Tracing Your Roots: Were My Southern Kin From Jamaica?

Harbor Street, Kingston, illustration in Cast-away in Jamaica, by W.E. Sewell, in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, January 1861 (Wikimedia)
Harbor Street, Kingston, illustration in Cast-away in Jamaica, by W.E. Sewell, in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, January 1861 (Wikimedia)

A search for the Caribbean origins of a reader’s family takes a few surprising turns.


Dear Professor Gates:

I want to learn about my paternal grandparents, Cecil E. Burley Sr. and Beatrice (King) Burley. They were both born in Jamaica but lived out their lives in Rome, Ga. I want to know how my grandmother came to the United States, any living relatives or descendants in Jamaica, and to further learn about my family’s roots there.

My grandparents had two children: my dad, Cecil E. Burley Jr., and my uncle Richard Burley. My father was born Nov. 21, 1942, in Rome, Floyd County, Ga. He died in Floyd County on Jan. 17, 2015. I know he would have wanted these answers as well.

So far I found out that my grandmother had a few sisters and brothers, including Alberta King and Joe King. I believe her father was not born in Jamaica. Can you point me in the right direction, please? —Kevin Burley

There’s a good chance that any Jamaican ancestors you might have would have immigrated to the U.S. during the first three decades of the 20th century, as we addressed in a previous column, “How Do I Research My Kin’s Jamaican Origins?” That is when a trickle of black migrants from the Caribbean to the United States “increased dramatically … peaking in 1924 at 12,250 per year and falling off during the Depression,” according to “In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,” presented by the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Increasingly strict immigration laws culminated in a policy by 1924 that severely limited immigration from outside Northern and Western Europe and completely excluded immigrants from most Asian countries.

Given that and what we found in census, draft and death records, we suspect that whatever Caribbean roots you may have predate your paternal grandparents’ generation. However, we uncovered some leads that point in an unexpected direction.


Records for Cecil Burley Sr. Point to Georgia Origins 

In 1940, C.E. Burley was a widower residing in Rome, Floyd County, Ga. According to the record, he was born about 1897 in Georgia. He lived in the household of his sister, Linnie B. Daniel, who was also widowed and was born in Georgia about 1908. Cecil was a clergyman and his sister, Linnie, was a laundress in a private home. Both had been living in Floyd County in 1935. Your father, Cecil E. Burley Jr., was born two years after the enumeration of the 1940 census, so your grandfather’s marriage to Beatrice likely also occurred after 1940.


Ten years earlier, 34-year-old Cecil Burley was residing with a wife named Louise at Etowah, Floyd County. Cecil was born about 1896 in Georgia. A nephew, Richard Hawkins (born about 1921), was residing in the household. Everyone in the household and on this page of the census was born in Georgia.

On Sept. 12, 1918, Cecil Ephraim Burley registered for the draft in Floyd County. At the time, he was 20 years old, born on July 13, 1898, and was a native-born citizen, according to the document. He listed his nearest relative as “Wife” but did not include her name, and gave her address in Rome, Ga.


In 1910, Cecil E. Burley, born about 1898, was residing with his parents, Jesse R. Burley and Rebecca Burley, at their home in Douglasville, Douglas, Ga. We know that this is your Cecil E. Burley because his sister, Lanie B. Burley, was also included in the household. According to this record, Cecil and his parents, as well as all of his siblings, were born in Georgia. Cecil’s father, Jesse R. Burley, was a minister at a Methodist church and born in 1869.

Ten years earlier, in 1900, Jesse R. Burley was recorded as a minister in Smith and Jordan, Jasper County, Ga., and had a son, “Ceislie” (which has been transcribed incorrectly in the database as “Leslie”), born about 1897 and residing in his household. This is most certainly your Cecil E. Burley. All of these records suggest that Cecil was born in the United States and not Jamaica.


The Georgia Death Index records Cecil E. Burley’s death on Sept. 30, 1969, in Floyd, Ga. The index includes the record number, 029079, which you could use to order a copy of the original record from the Georgia Department of Public Health to see if the death record holds any clues about his origins. You will likely also want to investigate his father, Jesse R. Burley, further to see if the family perhaps has deeper roots in Jamaica.

Records for Beatrice King and Kin Contain a Twist 

In 1930, Beatrice King was residing in Rome, Floyd County, Ga., with her sister Alberta. According to this record, both women were born in Georgia, as were both of their parents. All of their neighbors also recorded their births in Georgia, so it does not appear that they are residing in an immigrant community.


Working further backward, we located Beatrice residing in Rome Ward 7, Floyd County, in the household of her widowed mother, Ruth King, in 1920. This record provides the first clue in the link to the Caribbean. Beatrice and her recorded siblings were born in Georgia, as was their mother. However, their father’s birthplace is listed as the “West Indies,” another term for the Caribbean.

There is a death record for a Ruth King at Rome, Floyd County, on July 31, 1925. She was buried in the Old Eastview Cemetery at Rome, Floyd, Ga. It says that Ruth was born in Summerville, Ga., and her parents were John King of Nassau and Sarah Smith of Summerville. “Nassau” is written by itself with no other designations, but it certainly could point to the capital of the Bahamas. We suggest that you widen your ancestral search to include the Bahamas (which are much closer to Georgia than is Jamaica, by the way).


We had difficulty locating Ruth or any of her daughters in the 1910 census. You now have a few options to try to learn more about the family. The first is to follow Beatrice’s sisters forward in time and locate death records for them to see if their father is recorded. It appears that your Beatrice Burley died on Nov. 27, 1956, and is buried in the Old Eastview Cemetery, the same cemetery as her mother. Also buried there is a Mabelle King, born 1903, who died Aug. 4, 1928, who listed her parents as John King and Ruth Ealmer, and the informant was her sister Alberta. It appears that all of the Kings in this cemetery are related. If you can map this family, you may find valuable leads about their origins.

Taking Your Search to the Caribbean 

While researching a connection to the Bahamas, you might consider how black Bahamians came to the U.S. during the latter half of the 19th century. They started migrating to Key West in the 1840s, according to Multicultural America: An Encyclopedia of the Newest Americans, Volume 1, by Ronald Bayor. Many moved on from there to the Coconut Grove section of Miami, beginning in the 1880s, attracted by jobs. As you look into John King’s past, you might include Florida in your search criteria.


Once you have more information about him, you might start by searching the Bahamas Birth Index for Births from 1850-1891 at FamilySearch, since he was likely born in that time frame. The Bahamas Civil Registrations database, which includes births, marriages and deaths, includes the years 1850-1959 and could also be helpful for tracing the King family. One way to make a connection would be to find multiple family members (siblings, cousins, etc.) in the database that you can also find records for in the United States.

If you gather promising leads, you may want to visit the Bahamas National Archive in Nassau. If a trip isn’t possible, use the contact information at the bottom of its website. The archive’s personnel may know of local researchers who could search the archives for you for a fee.


If you still wish to research the possibility of Jamaican origins within the King family, a good start would be to search American records to see if you can identify Beatrice’s father from the West Indies. A next step would be to search Jamaican Civil Registrations to see if you can locate birth records that might align with Beatrice and her sisters. If you can’t uncover her father’s name, you could still search for children born to women named Ruth and see if any of them align with your family. You could take this same approach in Georgia to be sure that they were not all born there, and do a search for their birth records there.

If you are ready to search in Jamaica, become acquainted with what records you can access from the United States and which ones you will need to have a researcher in Jamaica search for you. The Jamaica Archives and Records Department may be able to help or may have records relating to your 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.