Tracing Your Roots: Who Were My Kin Born During Slavery?

Turner Bond (family photo courtesy of Roklina Johnson)
Turner Bond (family photo courtesy of Roklina Johnson)

Differing surnames and living arrangements complicate the search for the parents of an ancestor born during Reconstruction in North Carolina.


Dear Professor Gates:

I am curious to know who the parents were of my paternal great-grandfather Turner Bond (1868-1925). He was a self-employed blacksmith in Windsor, Bertie County, N.C., who could read and write. He and his wife, Annie Speller, raised and supported 12 children, including my grandfather Charles Bond (1913-2001). Turner Bond’s parents were listed as Dean Jones and Judy Carter on his death certificate. I see something that says “inferred Father” on Can you please tell me who his parents were and how he got the name “Bond”? —Roklina Johnson

It appears that the lives of the Bond, Speller, Carter and Jones families have been intertwined since the 19th century against the backdrop of a local tobacco-and-cotton plantation economy in Bertie County that was heavily dependent on slavery. By 1800, African Americans were the majority in the county, with many living on large plantations, according to a web page of the NCGenWeb Project that lists local black genealogy resources.

Among the county’s largest slaveholders in 1830 were Lewis Bond, Robert A. Jones and Thomas Speller, according to a list the page attributes to Jane Turner Censer’s book North Carolina Planters and Their Children (1800-1860). As you trace your ancestors back before emancipation, we suggest that you compare their information to what is contained in contemporaneous slave schedules, property records, wills and probate documents for these men.

A Clue About How Your Grandfather Was Named

You know that your ancestors resided in Windsor, Bertie County, N.C., so we started there to trace them back. Your grandfather Charles Bond was recorded in their household there in 1920 (FamilySearch; free registration required), along with his 11 siblings. According to this record, Turner Bond and both of his parents were born in North Carolina. The record also tells you that Turner owned his home and that it was mortgaged. The family was there 10 years earlier in 1910 in the house that Turner owned.


The death record for Turner records his parents as Dean Jones and Judy Carter, both of Windsor. The informant on this record was his wife, Annie Bond, which means that she was close enough to him to likely have known this information about his parents—though it is possible that she did not have the correct information. As we continued our search, we sought verification of these claims in other records as well.

One of the things we noticed in the 1895 marriage record that we found for Turner Bond and Annie Speller is that a Charles Bond was among the witnesses. Given their matching surnames, it is likely that this witness is closely related to Turner, especially since your grandfather was also named Charles. The other witnesses were E.S. Daie (spelling unclear) and W.S. Hayes. Searching for records of these individuals may reveal more about your ancestors, since they were likely closely associated with them.


Why Names Can Both Provide Leads and Be Misleading 

We continued working our way back to the time just after and before emancipation and encountered a common wrinkle with surnames that we should explain here. As we mentioned in a previous column, black people during that era adopted surnames in a variety of ways, only one of which was adopting the surname of the most recent person who enslaved them or their ancestors. Sometimes a slave owner’s surname was passed down through several generations.


Furthermore, since enslaved people were frequently sold away from their families, blood relatives could bear different surnames. Finally, post-emancipation (just as today), a person who was born outside of marriage or was living with a parent who had remarried might have a different surname than the parent or siblings.

These variations should be kept in mind as you consider the leads we uncovered. We found multiple instances of Bonds, Carters, Spellers and Joneses living together or in close proximity, which suggests relatedness but doesn’t always illuminate exactly how individuals were related.


In the collection of marriage records for Bertie County, we also saw the marriage record for Louis Bond and Anna A. Carter in Windsor on Dec. 10, 1851. It does not identify whether they were white or free people of color. We noted this because it was a Bond marrying someone with the Carter surname, which was the surname of Turner’s mother, according to his death record. The couple would have been old enough to have been his parents, but even if they were not related to him, it suggests a pattern of the Bond and Carter families—whether white or black—intermarrying. We also saw children with the surname Carter living near Turner and his family in 1910.

Tracking Down Turner’s Mother 

We searched for Turner Bond in the 1870 U.S. census, which would have been enumerated when he was a young child and likely to be in the same household as his parents. There is a Turner Bond born about 1869 recorded in the household of Cain Bond in Windsor, Bertie County, N.C., that is the right age to be your Turner Bond.


The next person recorded in the household after Cain is Jane Bond, but with their 20-year age difference and the lack of a relationship column on this census, it is difficult to determine whether she was his wife or his daughter. It also seems possible that since Turner is recorded directly after Cherry Bond (age 20), he may be her son. If this is the case and Turner was born outside of a marriage, it could be why he was given the Bond name, for his mother, even if his father was a Jones.

Some other things you may want to note in the 1870 census record for Turner Bond is that directly next door to the household was a Haywood Speller (incorrectly transcribed as Keller in the index record), born about 1856, who has the same surname as Annie Speller, whom Turner would later marry. In the household where Haywood was living, there were also four children who had the Bond surname: Henry, Hellen, Thomas and Anna. It is likely that your Turner Bond is related to these individuals in some way.


In searching for Turner 10 years later in the 1880 census, we noted a Turner Battle born about 1868 residing in the household of Henry Battle Junior at Griffin, Nash, N.C. This record stood out because Turner is the right age to be your Turner Bond, and the wife of Henry Battle in this record was named Cherry.

If the Cherry Bond we located in the 1870 census was your Turner’s mother, this could be a record for your Turner in a stepfather’s household. It is not uncommon for stepchildren to be recorded in census records under the surname of their stepfather. Nash County and Bertie County are not directly adjacent, but they are near each other, so it is possible that this is a record for your ancestors.


You will want to trace the Battle family to determine if this is a possible match for your family. If you can trace Turner Battle forward to a record with a date that overlaps a date on which you already have a record for your Turner Bond, then you know they cannot be the same person. From a preliminary search, we could not locate any records that overlap, meaning that they could be the same person. What also seemed telling is that although the marriage record for Henry Battle and Cherry (Charity in the record) at Nash County, N.C., in 1872 is very faded and hard to read, it was solemnized by a John Bond, suggesting a connection to the Bond family.

Moving Beyond Inference for Turner’s Father 

When we searched for records of a Dean Jones in Bertie County, N.C., we located a marriage record for a Dean Jones and Patsy Ruffin on Jan. 20, 1872, at Windsor. What was even more interesting about this record is that it says that Dean’s parents were Miles Jones and Tatty Bond. Dean’s marriage occurred after the birth of your Turner Bond, but if Turner was not born within a marriage, it is possible that this is a record for his father’s marriage. It also points to a connection between Dean Jones and the Bond family.


This Dean Jones and his wife, Margaret, were residing at Windsor, Bertie County, in 1900 with six children. If your Turner Bond was the son of this Dean Jones, it means that the children in this household are his half-siblings. Since Turner’s wife, Annie, knew Turner’s father’s name, it is likely that his identity was not a secret to the family.

If this is the case, your Turner may have had a relationship with these siblings who were living in the same town. Your next step would be to work toward locating records that could connect your Turner Bond to one or more of the Jones children to confirm that he is the son of this Dean Jones.


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.