A white woman discovers that she has African ancestry and wants help identifying her black New England forebear.
Dear Professor Gates:
I took a DNA test through 23andMe and it confirmed what I already knew: that I have black ancestry through my mother’s side, approximately 5.2 percent. There was talk during my childhood that my mother had a black relative, and my sister’s oldest son was often mistaken for a black person.
I did a family tree and can’t seem to come up with the name of my great-great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side, who lived in Maine and New Hampshire. Her son was Thomas Roberts, who was born May 4, 1766, in New Hampshire, and died March 19, 1857. Thomas’ father was Frederick Thomas Roberts, born March 14, 1730, in Westminster, Middlesex, England. Thomas was married to Mary “Polly” Dearborn.
I keep checking 23andMe for DNA relative matches to see if one might be black, but so far I haven’t had any luck. While I wait for a genetic hit, are there records between 1700 and 1800 that could help me identify my black ancestor? —Janette
There is hope for finding your black ancestor. However, we should note at the outset that we examined several family trees on Ancestry.com naming Frederick Thomas Robert as the father of your Thomas Roberts. None of these trees includes any citation for the claim or describes how it concluded that Frederick Thomas Roberts, who you told us was born in England, was the father. Our own research, described below, suggests that you may want to consider other candidates. We encourage you to verify the information you have about Thomas Roberts’ father as a step toward identifying his mother.
The Complex World in Which Thomas Roberts Lived
According to Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England, by William Dillon Piersen, only 1 percent of the population in New Hampshire was black in 1767, around the time Thomas Roberts was born there, and one-third of the black population lived in Portsmouth—providing a promising location for you to search for records from his early life. There were relatively few slaves recorded in the state: only 157 in the year 1790 (pdf), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Therefore, your search for your black ancestor must take both possibilities into account: slavery and freedom.
There is a marriage record for Thomas Roberts and Polly Dearborn indicating that the couple were from Parsonsfield (near the border with New Hampshire) and that they were married in Limington, York, Maine, on Feb. 24, 1796, by Jona. Atkinson. This record does not make any note of the couple’s race, but it otherwise seems a likely fit for what you know about your ancestors. The marriage record is included in a book of town records, which we suggest you browse for other mentions of the Roberts family to see if it holds any further clues. Given Parsonfield’s location near New Hampshire, this provides an alternate point of origin for Thomas Roberts for you to consider.
This marriage record is also close to the enumeration of the 1800 census, so we searched the area for the couple and found a Thomas Roberts recorded in Vaughan Town, Kennebec, Maine, with only a male and a female in the household, both age 15-26. This could be a match for this couple if they had not yet had any children. No one in the household was recorded as a slave or free person of color, meaning that both of these individuals were considered to be white by the census taker. If this is the same Thomas Roberts as the person in the marriage record, it means that the couple moved east to Kennebec. You could check land records to see if you can locate a record of Thomas purchasing land there.
According to the Maine Historical Society, by that time slavery had been “outlawed by Massachusetts, and hence in its District of Maine, after the American Revolution.” (Maine separated from Massachusetts and became its own state in 1820.) Free black people also lived in Maine during the Colonial era, often working in the maritime trades.
If Thomas Roberts was, in fact, of mixed parentage, he would have been living in an environment that discouraged his heritage. According to the “Maine” entry in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, written by Evan Haefeli and Paul Finkelman:
Up through the end of the eighteenth century, male African Americans outnumbered females by almost two to one. One result of this was a number of romantic liaisons between black men and white women. Disturbed by the news that several white women had given birth to black children, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law in 1705 making not only sex but also marriage between blacks and whites illegal, regardless of whether the African American was enslaved or not.
After Maine gained statehood, a law was passed in 1821 making it illegal for white people to marry black or Native American people, according to University of Oregon professor Debra Merskin in her book Media, Minorities, and Meaning: A Critical Introduction. It stayed on the books until 1883.
