Tracing Your Roots: Was My Civil War Vet Ancestor an Overseer’s Son?

William Owen Van Goodlow (family photo)
William Owen Van Goodlow (family photo)

Family lore and death records contain conflicting information about the parentage of a forebear who served in the colored troops during the Civil War.


Dear Professor Gates:

I’m writing for help in tracing the parents of my third great-grandfather, William Owen Van Vaxen Goodlow. He lived in Missouri and Iowa, was married to Mary Nickelson and raised 12 children with her. I’m also proud to say that at just 18 years old, William served in the Civil War with the 16th U.S. Colored Infantry. 

There’s a question, though, about the identity of William’s parents. My cousins have learned through oral family history that William was the son of an unidentified woman who was a slave and a white man named Alexander M. Goodloe, who was an overseer on the Reynolds plantation in Hinds, Miss. In my research on, though, one record (Iowa, Deaths and Burials, 1850-1990) shows that his parents may have been Fridolph and Adelia Goodlow. Can you please help us determine who his parents really are? —Alyson

We can see why you would have been proud to have been descended from a black Civil War veteran. According to an index record posted by the National Park Service, “William Van Goodloe” was a private in the 16th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry in Tennessee. He was one of “approximately 179,000 African Americans [who] served in the ranks of the USCT, under nearly 6,000 white officers and 87 black officers,” according to a report (pdf) compiled by the Civil War Conservation Corps for the National Archives and Records Administration in 2006. Another 19,000 served in the Navy. Many had heeded the call to arms by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had lobbied the Lincoln administration to include black soldiers in the Union Army, as Professor Gates wrote about in a previous article for The Root,Who Legalized Arming Black Men to Kill Confederates?

“The USCT fought in 39 major engagements and over 400 lesser ones. Sixteen African-American soldiers received the Medal of Honor as a result of their service during the Civil War,” according to the CWCC report.

However, your ancestor was extremely fortunate to survive his service because the notoriously bloody war was especially brutal to the black troops. They were paid less than white soldiers through 1864, and they also faced harsher treatment if captured by Confederates. In fact, the Confederacy in 1863 threatened them also with enslavement, which triggered a retaliatory threat from the Lincoln administration in July 1863 in General Order 252, which said in part: “[F]or every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the law, a rebel soldier shall be executed, and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.”

In all, nearly 40,000 black soldiers died during the war, three-quarters of infection or disease, according to “Black Soldiers in the Civil War” via the National Archives. The last colored troop regiments mustered out in December 1867.

To get a more in-depth sense of what your ancestor may have gone through, pick up The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union by James McPherson.


Military Records Reflect a Common Scenario 

We looked at additional military records to learn the story of his enlistment and service, as well as to gain more details about his background. In the Company Descriptive Book (via, subscription required) for William, under “remarks” it states that he was a “substitute for George W. Mathews before draft.” Additional pages on William state that he was a substitute starting Sept. 1, 1864, at Columbus, Ohio, for a term of one year. He was then discharged on Sept. 6, 1865, “by reason of expiration of term of service” at Chattanooga, Tenn.


The Substitute Volunteer Enlistment document in his file states that it was a man named William Chenoweth of Pleasant Township, Franklin County, Ohio, for whom he served as a substitute. It is not clear why company books record that he was a substitute for George W. Mathews (perhaps this was a clerical error), but the original enlistment document records that he was a substitute for William Chenoweth.

Substitution was not an unusual practice. Wealthy men such as Grover Cleveland, who would later become president of the United States, paid another man to serve in his place. You see, the Enrollment Act of 1863, which established a wartime draft of men between the ages of 20 and 45, also allowed individuals of means to hire substitutes to enlist for them.


By the time William enlisted in 1864, an amendment to the Enrollment Act limited the exception an individual could receive by hiring a replacement to one year, which would explain why William’s record states that his term of service was one year. Historian Ira Berlin explains in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation: 1861-1867, Series II The Black Military Experience that following the amendment, it became increasingly expensive to hire a substitute. However, local and state governments “offered new and larger bounties to volunteers—white or black—who would fill their draft quotas,” and Northern states worked to recruit black men from the Union-occupied South. Perhaps it was this effort that brought William to Ohio where he enlisted.

It is possible that William Chenoweth and William Goodlow did not know each other beyond Chenoweth hiring Goodlow as a substitute, but it’s worth looking into William Chenoweth anyway in case it reveals more about your William Owen Van Goodlow. We located a “Wm. Chenowith” in Pleasant, Franklin, Ohio, in the 1860 U.S. census. Based on his location, we assume that this is the same person who hired Goodlow as a substitute. We did not locate any evidence in the census that Goodlow was residing near Chenowith in 1860. Still, searching for land, account, or court records for William Chenoweth may lead you to more documents concerning the agreement between them that could indicate how Goodlow came to be in Columbus, Ohio, in 1864.


