Was a Slave-Owning Politician My Ancestor?

A portrait of Stephen Cabarrus in the old Cabarrus County Courthouse in North Carolina
Public Domain
A portrait of Stephen Cabarrus in the old Cabarrus County Courthouse in North Carolina
Public Domain

Dear Professor Gates:

I wonder if I am related to a slave-owning politician in North Carolina, Stephen Cabarrus. One of my maternal great-grandfathers was named Lawrence Cobbaris (also spelled Cabarrus or Cabarras). He was born in or about 1832, enslaved in North Carolina. He purchased land in Emantha, Fla., in 1892, according to a homestead certificate I am sending to you. His death certificate doesn't list his mother or father's name. However, I found several people with the surnames Cobbaris or Cobbarrus in Eaton, N.C., which led me to the politician Stephen Cabarrus. At one point, he owned 77 slaves. I also know that many of the slaves took his last name, but we're not related to the ones I have identified.


I cannot find any records of Lawrence Cobbaris prior to 1892 or a connection to Stephen Cabarrus in North Carolina, but I believe there is a connection. I hope to confirm it for the benefit of my mother, Elma Cobbaris-Hart, who will be turning 90 years in May. —Betty Hart Johnson

You can approach the problem of determining whether or not your ancestors have any connection to Stephen Cabarrus of North Carolina in three concurrent ways:

First, you can research the estate of Stephen Cabarrus and find out what happened to the slaves after his death and see whether he lists any of them by name in his will.

Second, you can continue to search for records of your ancestor to piece together the details of his life to see whether he ever lived near Stephen Cabarrus’ planation or is of any relation to slaves known to have been held by the Cabarrus family.

Third, you can track down descendants of Stephen Cabarrus, ask them to have their DNA tested, and then compare the results to those of descendants of Lawrence Cobarris.

Researching the Records of Stephen Cabarrus

Stephen Cabarrus was born in France in 1754 and immigrated to America during the Revolutionary War. He settled in Chowan County, North Carolina, and served two terms as the Speaker of the House of Commons in North Carolina. His first term was from 1789 to 1793 and the second term was from 1800 to 1805. In 1792, the newly formed Cabarrus County was named after him, as he cast the deciding vote to establish the county. He spent most of his life in Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina where he owned land and held many slaves. He died in 1808 at the age of 54.


What Happened to People Enslaved by the Cabarrus Family?

Although he died more than two decades before your ancestor, Lawrence Cobbaris, was born, it is still possible that your family surname was derived from that of Stephen Cabarrus. Perhaps they continued to be enslaved by the Cabarrus family after the death of Stephen, or your forebears might have assumed this surname before they were sold to another family or emancipated. To find out whether this is true, it’s useful to learn more about what happened to the slaves of Stephen Cabarrus after his death.


First, we searched for will and probate documents for Stephen, as these often contain information about any slaves a person held at the time of his or her death.

Stephen’s will was written on Oct. 10, 1807, and a digital copy can be found in the collection of North Carolina Probate Records available from FamilySearch.org. In his will, he listed several slaves by name including “the negro woman Mariann the washing servant” whom he left to his brother, Auguste. He also gives to Sophia Neil “a negro girl named Poll, daughter of negro woman Nelly, deceased.” Furthermore, he wrote, “to Polly Neil, her sister, I give and bequeath the negro girl named Milly sister to Poll.”


He left to his brother, Auguste his entire remaining estate, including all slaves. Stephen further stated that after the death of Auguste, he wanted all of his slaves that he did not leave to his nephews to be sold at auction by his executors on 12 months of credit.

He then listed the following slaves to be given to his nephews Thomas and Augustus:

* Paulom the cooper and his wife, Mary Louisa, their children, James and Molly

* Prude, the cook

* The four children of Mariann, the washing woman: Joe, George, Affey, and Rachel.


* Nancy the weaver and her four children, Prude, Chloe, little Nancy, and William

* Ben and wife Dolly and their children, Cyrus, Kayla, and Tinne

* Jarvis

He also stipulated that for the slaves that were to be sold, he desired that no child under the age of 10 be separated from the mother. He then mentioned a female servant named Silvia Lorient. He stated that she was once his slave but had been manumitted. He wished that 12 months after his death she be given $100, and that during those 12 months she be allowed to remain at the Pembroke Plantation.


Cabarrus wrote that he wished immediately after his death to manumit his slave named John, who served him for many years. He further stated that if John could not be formally manumitted:

“It is my desire that the said negro John be permitted to go to northward and that my said executors give him a certificate under the hands and seals emancipating him and discharging him from slavery or any duties whatsoever that might be claimed by any of my heirs or assignees. Should they succeed in obtaining his emancipation, it is my desire that he be supported and maintained at the expense for twelve months and I give and bequeath unto said negro John $100 to be paid at the end of the twelve months.”


