Tracing Your Roots: Our Family Matriarch Was a White Indentured Servant

1810 census record for Elizabeth Hawkins Donathan (U.S. Census Bureau)
1810 census record for Elizabeth Hawkins Donathan (U.S. Census Bureau)

Untangling the origins of Virginian ancestors whose lives crossed boundaries of race, freedom and the law.


Dear Professor Gates:

I am a descendant of Catherine Donathan, who was a white servant to Robert Bristow of Virginia. She had a relationship with a black slave from another plantation. She had a child, William. She has been written about in a book, possibly by Paul Heinregg.

Family history says Catherine was Scotch-Irish and may have been an orphan or an indentured servant [and] met her mate on a neighboring plantation. Their descendants eventually moved to the Carolinas. I am very much interested in finding out the origins of Catherine and paths that she and William took. —Christine Helsel 

Christine, you are in luck! As you alluded to in your question, Paul Heinregg did include information about Catherine Donathan and her children in his two-volume book, Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware. This award-winning work painstakingly reviewed Colonial court orders, deeds, probate records, tax lists, military records and other archived documents in an effort to compile family histories of people counted as “all other free persons” in the 1790 and 1800 censuses. Because the history of each family included in the work is well-documented and cited, it was a great jumping-off point for your research on the Donovan family, both in Virginia and North Carolina.

Breaking—and Making—Bonds 

According to Heinregg, Catherine Donathan was born about 1685. She was the white servant of Maj. Robert Bristow, who was presented at court for having a “bastard Child born of her body begotten by a negroe man” in Lancaster County, Va., on March 10, 1703, or 1704. This child was most likely William Donathan, who was cited as being born Feb. 28, 1704.


It was a common beginning for a free black family, since “most [free African American] families were the descendants of white servant women who had children by slaves. Over one thousand children were born to white women by slaves in Maryland and Virginia during the colonial period,” according to Heinregg.

From here, he provides a very detailed summary of William Donathan’s adult life in Virginia, beginning with his petition to the Spotsylvania [Va.] County Court in which he sues for his freedom from John Grayson, claiming that he is over 30 years old. (Grayson convinced the court that William would not be 31 until Feb. 28, 1735.)


The quibbling over William’s age illustrates a common scenario for the children of white women and black men at the time. According to Terri Snyder’s article “Women, Race, and the Law in Early America,” by the early 18th century in Virginia, “mixed-race offspring of white women and men of color were sentenced to thirty years of service; similarly, the out-of-wedlock offspring of free women of color who had been servants in Virginia, for instance, were often bound over for similarly lengthy terms of service, typically thirty to thirty-one years.” For additional context on the Colonial-era codes that racialized liberties and proscribed interracial interactions in Virginia, read the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham’s 1978 article in the Washington Post: “Virginia Led the Way in Legal Oppression.”

Apparently, William’s struggles for freedom may not have deterred him from keeping others in bondage during his later years. Heinregg reports, “He was taxable in Henry County on slaves Rose and Nance from 1782 to 1784.” As Professor Gates previously examined in the article “Did Black People Own Slaves?” there were free people of color who enslaved others. He noted:

Historians have been arguing for some time over whether free blacks purchased family members as slaves in order to protect them—motivated, on the one hand, by benevolence and philanthropy, as historian Carter G. Woodson put it, or whether, on the other hand, they purchased other black people “as an act of exploitation,” primarily to exploit their free labor for profit, just as white slave owners did. The evidence shows that, unfortunately, both things are true.


Heinregg’s history of the Donathan family indicates that a son, also named William, was recorded in 1790 as a white male over the age of 16 heading a household that had four slaves. We don’t know if the relationships were for protection or exploitation, but perhaps, through further searches of probate documents or other records listing property (which, sadly, was sometimes human), you will learn the answers.

A Pattern of Illicit Love 

Several documents located by Heinregg provided some insight into the possible identity of William’s wife: those from a court case from 1742 in Orange County, Va., where William was presented for “committing fornication” with Elizabeth Hawkins (the case was dismissed after they “had run away”); and deeds filed in Halifax County, Va., on Feb. 17, 1780, and Feb. 21, 1782.


These documents tell us that William Donathan was intimate with a woman named Elizabeth Hawkins not long before the time of his children’s estimated births. Additionally, we know that William was later listed as being married to a woman named “Betty,” a very common nickname for Elizabeth. Therefore, it is possible that Elizabeth Hawkins was the wife of William Donathan as well as the mother of his children.

To learn more about Elizabeth Hawkins’ possible ancestry, we re-examined Free African Americans for other Hawkins family members. Unfortunately, the compilation does not include an Elizabeth Hawkins of the proper age; however, Heinregg was able to identify several free African Americans with the surname Hawkins living in Halifax County. Given the timeline and the closeness in geography, Elizabeth may have been a sister or a cousin of these early Hawkins families, so you will want to do further research into them.


We also noted that Heinregg listed William’s children as William, Sarah (born circa 1750), Elijah, Nelson, Benjamin (born circa 1765), Reuben and Jacob, the last one being one of your ancestors, as you told us. The children were variously identified as free colored or white in records.

Knowing their identities allowed us to look forward in time at the 1810 census record for William’s son Jacob, which Heinregg also mentioned. It showed Jacob as the head of a Surry County, N.C., household of four “other free” people in 1810. We searched for other Donathans living in that town and found a record for an “Elizebeth Donathan,” who was a white female over the age of 45. Was she Jacob’s mother, living nearby?


It’s worth noting that the family listed above Elizabeth in the census, headed by Benjamin Nichols, is a 10-member family and (probably) a free black household, since they are identified by the category “All other persons except Indians not taxed,” which was used in that census enumeration for anyone who was not white or enslaved.

To confirm the identity of Elizabeth (or Betty), you should examine all of the records available for William’s children; specifically, records that will identify the names of their parents: vital records, church records, pension files (did one or more of these children participate in the American Revolution?), obituaries and county histories.


Back to Where It All Began 

Meanwhile, you have additional avenues of research to learn more about the Donathan-family matriarch, Catherine. Because we have evidence from Free African Americans that John Grayson was the last man to own William Donathan, it is possible that Robert Bristow sold William (and maybe Catherine) to the Grayson family.


Therefore, to look further at the relationship between Catherine Donathan and her son William, we recommend examining microfilm held at the Library of Virginia (and available by interlibrary loan), Robert Bristow Records, 1688-1750. According to the catalog entry, the collection includes letter books describing the Bristows’ activity in Virginia trade (including instructions to the managers of their plantations), and letters concerning the shipment of tobacco, various financial transactions and clothing for plantation slaves. Perhaps, among all the letters and ledgers, the fate of Catherine and her son, William Donathan, is described in greater detail.

Good luck!

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 Lindsay Fulton, director of research services for 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.


Vulcan Has No Moon

This is a really interesting and wonderful series. Thank you.