We also noted that a “William O.V. Goodlow” applied for a pension on Feb. 14, 1908. Only the index to these records are available online, but copies of the originals can be ordered through the National Archives. Since pension applications required proof of service, they often include detailed information about the applicant and his service. It may also include depositions from individuals who knew him at the time of his service and his life before he enlisted. Additional resources that might help you research this are listed in our previous column with Eileen Curley, “Was My Black Ancestor a Civil War Soldier?” Perspective on what his life might have been like as a Civil War veteran can be gained by reading After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans by Donald Shaffer.

Records Confirm Aspects of Family Lore 

Following his paper trail backward may help you definitively identify William’s parents. As for their names: The death record for William Owen “Vanvafe” Goodlow on June 17, 1932, in Lincoln, Iowa, states that his parents were Fridolph Goodlow and Adelia, just as you stated. This is just an index, and it is possible that the original record could have more information than what is recorded here.


It is also possible that his parents’ names (as well as his) were transcribed incorrectly. You should examine the original record when you can. Looking up the microfilm No. 1481704 in the Family History Library catalog, it tells you that the index was compiled from original records at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Red Oak, Iowa. You could contact the Recorder’s Office there to obtain a copy of the original record. Look for the informant of his death on the record, since that was likely the person providing the information about his parents.

In 1880 the census recorded that William was born in Mississippi, his father was born in North Carolina and his mother was born in Alabama. This was a claim that was repeated in the 1900 United States federal census and again in 1910 and in 1920. The consistency of this information across the records suggests that it is likely to be true. Therefore, we conducted separate searches in the 1870 U.S. census for black men with the surname Goodlow/Goodloe born in North Carolina and for black women with the same surname born in Alabama without locating anyone who resembled the parents listed in William’s death record.


You said that according to oral history, William was the son of an unidentified woman who was a slave and a white man named Alexander M. Goodloe, who was an overseer on the Reynolds plantation in Hinds, Miss. Unable to locate individuals who matched the description of William’s parents in his death certificate, we turned to Alexander Goodloe and found a good match!

In 1850 the U.S. census recorded a man named A.M. Goodlow working as an overseer at the residence of Joel Reynolds in Hinds, Miss. What is very interesting about this record is that A.M. Goodlow was born in North Carolina, as was Joel Reynolds’ wife, Cely Ann Reynolds, but most of the Reynolds children were born in Alabama. This includes all the places we know to be associated with your William Owen Van Goodlow and his parents, and suggests some kind of association (though not necessarily a blood relationship).


The 1850 Slave Schedule for slaves owned by Joel Reynolds includes six males between the ages of 3 and 8 who could be a match for your William, who was born about 1845 (keeping in mind that ages can sometimes vary across records). By 1860, A.M. Goodlow was no longer the overseer of the Reynolds plantation, replaced by J.T. Slade. Joel Reynolds had 88 slaves that year, and several teenage youths who could be your William Goodlow.

To determine if he or his parents could have been enslaved by Joel Reynolds, you could search for records of Reynolds’ estate in probate, court or land records to see if any of his papers mention his slaves by name. You could also try to determine what happened to A.M. Goodlow. The closest match we could locate for him in 1860 was a A.G. Goodlow born in North Carolina who was residing in Bexar, Texas. You will want to collect as many papers as you can for both Joel Reynolds and Alexander M. Goodlow to determine if there is any mention of William or individuals with names that match the parents’ names given on William’s death certificate.


It will also be helpful to work backward on William’s timeline to see if you can determine when and how he moved from his place of birth in Mississippi to Missouri. The earliest census record for William is the 1870 federal census when he was residing in Benton, Atchison, Mo., with Mary Goodlow, 2-year-old Aaron Goodlow, who was born in Missouri, and a Haun Fisher, who was born in Bavaria. If William was a slave prior to the end of slavery, this is the earliest census you will find with him recorded by name. It seems to suggest that by the end of the Civil War he had settled in Missouri.

Good luck in your continued searches.

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.



It’s worth pointing out that there are several different “Benton” placenames in Missouri. This document appears to refer to one located Atchison County, which is in the far northwest corner of the state, rather than Benton, Missouri, which is located in the southeast part of the state. Records for Atchison County will most likely be found in Rock Port, Missouri.