Tracing Your Roots: Were My Enslaved Ancestors East African?

Slaves in 19th-century Ethiopia, artist unknown (Wikimedia Commons)
Slaves in 19th-century Ethiopia, artist unknown (Wikimedia Commons)

Separating fact from fiction in a family’s oral tradition.

Dear Professor Gates:

I recently read a 2014 article that you authored (“Were My Enslaved Ancestors Originally From Ethiopia?”) concerning a Green family in Texas with roots in Georgia and their possible connection to Ethiopia. I’m inquiring about my own Green family, also from Georgia (primarily in Dougherty County), and our oral history of an Ethiopian/Somalian lineage. We want to know if the Ethiopian/Somalian ancestry is specific to our Green, Dison/Dyson or Whitehead family lines.


My ancestor Fendel/Fendal Green (previously married to “Puss”) was born circa 1838 and married Elizabeth Vason. Fendel’s mother may have been Louisa. One of Fendel and Elizabeth’s sons, King Green (1881-1945), married Martha Whitehead (1888-1945). Martha was the daughter of John Whitehead (1867-1944) and Jenny Dison/Dyson (1860-1939). John’s parents were Tobias/Toby Whitehead and Georgia. The parents of Jenny Dison were born on a plantation in Dougherty County called White Hill Place and were Washington Dison/Dyson and Martha Mohorn/Maughon. 

My grandmother is in her 90s, and knowing more about her ancestors born into slavery would be invaluable to her. —Sheraunda Biske

In our search of the family lines you mentioned, we did not uncover any evidence of a person who was not born on American soil. However, as we noted in our previous column that you cited, the term “Ethiopian” was used very broadly in documents through the mid-20th century to describe people of African descent:

“Ethiopia” was one of Europe’s blanket names for any place in sub-Saharan Africa (“Guinea” and “Sudan” were two other blanket names), and as [historian David] Eltis pointed out to us, for centuries the term “Ethiopian” was used simply to denote dark skin. Also, as the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood told us, the state of California listed African Americans as “Ethiopian” on birth certificates as recently as the 1950s.

However, we were able to link two of your family lines to a place called White Hill, and found evidence that your various family lines had intertwined lives for a very long time.

A Few Twists in Our Search of the Green-Family Origins 

We started our search with the earliest record of Fendel we could find following the end of slavery. We located him in the 1870 U.S. census, when, at age 32, he was residing in Dougherty County, Ga., with a wife, “Puss.”

Now, you told us that Fendel later had a son named King Green. It turns out that in 1870 a man named King Green, who was just three years older than your Fendel, was living directly next door. This could be a brother or another close relative, so we recommend that you track him further.

Another thing we noted in the record is that the Greens were living with or next to individuals with the Mohorn and Dison surnames. Since you know that these families intermarried with your Green family, this could indicate that these families have a long history together and perhaps all had the same former slave owner. Within the same postal district of Albany, Dougherty County, Ga., in 1870 was Jane Dison (perhaps your Jenny?) and her father, Washington Dison. This means that they were all living very closely together.


Another early record we located for a Fendel Green was a marriage to Mary Mitchell on Jan. 13, 1867, at Dougherty, Ga. We wondered: Is Mary the same woman who appeared in his household in 1870 and “Puss” was her nickname, or could this be another marriage entirely? We determined that it’s much more likely that this is a record for a 56-year-old Fendal Green born in North Carolina about 1814, who was living with a wife named Mary in Albany, Dougherty County, in 1870. This man is old enough to be your Fendel Green’s father and is living in the same post office district. He definitely merits further tracking.

In any case, it places a Fendel Green still in Dougherty County shortly after the end of slavery. One of these Fendel Greens also registered to vote (record via; subscription required) in Albany, Dougherty County, on July 1, 1867. This all tells you that Albany in Dougherty County is a great location to search for information about a former slave owner.