A Newspaper Article Contains an Unwritten Clue … Maybe
We reviewed a detailed article in the Sheboygan Press on Sept. 5, 1923 (via Newspapers.com; subscription required), which tells the story of the Roberts family’s migration from Maine to Wisconsin in 1848 and dubs them the “Pioneers of Greenbush.” The article describes Thomas Sr. and Mary Roberts as the family’s progenitors, and it also includes their photographs! The photo of Thomas Sr. may lend plausibility to the idea that he was of mixed race, though certainly we cannot conclude anything from a photograph. However, the article says that the Roberts family originated in Wales (and not England). It does not include any information about Thomas Sr.’s parents.
The headstone for Thomas Roberts at the Greenbush Cemetery states that he died March 19, 1857, and was “90yrs 8 mo 15 ds” old. This would place his birth on July 4, 1766. The Sheboygan Press article also says he died at age 90. However, the 1850 U.S. census, which recorded Thomas Roberts and Mary residing at Greenbush, Sheboygan, Wis., states that Thomas was born around 1773 in New Hampshire and Mary was born about 1780 in Maine. (It also describes both of them as being white.) To account for the discrepancy in his birth year, we suggest that you widen any record searches for Thomas Roberts born in New Hampshire to account for a birth anytime between 1766 and 1773.
You know that Thomas and Mary (Dearborn) Roberts resided in Sebec, Penobscot, Maine, prior to their removal to Greenbush, Wis. The grantee deed indexes for Hancock and Penobscot counties include records for Thomas Roberts at Sebec in 1819 and 1835. There is also a deed for Thomas Roberts Jr. in Sebec in 1823. You may also want to investigate other Robertses who purchased land in Sebec during this time frame, since they may be connected to your family. Land records may include notations of race or help you connect to other family members to work back another generation.
The land records for Penobscot County, Maine, are currently available on microfilm through the Family History Library, which can be viewed at a local Family History Center. Likewise, the Maine State Archive Collections currently have only indexed military records, but the description of the collection states that it also includes court and land records, which may be useful to your search. It is possible that these collections will also be available digitally, or you could contact the Maine State Archive to determine how you might search court records for your Roberts ancestors.
Widening the Search for Thomas’ Parents
When you search census, land or probate records, look for individuals with the name Roberts who are noted as being black. Interestingly, there is a Thomas Roberts recorded in the 1790 census residing in a township east of Machias, Washington County, Maine. The only person recorded in this household was recorded in the “All other free persons” column, meaning that this person was not considered to be white.
Trying to trace this person forward, we located two records of interest. The first was for a John Roberts at Machias, Washington, Maine, in 1800, but the record is so worn, it is hard to read the numbers of the members in the household. The record does not indicate that the members in the household were black. There is also a record for a Negro Robert at Plantation 22, Washington County, Maine, but again, the record is illegible. You may want to check land or court records in Washington County to see if you can locate any further information on these two individuals.
Based on the information we have for your Thomas Roberts, we know that he was born in New Hampshire between 1766 and 1773. A census of New Hampshire was taken in 1776. The only Robertses included were Moses Roberts, Thomas Roberts and Timothy Roberts, all of Rochester (available on Ancestry.com; subscription required). This is close to the birth of your Thomas Roberts, and if you are willing to consider a father other than Frederick Thomas Roberts, you might investigate these individuals to see if one could be his parent.
There are a number of results for Roberts individuals included in early probate records in New Hampshire, including the said Moses, Thomas and Timothy. Looking at all records for the Roberts family in New Hampshire during your Thomas Roberts’ lifetime will help you piece together the family units and determine where your Thomas connects. For example, the will of Moses Roberts of Rockingham in 1788 included a son named Thomas. You could investigate this Thomas further to be sure that he is not the same as your Thomas.
You may also want to look at other individuals with the Roberts name who were from New Hampshire and resided in Maine, such as a probate record for an “Ebenezer P. Roberts late of Alton State of New Hampshire,” whose probate was recorded at Bangor, Maine, in September 1838. It is possible that your Thomas Roberts did not move from New Hampshire to Maine alone and that he is related to others with the surname who made a similar move.
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 TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior research from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, 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.