Tracing Your Roots: My Ancestor Was in Her Half Sister’s Dowry

This daguerreotype shows a New Orleans woman with her slave in the mid-19th century.
This daguerreotype shows a New Orleans woman with her slave in the mid-19th century.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Families intertwine and seemingly pass back and forth over the color line, complicating efforts to trace their origins.


Dear Professor Gates:

I would like to know more about my great-great-great-grandmother Melinda Day (1824-1890), who was born into slavery and became part of the dowry of her half sister Susannah Whittington from Georgia. One of Melinda’s sons was my great-great-grandfather Andrew Causey.

My family’s connection to the Causey name all started with William Causey (1744-1828), who was from Grants Causeway, Ireland. He came to America, married, purchased slaves, and those slaves produced children while living on the Causey Springs Plantation in Berwick, Miss. When William Causey passed, he bequeathed his slaves to his white children. One in particular was July Causey (a slave), born around 1808. July was given to William’s son William “Billy” Causey Jr., who relocated to the Causey Estate in Wilkerson or Franklin County, Miss., and married Melinda Day’s half sister Susannah Whittington from Georgia.

How can I learn more about Melinda? —Rachelle Shannon

One of the techniques we used to trace your ancestor Melinda Day is known as “cluster genealogy” research, based on the idea that people live in clusters of relatives, friends and associates; therefore, to research them, one should also look at the people in their cluster. The twist for African-American research is that slave owners can be a crucial part of the cluster because they have more-complete antebellum documentation than the people they enslaved (who, for instance, were recorded in census records as property and not named). However, looking at the people around Melinda after slavery also bore fruit.

Does a “Son” With a Different Surname Hold the Key to Tracing Melinda?

While the information you supplied in your question moves forward in time, we decided to work our way backward to find out more about Melinda Day.


In 1880 we found her residing in Morehouse, La., with her son, Andrew Causey, according to federal census records. Melinda was recorded as a widow, born about 1825 in Mississippi. It also states that Andrew Causey was born about 1861 at Louisiana.

The household also includes another man recorded as Melinda’s son, named Frederick A. Jenkins, who was born about 1857 at Louisiana. If this is correct, it would mean that Melinda was living in Louisiana by 1857. The family was not living near any others with the Causey, Jenkins or Day surname. This means that there is not an obvious connection to any neighbors, but you may want to make note of them anyway for additional research leads.


In 1870, Melinda was residing in Morehouse with four children, all with the surname Day (transcribed incorrectly in this database as “Pay”). Andy was the youngest at 10 years old and is very likely your Andrew Causey. The other children were James, born about 1852 in Mississippi; Henry, born about 1853, also in Mississippi; and Adeline, born about 1854 in Louisiana. This pins down the time when Melinda moved to Louisiana as between 1853 and 1854.

In 1870, Melinda’s household was directly next to those of Benjamin Causey and Baylum Causey, both black families, as well as the households of Oliver Causey and John Causey, recorded on the previous page, who were all white. We did note that living close to John Causey was a white man named Wright Jenkins.


We searched for Frederick Jenkins in 1870, since he was not in the household of Melinda Day, and noted two teens born in Louisiana between 1855 and 1857 with the name Fred Jenkins. Interestingly, one was residing at Ward 10, Morehouse County, which is a location ward where Melinda Day was residing that same year.

This Fred Jenkins was identified as white, living in a white household. The head of household and wife were named George and Julia Jenkins, respectively. We noted that everyone on the page is listed as having a father of foreign birth, which may have been a mistake by the enumerator in that such an occurrence was rare. The interesting thing about this Fred Jenkins is that he was recorded just six pages away from Melinda Day, meaning that they likely lived close to each other.


The other, “Frederik Jenkins,” was residing at the 12th Ward, Parish of West Feliciana, in the household of Athy Jenkins, and the race of both of them was recorded as black. This is not a location associated with your family, though you may want to investigate both teens to see which one is the Frederick Jenkins who was recorded as a son of Melinda Day in 1880.