A Slave-Owner Search Turns Up a Green-Whitehead Link 

Looking at a list of the largest slaveholders in Dougherty County in 1870 reveals that there were no slave owners in the county who had the surname Green. However, there are a few slaveholders with the surnames Moughon and Whitehead, which could be an indicator that these surnames originated from a former slave owner. This list only includes the largest slave owners, and if you search the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules for the surname Green in Dougherty County, you’ll note a number of enslaved individuals owned by “R.M. Whitehead” with the note “by Green,” indicating that Green was likely the overseer. A “G.M. Green” is recorded as holding two slaves directly after Whitehead’s household, and a Matthew Brinson is the next slaveholder listed (we noted Brinson becaise this surname is very similar to the Brison/Bryson that some of your ancestors adopted).


The 1860 census shows G.W. Green, born around 1828 in Columbia, Ga., residing in the household of R.M. Whitehead at Albany, Dougherty. Whitehead was also from Columbia, and there appear to be two sons of G.M. Green—one was 11 and the other 9—who were born in Rudolph County, Ga. They are residing next to M. Brison, who was born in 1808 at Burke County, Ga. Both households had a high value of real estate and personal estate, indicating that these were sizable plantations. Given that most of the surnames in your ancestry appear between these two households, we suggest that you focus your search on them.

We could not locate R.M. Whitehead residing in Dougherty County in 1870. In fact, all of the people with the Whitehead name in the county in 1870 were African American. This could indicate that he died or moved away between 1860 and 1870. If he died prior to the end of slavery, a probate record could hold more clues about his estate.


We located a probate record made on Feb. 4, 1864, for R Mc Whitehead in Dougherty County that is a good match. In it he mentions his brother, Amos Whitehead, to whom he left a “negro servant Rob.” He left all the rest of his slaves to his wife, although he did not name them. Try contacting the county clerk to see if there is an inventory of his estate that might contain more information about the individuals he enslaved.

Tax and work records following emancipation may also hold some clues. There are a number of records for a Fendel Green that continue into the 1880s—likely the younger one, since we did not find other records for the older man in those years—that are included in the Georgia Property Tax records and include his employers’ names. In 1870 he was included in a list as a freedman working for Flewillin and Johnson in Dougherty County. Also included in the same list was Henry Dison.


In another record, in 1871, Fendel (recorded as Phendel) was working for “O Cheek” alongside Washington Dyson, King Green, Byran Maughon and Boswell Maughon. In 1872 he was working for “Hill & Chittendin” along with a Henry Dyson and Morris Green, and in 1873 he was working for “M. Walker,” and his entire estate was valued at only $5. Based on these records, Fendel had a number of employers following emancipation.

None of these records shows him working for a Whitehead or a Green, but you may want to investigate all these possible former slaveholders and employers further to see if you can find any additional record of any of your ancestors. We did note, flipping through the 1860 Slave Schedules, that there was an overseer named “J. Cheek” and an “E.S. Walker” who was a slave owner in the county, so you will not want to completely rule out the possibility that your family connects to these individuals somehow.


Moving for a moment to the Whitehead line of your family: John Whitehead was residing in the household of Tobias Whitehead at Albany District, Dougherty County, Ga., in 1870. John was only 3 years old at the enumeration of this census, and Tobias Whitehead was 60. The census record does not include relationships, and though it is possible that Tobias was John’s father, it is also possible that he was his grandfather. Tobias Whitehead was not included in the Georgia Tax Digests, but a John Whitehead is included as working for J.W. Mayo in Albany, Dougherty County, in 1872. This could not be your John Whitehead, since yours would have been only 5 years old, but it could be another close relative.

Finally, the record that you are likely drawing on as a link to White Hill plantation is the tax digest for 1871, which includes Wash Dyson working for “White Hill.” Examining this list, you’ll also note a “Fendall Gern,” which is most likely an incorrect recording of “Fendal Green,” meaning that they both worked at White Hill, at least following emancipation. Currently, there is a pecan orchard called the Whitehill Plantation in Albany, Dougherty County, which may not have much information on the history of the property, although you could contact the plantation to see if anyone there knows where records might be held. You could also look for libraries in the area that may have records of plantations or local histories, such as the Albany State University Library.


Good luck in your continued search!

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 co-founder 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.