Tracing Your Roots: When Was My ‘Freedman’ Ancestor Freed?

“A picture of the desolated states; and the work of restoration. 1865-1868"
“A picture of the desolated states; and the work of restoration. 1865-1868"
Image: J.T. Trowbridge (Wikimedia Commons)

A message board posting listing “freedmen” kin raises questions.

Dear Professor Gates:

My parents are no longer around to provide answers that will help me to trace my roots, so I hope you can help me. I have traced my father all the way back to my great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother, Hilliard (Hill) and Angaline (Angeline) Duffey. I found their marriage certificate, as well as a document, saying they were one of four freedmen African-American couples in Henry County, Ga. The other three couples also share the last names Duffey. I’m assuming those other couples are relatives, but can’t confirm this.

I found a census listing Grandfather at age 16 with one of the freedmen listed, Taylor Duffey. I’m desperate to find out how did that freedom came about. On Grandpa Hilliard’s death certificate I see his father is listed by one name only, Sol. I’m wondering if this is short for Solomon. I found one Solomon in Maryland who has the exact name of Solomon Duffey, also listed as a freeman. I cannot confirm this is him, so I feel like I have hit a brick wall. —Chandrika Duffy

Your question touches upon some potentially confusing aspects of the terminology that is used to describe the free status of African Americans before and after the end of the U.S. Civil War. When we talk about “free blacks,” “free Negroes” or “free people of color,” we are referring to African Americans who were not enslaved during the period of American slavery, between 1619 and 1860. As mentioned in Professor Gates’ Amazing Facts column for The Root,Free Blacks Lived in the North, Right?” there were 488,070 free blacks living in the United States in 1860, which was five years prior to the end of the Civil War. They made up about 10 percent of the total black population.


During the course of the war and after, with developments including the issuances of the Second Confiscation Act in 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, all other remaining African Americans came to be legally free citizens of the United States. The Freedmen & Southern Society Project lists a timeline of emancipation as it unfolded between 1860 and 1865.

At this point, the formerly enslaved were referred to as “freedmen.” To help them become integrated into American life as citizens, the federal government formed the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, to aid in the process. As we described in a previous Tracing Your Roots column:

Between the years 1865 and 1872, the bureau kept track of a variety of records, including marriage, medical, school and census information. Because the enslaved had been considered property and were therefore rarely named in pre-Civil War records, Freedmen’s Bureau records can provide an important starting place for many African Americans who are tracing their roots.

When you asked how your ancestor Hilliard Duffey’s freedom came about, we wondered if perhaps you confused his “freedmen” status after the 13th Amendment with the status of “free blacks” before the Civil War. It’s worth pointing out that African Americans at the time were quite aware of the distinction, evidence of an enduring caste system within the community. As Ira Berlin notes in his book Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, “Blacks who had enjoyed freedom before the war generally remained at the top of the new black society,” furthermore describing that, “Some of these free Negroes flaunted their former status. Styling themselves ‘bona-fide free’ or ‘old issue free,’ they stood scornfully aloof from the mass of former bondsmen.”

In the course of our research, we did not find evidence that he was freed before the majority of African Americans were. We did find records that might be evidence of his enslavement.


Sale and Estate Records Provide Leads About Solomon Duffey

The records you already have for Hilliard (frequently spelled Hillard or Hill) Duffey will be important points of reference for you when trying to locate information on his relatives. You have already located him residing in Meriwether, Ga., in 1870 (FamilySearch; free registration required) recorded as “Hill Duffie,” born about 1854. His marriage record to Angeline Glenn was recorded Nov. 19, 1874, in Henry County, Ga., and his death certificate, recorded in Henry County, indicates that he was born in that county about 1849. As you mentioned, the death record indicates that his father was “Sol Duffie” and his mother was unknown. All of these documents together tell you that Hilliard Duffey was likely born around 1849-1854 in Henry County, Ga., which is where you should concentrate your search.


The message board post on that mentions the marriage of a Hillard Duffey and Angeline Cloud (likely a transcription error of “Glenn” from the original record) on Dec. 19, 1874, as a “Colored/Freedman” marriage provides a citation for the original information: Page 190 of the Henry County, Ga., Register of Sales, Book C. This means you can track down the original record to see if it contains additional information about the family.

This message board post also states a Solomon was sold to Sid Duffey in October 1851 from the estate of John Duffey. It seems a good likelihood that this is the “Sol” who was father to your Hilliard.


You will want to check what sources are available for Henry County, digitally or on microfilm, that might help you locate the original record. We noted a digital collection called “Register of Sales, 1829-1941,” that looked promising, since it included a “Volume C” that may be the book referenced. However, when we went to Page 190, we did not find the sale of Solomon Duffey recorded, but we did find the account of the sales from the estate of John Duffey dated May 27, 1851. What was interesting about this was that some of the names mentioned in the message board post as having purchased enslaved people were also buying items from John Duffey’s estate. The dates are close, suggesting that the enslaved individuals mentioned in the message board post were a part of John Duffey’s estate.

