Tracing Your Roots: Why Free Virginia Blacks Looked Over Their Shoulders

Rebecca Howlett, who was freed from slavery in the 1850s (family photo courtesy of Angel Evans)
Rebecca Howlett, who was freed from slavery in the 1850s (family photo courtesy of Angel Evans)

Finding Virginia forebears who lived uncertain lives in the shadow of the Nat Turner rebellion.

Dear Professor Gates:

I believe I have just about every record and newspaper clipping on my fourth great-grandmother Rebecca Howlett of Chesterfield County, Va. However, I haven’t been able to find out who her parents were.


She was born in 1812, and her slave owner was John Howlett of Chesterfield County. She was then bequeathed to his son Thomas Howlett, according to his will. She was freed in the 1850s and passed in the year 1900.

I hope that you can help me. —Angel Evans

Your ancestor was emancipated in Virginia during a time when her free status would have been tenuous at best. As Professor Gate noted in his previous article for The Root (now in book form) “Why Did Free Blacks Stay in the Old South?” the state was still reeling from the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831, which took place in Southampton County, only 75 miles from where Rebecca Howlett lived in Chesterfield County. The revolt resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people, including slave owners and their families (as well as the execution of Turner and 55 other black people).

It also sparked fears among white Virginians about having so many black people, enslaved and free, in their midst. Free people of color were among those targeted in the crackdown. Eva Sheppard Wolf, a professor at San Francisco State University, explains in Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia From the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion:

The legislature’s final act regarding Virginia’s African American population in 1832 — in fact the only legislation actually passed — was to amend the black code in order (whites hoped) to make future insurrections less likely. The new law barred black Virginians from preaching, placed tighter restrictions on the movements and assembly of slaves, and prescribed harsh punishments for anyone who promoted slave rebellion.

The law also further reduced free blacks toward the status of slaves by requiring that they be tried in the slave courts (courts of oyer and terminer) in cases of larceny or felony instead of before a regular judge and jury and by barring them from owning guns (earlier laws allowed free people of color to own guns if they had a license, which was not required for whites). Important for the future of manumission in Virginia, the law also made it illegal for free people of color to purchase slaves except immediate family members, thus reducing the ability of the free black community to help enslaved fellow African Americans attain liberty.


What’s more, the Virginia Legislature had amended the state’s 1806 “Get out or risk re-enslavement” law in in 1831 to give local sheriffs the authority to sell free black people at auction. Rebecca Howlett appears to have been freed approximately within the decade before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and it’s reasonable to assume that those years were uneasy ones.

A Possible Lead on Rebecca’s Parentage 

We found Rebecca “Becca Howlette” residing as a free woman in Chesterfield County, Va., in 1860 (via FamilySearch; free subscription required) with 15 other free people of color with the surname Howlette. They included Frederick, Wilson, George, Peter, Sarah, Abbey, Margaret, William, Robert, Eliza and Richard, who would all have likely appeared in the household of John Howlett 10 years earlier on the 1850 U.S. Slave Schedules.


You can gather from the will of John Howlett, probated on June 13, 1851 (via; subscription required), that all the individuals in this household were once enslaved by John Howlett and bequeathed to his son Thomas Howlett in his will. You will also want to note that John Howlett’s will includes an “Amasa,” recorded first on the list of enslaved people before Frederick (suggesting that he or she may have been older than the rest of the household), and that this person does not appear in the household in 1860. Is this a parent of Rebecca? Possibly for her, or other people in the household. We suggest that you pursue this lead.

Thomas Howlett made his will just five years after his father died. He does not make any mention of Rebecca or the other enslaved people whom his father bequeathed to him, but he does name several slaves whom he wished to give to his wife. With this record appearing close to the end of slavery, you may want to investigate the people mentioned in this probate record to see if any of them are connected to your Rebecca in later records.


You may also want to pay attention to other free families of color living near your Howlett family in 1860, prior to emancipation. Examining the original record reveals that they were living near both white and black families. Remember that surnames can be tricky when it comes to former slaves, and it is possible for your ancestors to be directly related to someone with a different surname. They may also not be related by blood to people in the same household with the same surname.

If a person’s surname was adopted from a former slave owner, the surname may tell you more about where that person resided before he or she was free than it will about to whom he or she is directly related. With this in mind, try some investigation into Rebecca’s neighbors, particularly any that might be old enough to be her parents, such as the Walter Logan recorded on the previous page. You may find that you are unable to connect such people to her, but there is always a chance that a document for them could hold a revealing piece of information.


We recommend that in the course of your research, you reach out to the Library of Virginia to see if you can access the Chesterfield County (Va.) Free Negro and Slave Records, 1760-1862, comprising a variety of court papers pertaining to people of African descent in the region, which, for your purposes, include free-blacks lists (1847-1855); free-blacks registrations, affidavits and certificates (1790-1861 and undated); and petitions of free black people to remain in the state or county (1838-1856).

Was Rebecca a Namesake?

There is also the possibility that your Howlett family has ties to other former slaves of the Howlett family who were free in Chesterfield County in the early part of the 19th century. Researcher Paul Heinegg, at his website Free African Americans, suggests that Rebecca Hulet, born in 1717 in York County, Va., was likely the ancestor of a George Hewlett of Chesterfield County, who was the head of household there in the 1810 U.S. census.


It seems likely that he is the same person who was recorded as George Howlett in the Chesterfield County Deed Book 17, where he was recorded buying the freedom of a woman named Elcie and her daughter Martha on May 19, 1808, from Pater F. Archer. The record says that George was a free man of color, formerly enslaved by Richard Howlett. The entry also notes that George Howlett’s will can be found in Will Book 18, Page 646.

When you examine George Howlett’s will, you’ll note that he freed his wife, Alsey, and his five children: Patsy, 11 years old; Sarah, 9 years old; George, 7 years old; Eliza, 3 years old; and Thomas, 3 months old. His will is dated April 12, 1817. No Rebecca (who would have been around 5 at the time) was mentioned, so it is unlikely that she was a child of this George. However, you should not rule out the possibility that there is some connection to this family.


The records for Rebecca Hulet and George Howlett together are intriguing because many of the given names in this family appear in your Howlett family. Naming patterns can be another tool you can use to help make connections between ancestors. They are also in the same county and share a surname, suggesting that there may be some connection, even if this is just through their former slave owners.

In this case, your best bet may be to see if the slave owners are related—so you would be connecting the John Howlett who enslaved your ancestor Rebecca to Richard Howlett, the former slave owner of George Howlett. If you can connect them, it also seems likely that you’ll want to investigate the Archer family, too. We located a guardianship and an administration bond for the estate of Richard Howlett in Chesterfield County that names a John Howlett in 1813. It seems a good possibility that this could be the same John Howlett who made his will in 1851 and suggests that he may have been the son of Richard Howlett.


Your next step would be to search for any probate or land records for the Howlett family in Chesterfield to see if you can solidify this connection. The records for the slave-owning Howlett family may hold more clues to help you identify Rebecca’s parents.

Good luck!

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.

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