Many of us have them: an old family story about an ancestor who was defiant in the face of oppression or who simply defied society at every turn. Such stories help define us and remind us that we come from people whose spines remained unbowed, no matter what America heaped upon them. Below are three of my favorite columns answering queries from people who inquired about the rebellious forebears in their family lore.
L. Johnson wanted to know if her elderly father is related on his maternal side to Nat Turner, the enslaved African American who led a revolt in Virginia in 1831. Turner and 55 other black people were executed for their alleged roles in the rebellion. Although many question the veracity of The Confessions of Nat Turner, a document based on jail-cell interviews conducted by a lawyer, it nonetheless helped provide a launching point for researching Johnson’s query. The aim was to work backward using the information we had on Johnson’s ancestors to see whether any of them were in the same state and county as Turner or relatives. As we noted in this and a previous column, it’s under dispute as to whether Turner had a wife or children. Could Johnson be related to him?
Read on to find out what we did learn about Johnson’s ancestors and their origins.
Connie Robertson-Butler wanted to know whether she is related to the Younger family, who ran with the Old West outlaw Jesse James. Her mother’s family bears the surname Younger and hail from Mississippi. As we wrote, the James-Younger gang robbed trains and banks in Missouri and surrounding states in the years after the Civil War. Its members included James and his brother, Frank; Thomas Coleman “Cole” Younger; James Hardin “Jim” Younger; John Harrison Younger; and Robert Ewing “Bob” Younger. They also had a possible black associate, John Trammell, but his connection to Robertson-Butler was not being explored. Could Robertson-Butler, who is black, be related to the white Younger outlaws?
Read on to find out what we uncovered about her kin and the likelihood of a familial connection.
Don C. Locke wrote in to see if we could help him find out more about a confirmed ancestor who died in the 1889 Leflore County Massacre in Mississippi, according to a contemporary newspaper report. As we wrote, the massacre was “a bloody check to African-American progress” in the post-Civil War era. Black and white cotton farmers had formed their own racially separate alliances to weather a series of misfortunes to the region affecting the profitability of their crops. Local whites considered the Colored Farmers Alliance to be a threat. The result was a massacre of as many as 100 black people, including Locke’s ancestor Peyton and his son Ben. The reason reported by the New Haven Register: “resisting arrest.” Sad as it is, the charge we received was to work backward and find out as much as we could about Peyton’s early life in slavery.
Read on to find out what we discovered about his slave owner and how he may have come into that household.
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.
The columns cited in this article contain answers provided in consultation with researchers from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, including Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Kristin Britanik and Andrew Krea. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million 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.