Further Digging Reveals Clues About Hilliard’s Life During Slavery 

We went a few pages forward in the probate inventory of John Duffey and located the record referenced in the message board post. It is an “Account of the Sale of the Land and Negroes of the Estate of John Duffey Deceased, Sold on the First Tuesday in October 1851.” This is a good example of why you should always look for the original record, as the message board states that Solomon was purchased by “Sid Duffey,” while the original reads “S.J. Duffey.” The transcription error may have made it difficult to locate further records.


There are a few things you’ll want to consider when looking at a document like this. All of the enslaved listed were owned by the same man, which means they may or may not be blood relatives, but they certainly were all closely associated with one another. Records for any of them may help you locate information on the others.

Since there is a good possibility that the Solomon sold from John Duffey’s estate could be the father of your Hilliard Duffey, and that Hilliard was born sometime between 1849 and 1854, he could have been one of the unnamed children in John Duffey’s estate. Perhaps he was the child of Ann, who was sold to Uriah Harkley, or one of Nancy’s two youngest children who were sold with their mother to James Findley. Locating more information on John Duffey, Uriah Harkley and James Findley may help you determine if that is a possibility.


Since John Duffey’s death was just a year after the enumeration of the 1850 U.S. census, you can compare the list of enslaved individuals sold from his estate to see if you can get an idea about the ages of people sold. In total, there were 11 slaves sold from John Duffey’s estate, three of them young-enough children to not be named and only be mentioned with their mothers, three of them children who were named, and three men.

The 1850 U.S. Slave Schedule recorded nine enslaved people in John Duffey’s household, including a 26-year-old woman who may be Nancy, followed by three males who are probably Sam (age 20), George (age 18) and Solomon (age 15). Next is a 14-year-old female who is probably Ann, based on the order of both records. This means that she had a child at a tender age sometime between Aug. 7, 1850, and October 1851. Next are two 7-year-old boys, probably Green and George, and a 4-year-old girl who is likely Mariah. The 3-year-old male is likely one of the “youngest children” of Nancy, and she likely had another child after the census was recorded. Since the phrasing that they were her youngest children was used, there is a strong possibility that the other children in the household are hers as well.


We also noted that James Findley of Henry County, Ga., had eight enslaved people in his household in 1850 recorded on the page after John Duffey’s household. This suggests that they lived closely to each other. Considering that they lived close by and that James Findley purchased slaves and property from John Duffey’s estate, it suggests that they were closely associated, which means the people they enslaved were potentially closely associated as well.

The will of John Duffey provides some clues to this connection. In it, John mentions a daughter, Sarah Paxton, to whom he bequeathed land, and the rest of his estate was to be divided among his other children, namely Mary Findley, the wife of James Findley, and sons Robert L. Duffey, Samuel J. Duffey, John N. Duffey, and daughters Rachel Harkley and Sarah Paxton. This proves that the James Findley who purchased slaves from John Duffey’s estate was his son-in-law, and it also means that Uriah Harkley was also a son-in-law. This also tells you that the “S.J. Duffey” who purchased Solomon from John Duffey’s estate was John Duffey’s son.


It seems probable that the enslaved individuals sold from John Duffey’s estate remained enslaved until the end of slavery, since the individuals who purchased the slaves lived well after the Civil War. Samuel J. Duffey owned slaves in 1860, including a 21-year-old male who might be Solomon (remember that ages can fluctuate). He may have also sold Solomon or freed him, so you can check land or court records for Henry County to see if you can find a bill of sale or manumission document for Solomon.

We know that Samuel J. Duffey remained in Henry County through the end of the Civil War because he signed the oath of allegiance and registered to vote in Henry County in 1867. James Findley also still owned slaves in 1860, including four boys all under the age of 14, one of whom could be your Hilliard Duffey if he was one of the unnamed children sold to James Findley. He also filed a claim for reimbursement for damaged property to the United States Southern Claims Commission in 1877 for land in Henry County, Ga., meaning that he survived the war as well. Because of this, it seems unlikely that he freed his slave prior to the end of slavery, but you could always check for sale or manumission records to be sure.


You may also want to keep in mind that after the war, Solomon may have gone by a different surname than Duffey, as the only people of color we located with the Duffey surname in the 1867 voter registrations were an Elias Duffey and Gilbert Duffey. Sadly, your best options for locating more information on your Duffey ancestors would be to continue to search for more information on the people who were likely the slave owners, since the records for them hold the most potential to unlock clues about your ancestors.

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  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

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Vulcan Has No Moon

Thank you again, Professor Gates. Tracing your roots is always fascinating.