We worked to trace the family of George and Julia Jenkins forward to see if we could determine a connection to your Melinda Day, and interestingly, located them residing at Ward 10, Morehouse, La., in 1880 with several children, and the race of the entire family was recorded as black.


We know this is the same family based on the names and ages of two of his children, Amanda and Jackson “Jack,” in the household. The difference in recorded race could be simply a reflection of the complexion of the person who reported the household information to the enumerator (perceived as white), or it could be that they were a mixed-race family passing as white at that time.

Fred or Frederick was not recorded in their household this year, meaning that he very well could be the same Frederick Jenkins who was recorded in Melinda Day’s household just four pages away.


How Exactly Was Melinda Related to the Jenkins Family? 

Also notable is that George Jenkins was residing directly next to the household of James Day, born about 1852 at Mississippi, whose race was also recorded as black. We also located a marriage record for George Jenkins and Julia Day at Morehouse County, La., on Oct. 7, 1870 (via; subscription required), which means that Melinda may be related to Julia (Day) Jenkins.


We also noted that there is a 15-year age difference between George Jenkins and Julia (Day) Jenkins in the 1870 U.S. census, that even her age in the 1880 census (which varies from the 1870 record and shrinks the gap to a five-year difference) would still make her very young to be the mother of the older children in the household, and that there is a seven-year gap between Jackson Jenkins and William Jenkins, whose birth occurred after the marriage of Julia Day and George Jenkins.

This all suggests that George Jenkins’ eldest children may have had a different mother from Julia, perhaps Melinda Day—if the 1880 census is accurate that Frederick Jenkins was her son. Investigate George Jenkins further to see if you can determine the nature of his relationship with Melinda Day.


Have We Found Melinda’s Slave Owner? 

Based on the ages of Melinda Day’s children, if she was free, we would expect that she should be in Louisiana during the enumeration of the 1860 U.S. census. We could not locate her on the 1860 census, suggesting that she was still enslaved at that time. We therefore turned to the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules, which only list the owners by name.


One entry you may want to note is that of an O.P. Causey, who was recorded in Morehouse with 10 slaves in his household. The eldest was a woman who was born about 1820, which could be a close match to your Melinda Day (remember that ages can vary across census records).

The reason we noted this is that in 1870, Melinda Day was residing very close to Oliver Causey at Morehouse. O.P. Causey was the only slave owner with that surname in Morehouse County in 1860. Based on the information about Oliver in the 1860 U.S. census, Oliver was born about 1830 in Mississippi.


From data collected on family trees on, it appears that William Causey (1744-1828) resided and died in Amite County, Miss. His son William “Billy” Causey married Susannah Whittington.

We noted that Oliver Perry Causey had land patents in Amite and Franklin counties in Mississippi, all dated Sept. 1, 1851. He also received a land patent in Caldwell County, La., on July 1, 1859, and one in Morehouse, La., on May 10, 1861. It seems very likely that he was the Oliver H.P. Causey who received land patents from William Causey in Caldwell County in 1858 and 1860, suggesting that Oliver P. Causey was a son of the William Causey who married Susannah Whittington.


Since you know that Oliver Causey owned slaves and that you have a connection to this white Causey family, you may want to investigate Oliver Causey further to see if records for him mention Melinda Day.

You may also want to explore possible reasons why Melinda had the Day surname. You know the slave-owning Causey family resided in Amite County, Miss., and we noted a Jonathan Day of Amite County who owned 112 slaves in 1860. The next slave owner recorded on the slave schedule was Samuel Day, and directly after him were those enslaved by Willie Whittington.


This suggests a connection between the Whittington and Day families, which may explain how Melinda came to have the surname Day. You could search for land and probate records for Jonathan Day to determine if Melinda is connected to this family.

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.