Tracing Your Roots: The Black Side of My Family Is a Mystery!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Senior Researcher Meaghan E.H. Siekman

A biracial woman yearns to know more about her African-American ancestors, about whom she has little information. It’s a good thing we found a lot of it.

Dear Professor Gates:

I am a 39-year-old biracial woman who was born in North Carolina. My father, George Newton Watson (Newton Watson Jr. on his birth certificate), was African American, and I would like to learn more about his side of the family. Unfortunately, my parents are no longer living and my father’s brothers are all deceased. My mother supplied a wealth of information about her family, which I have been able to easily trace because they were so well-documented in historical records. However, my father was reluctant to give me information and seemed uncomfortable giving me what family history he did. 


My father was born Oct. 1, 1935, not in a hospital. The township was known as Terra Cotta then and has now been absorbed into the city of Greensboro, N.C. His father was Newton Watson, born in Siler City, N.C., and he may have had Lumbee heritage. His father’s mother’s name was Henrietta Cabbiness or Caveiness, also born in North Carolina. I was told by an uncle that Henrietta was married to Newton’s father, but something happened and later she married his brother John Watson, but I don’t know if that’s true. 

My father’s mother was Lucille Pressley, born in 1916 in Seneca, S.C. She married Newton Sr. at the age of 16. Grandmother Lucille always said that her mother was Native American and her father was a black man named George. The only uncle she spoke of was named Joe, who had been a slave in South Carolina. She had two sisters and one brother of whom I knew. The family originated in South Carolina before emancipation, I am told. 

Can you help me learn more about my father’s kin, such as the identity of Newton Sr.’s father and the parents of Lucille? —Brenda W.

You are in luck! It turns out that your father’s side of the family was well-documented as well, at least as far back as the late 19th century.


One Family Legend Is Proved True 

Your grandfather George Watson was living with his parents, Newton (recorded as Neute) and Lucille, in Morehead, Guilford, N.C., in 1940. According to Newton Watson’s death certificate, he died June 1, 1969, in Greensboro, Guilford, N.C., and he was born April 6, 1904, in North Carolina. It says that Newton’s parents were Sam Watson and Henrietta “Caviness” and his spouse was Lucille Watson. This record provides direct evidence that you were given the correct name for Newton’s mother, and also supplies the name of his father.


We then searched for a marriage between Henrietta and Sam Watson and located a record for their marriage at Hickory Mountain, Chatham, N.C., on March 5, 1901, with her surname spelled “Caverness.” The record states that Sam’s parents’ names were Demps Watson and Caroline Watson. The original of this record (through; subscription required) includes even more information about the family, including that Demps Watson was deceased at the time of his son’s marriage and Caroline Watson was still living. The record does not include the names of Henrietta Caverness’ parents but does state that Robert Alston, Henrietta’s father-in-law, gave consent for the marriage. It does say that Henrietta’s father was dead and her mother was still living, so perhaps Robert Alston was her guardian at the time of her marriage.

Interestingly enough, we also located a marriage record for Henrietta “Caveness” Watson and John Watson in Danville County, Va., on March 21, 1945. You mentioned that according to family lore, Henrietta first married your grandfather’s father, Sam Watson, and then married Sam’s brother John Watson. The record we found states that Henrietta was 58 years old, placing her birth about 1887, which would make her old enough to be the mother of your grandfather Newton Watson. She was born in Chatham County, N.C., and her parents were Henry Caveness and Maria Crutchfield.


She had previously been married but was divorced. At the time of this marriage, she was residing in Leaksville, N.C. John Watson was a 60-year-old bricklayer, also born in Chatham County, and his parents were Demps Watson and Caroline (last name unknown). The names all align with the scenario you were given! Furthermore, the death record for Henrietta Cabeness Watson confirms that her parents were Henry Cabaness and Rina Crutchfield. The record states that Henrietta died Nov. 11, 1968, at Eden, Rockingham, N.C., and that she was borm Nov. 24, 1885, in North Carolina. At the time of her death, she was a widow.

A death record for John Watson on May 19, 1956, at Leaksville, Rockingham, N.C., confirms that he predeceased Henrietta. The record states that he was born in 1884 and his mother was Caroline Watson, but his father’s name was not known.


In 1930, Henrietta Watson was residing in a household with John Watson in Leaksville, Rockingham, N.C., with several children recorded with them, but your Newton Watson is not living with them. He could have been old enough to have his own household by this date or he could have been with his father.

Searching for an earlier record, we noted Newton (recorded here as Nuten) in a household with his mother, Henrietta Watson, as the head of household in Hickory Mountain, Chatham, N.C., in 1920. This record states that Henrietta was a “widow,” though that does not mean necessarily mean that Sam had died.


As genealogist Judy G. Russell explains in her Legal Genealogist blog, in 19th- and 20th-century records, this term was used not only to identify people whose spouses had died but also as a euphemism for those who had experienced divorce or marital separation. You’ll want to do more research on Sam to find out his fate between the time he married Henrietta and when John married her.

Going back another decade, we located Henrietta Watson and her children, Arthor, Newton and Riley, in the household of her brother-in-law Tillet Watson in Hickory Mountain, Chatham, N.C., in 1910. Tillet Watson’s mother, Caroline (Newton’s grandmother), was also residing in the household.


With the information of Caroline Watson’s age, we were able to locate her living in Hickory Mountain in 1880 with six children in the household of Henderson Alston. Included among her children are a Samuel, born about 1876, who is a good fit to be the father of Newton Watson; and a John, born about 1880.

