found more information about William and his relatives that may help. The family was residing in Precinct 17, Hyde Park, Chicago, in 1900. This federal census record states that William S. Jackson was born in Minnesota in August 1856 and that both of his parents were born in Pennsylvania. It also tells you that William and Hannah were married about 1881 and that Hannah was born in Illinois in June 1860.

Her father was born in Scotland, and her mother in England. Their eldest daughter, your Laura Jackson, was born in Minnesota in January 1882. The couple had two children recorded in Chicago: Harry Ulysses Jackson, on April 30, 1896; and Hazel Alice Jackson, on April 15, 1899. This tells you that the couple had moved to Chicago by at least 1896.


William S. Jackson and Hannah Murray were married in Ramsey, Minn., on Sept. 15, 1880. Using a location listed in the marriage record, we located him residing in Ramsey that same year as a single man working as a “car sealer.” He was a boarder in an apartment of David McAllister’s household. According to this record, William was born in Minnesota, and both of his parents were born in “U.S.”

So all the records for William Sheetz Jackson suggest that he was born in Minnesota around 1856. We searched a census taken of Minnesota in 1857 for any Jacksons born between 1855 and 1857 and located a William Jackson, age 1 year, residing in the household of John A. Jackson, who was born in Virginia about 1824. John’s wife was Rebecca, born in England about 1827, and they had two other children, both born in Pennsylvania: Henry, age 5, and Rebecca, age 3.


The information you had about your family indicated that William S. Jackson’s father was James Jackson, born about 1823. John A. Jackson is the right age, and it seems possible that over the generations, his name was conflated for James instead of John. To see if this is a possibility, you could search for more information about the family members. Note, however, that we have not yet found a connection to Tennessee, or even one to Mississippi or the Carolinas.

We were unable to pinpoint your William in the 1860 or 1870 census records in Minnesota, but there are a number of possible people of the same name that you could investigate. If you can trace any of these Williams forward to a time when you can account for your own William S. Jackson, you will know that he cannot be yours and you can eliminate him.


Another strategy would be to try to locate the Sheetz family from whom William Sheetz Jackson got his name. A search for the surname “Sheetz” and variations of it in census records in Minnesota between 1857 and 1880 returns many results. You could see if any of these families are living close to one of the Jackson families we identified who might suggest a connection that could help you work backward.

So What Was That Family Secret? 

All of that being said, we did not locate anything in the records for William S. Jackson to suggest that he was related to President Andrew Jackson. You mentioned the possibility of being related through one of Jackson’s slaves. None of the records for your William S. Jackson or his family suggested a connection to the people listed as Andrew Jackson’s slaves or, for that matter, describe him as being anything other than white (and therefore free), though it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that he was regarded as being white even if he had a mixed-race background. In order to determine if you are connected to one of Andrew Jackson’s slaves, you will want to investigate them further while you also work backward on your own family tree to see if you can locate a connection.


We also suggest that you take an autosomal DNA test to determine your admixture of African ancestry, if you have not already. These tests are available through companies such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and If the ethnicity in question entered the family tree more than six generations ago, it’s possible that the DNA test won’t show it, but on the other hand, you might find confirmation of what you suspect.

Finally, you may want to look into where your great-grandmother Laura’s mother, Hannah, died, and how she arrived there. If the account of her death in a mental hospital checks out, it could provide leads to other possible reasons that Laura would want to forget the past.


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.


Michael King

Many of us who have done some searching have found that we may have some ancestors that we may be less than proud of — for many reasons.

Case-in-point: my dad’s grandfather was the son of the slave and plantation owner in Ironton, Louisiana. When tracing his ancestry, my sister, my aunt and I discovered that among our likely ancestors are the former governor of the Louisiana Purchase (who was later charged with treason) and a Revolutionary War hero who jumped sides from England to join the American Revolution.

When I was a kid, my mom’s grandmother used to tell me a story about one of our ancestors who was actually a Confederate officer. And another cousin has published a book detailing our family tree linking that branch directly to Chief Tuskaloosa of the historic Mississippian Indians.

Overall, our history is rich with detail that strengthens the fabric of our lives and culture. I would hope that despite the occasional warts we come across, we can learn to love the stories of our lives and use them to educate ourselves and our progeny.

Thank you, Dr. Gates; your example certainly provides me a path to follow daily.