Researching the other siblings recorded in this record may help you learn more about Sam and John’s parents. You will also want to investigate the Alston family further, since you know that Caroline Watson was residing in the household of Henderson Alston and that Robert Alston was recorded as the father-in-law of Henrietta Caveness. This suggests a close relationship with the Altson family, and records for them may help you track down more information about the Watson-Caveness family.


We tried to locate more information about Henrietta’s parents. One trick when using search engines is to just include the parents’ names in a search to see what other siblings you may be able to locate. By this method, we located a death record for Newton “Cabiness” on April 11, 1959, at Sanford, Lee, N.C. The record states that his parents were Henry Cabiness and Riney Crutchfield and that he was born in 1884. We noted this record because Henrietta almost certainly named your grandfather Newton after her brother.

Henrietta’s parents, Henry “Caviness” and Rina Crutchfield, were married Nov. 11, 1878, at Chatham, N.C., when they were both 22 years old, placing their births about 1856. We located the couple in the 1880 census residing in Hadley, Chatham, N.C., with Henry recorded as mulatto. They had one child, Willie (age 1), in their household.


On the same page, several Crutchfield families were recorded, as well as an Albert Caveness, a 35-year-old white man who was just two households away from your Caveness family. It seems likely that your Caveness-Crutchfield family has a close connection with these individuals, and further research into them may help you bring the line back even further.

Another Family Legend Is Left in Doubt 

Moving to your maternal grandmother’s side of the family: You can begin to learn more about Lucille Pressley by examining her death record. Lucille P. Watson died at Greensboro, Guilford, N.C., on Jan. 14, 1990. The index states that she was born June 9, 1918, in Seneca, S.C., and that her parents were George Pressley and Mary Walker.


Seneca is in Oconee County, and since Lucille was born close to 1920, we searched for a George Pressley residing in Oconee County. We located a George Presley in Oconee County with a wife named Mary and nine children in the household. While the transcription of the record does not include a Lucille, examining the original record suggests that the transcribed “Susy,” age 3, could very well be “Lucy,” and she matches the age of your Lucille.

In 1910, George and Mary Pressley were living in Center, Oconee, S.C., with three children: James (age 5), Hannah (age 2) and Hepsy (age 1). Noting all of Lucille’s siblings helped us prove that these are records for her family. We applied the same method of searching for just the parents’ names in a search, and it returned a number of death records for Lucille’s siblings that record their parents as George Presley and Mary Walker. The names and ages of these individuals (Hepsley, born 1908; James, born 1904; Lee, born 1911; Hannah, born 1901; and George Jr., born 1919) all match the names in the census records we located. These siblings also all died in Guilford, N.C., suggesting that they all made the move from South Carolina to North Carolina together.


To address your family oral history identifying Lucille’s mother as Native American, we should note here that all the census records we found so far for Mary identify her as black. As Professor Gates noted in a previous column, many African-American families pass down lore of Native American ancestors, but “according to geneticists Joanna Mountain and Kasia Bryc at 23andMe: The average African American is 73 percent sub-Saharan, 24 percent European and only 0.7 percent Native American.” More often than not, the mythical Native American ancestry is actually European, and the circumstances by which it often entered black family trees—by European subjugation—were a painful legacy.

If you re-examine what we have revealed about the Caviness family on your father’s paternal line, the rumored Lumbee heritage could have been European, too. Taking an autosomal DNA test could help resolve the matter by telling you the percentage of Native American ancestry in your DNA. Companies such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA provide them.


A death record for a sibling who died in infancy provides a bit more detail about the origins of George Presley and Mary Walker. I.V. Presley died at Center, Oconee, S.C., on July 17, 1915, at only 10 months of age. The record states that his father, George Presley, was born in Anderson County, S.C., and his mother, Mary Walker, was born in Oconee County, S.C. The informant on the death was George Presley, so you can assume that he provided correct information about his origins.

The death certificate for George Presley at Greensboro, Guilford, N.C., on Jan. 5, 1959, records his birthplace in South Carolina and his father’s name as Lee Presley, but his mother’s name is unknown. His wife was recorded as Mary Presley, and the original record states that Clifton Presley at his same address of 4407 Swift St. was the informant. The death certificate for Mary (Walker) Pressley at Pomona, Guilford, N.C., records that she was born April 1, 1884, at Seneca, S.C., and her parents were Dover Walker and Hepsie Hillhouse.


With the names of the prior generation included on the death records, you can continue to work backward. We had some difficulty locating a clear match with Lee Presley in census records. We were, however, able to easily identify Dover and Hepsie Walker residing in Oconee, S.C., in 1900 (both identified as black). Mary Walker is included in this record, as are several her siblings. Dover and Hepsie were residing in Oconee as a young married couple without any children in 1880, suggesting that they may both be from this area. Searching Oconee County in 1870, we located Dover Walker in the household of his parents, Thomas and Dinah Walker, along with a number of other siblings.

We also located Hepsey Hillhouse in the household of her parents, Washington and Francis Hillhouse, in Garvin, Anderson, S.C., in 1870. We checked the 1860 U.S. census for both of these families but did not locate any records suggesting that they may have been enslaved at that time and not recorded on their own.


You’ll now want to turn your search to Freedmen’s Bureau records in the National Archives, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project database and U.S. Census Slave Schedules to see if you can identify a former slave owner in order to continue to work backward on your family tree.

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. 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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