From this one will, we now know additional detailed information about some of the slaves of Stephen Cabarrus. We also know that he left most of his estate to his brother, Auguste, and his nephews, Augustus and Thomas Cabarrus. This information will be helpful in searches for further information about the family, such as land records and probate documents for Auguste and his sons.

We then searched the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules for records of the nephews of Stephen Cabarrus owning slaves, but we were unable to find any entries for the Cabarrus family in Chowan County, North Carolina. This suggests that perhaps the family moved from the area or sold all of their slaves.


Another useful resource that might have more information about the enslaved African Americans at the plantation of Stephen Cabarrus is the Cabarrus and Slade family papers that are held at the University of North Carolina. This collection contains family papers, wills, probate records and personal letters from the Cabarrus family. The finding aid for this collection has information on how to access these documents for research.

The will was written in 1807, too early to give us any direct information about Lawrence; however, it may have contained information about his ancestors. To determine whether there is any connection to this family, you can now begin to work backward with records of Lawrence Cobbaris.


What Were Lawrence Cobbaris’ Origins in North Carolina?

Lawrence’s death certificate did not list his parents by name, but this is not uncommon, especially when the person who died was advanced in age. Since his death certificate did not give a lot of information about his ancestors, you can begin to compile information from other records. Lawrence lived until after 1920, so U.S. census records will be especially useful, as you can probably find records of him in five different census years. It is best to start with the latest census record you can find and use the clues you find to work backward to the previous census year.


In searching census records for Lawrence, we found that in 1920 he was living with his son, William “Cabaris,” in Emathla, Marion County, Fla. The record shows that he was widowed at the time and had been born circa 1832 in North Carolina. Both of his parents were also listed as being born in North Carolina. His son, William, was born in Florida circa 1882. This suggests that maybe he moved to Florida before he acquired the parcel of land in 1890.

Going back a little further to the 1910 census, we see that Lawrence was enumerated in the Martin Precinct in Marion County, Fla. He was listed as being a 75-year-old black male, who was born in Florida. His parents were also listed as being born in Florida. He was living next door to William Cabarrus.


An immediate search of the 1900 census did not return any results for Lawrence Cabarrus, but since he had a surname that could be easily misspelled by census enumerators we used some advanced search features to find a record of Lawrence. Most genealogy websites, such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org allow you to restrict your search to a certain area, such as a town, county or state. You can also narrow down to other fields, such as gender, race and birth year.

In this case, we did a search and restricted our results to records found in Marion County for a black male with the first name Lawrence. Using these criteria, we found that there was Lawrence “Cabarnass” living in Blitchton Precinct in Marion County, Fla. This record shows that Lawrence was born in January 1850 in South Carolina and was married circa 1870. He was living with his wife, Julia, who was also born in 1850 in South Carolina. Together they had 11 children, and eight were still living in 1900. All of their children were born in Florida. Their oldest daughter, Judian, was born in February 1872, and their youngest son, Luther, was born in October 1895. The records also show that Lawrence owned his own property in 1900, which provides some more support that this is a record of your ancestor.


You now have three possible census records for your ancestors; however, they all give very different information. They are probably all records of your ancestor, since Lawrence’s death record states that his wife’s name was Julia and shows that he was born circa 1842. This is a good example of how other documents can help you determine whether or not a census record is in fact a record of your ancestor.

Also, don’t be alarmed if the place names in census records don’t match where you think your ancestor lived. Most census records were compiled according to enumeration districts, which could occupy more than one town. Plus, place names could change over time as towns and cities grew.


Using the information we found from the previous census years, we tried to find a record of Lawrence in the 1880 census, as we know that he married Julia and had some children in Florida by that year. Once again, we were unable to find any records, so we did another advanced search, for a black woman named Julia born in South Carolina around 1850. This returned a record for Julia “Chabias,” who was living with her husband, “Lorence Chabias” in Precinct 4, Marion County, Fla., in 1880. According to this record, Lawrence was born circa 1843 in South Carolina. Both of his parents were born in South Carolina as well. He was living with his wife and their five children.

There is a lot of conflicting information for all of these census records for Lawrence Cabarrus, so how do you make sense of all of these records? Since most records state that he was born in either South Carolina or North Carolina, he was probably born in one of these states, rather than Florida. (As we have mentioned in previous columns, the accuracy of information recorded in a census depends on who was giving the information to the census taker.)


Also, it is possible that he was born after 1832. Usually (but not always!) earlier census records that list a person’s age tend to be more accurate, as they are closer to the year of birth. Keeping this in mind, your next step is to locate a record of Lawrence in the 1870 census. You can now expand your search to census records in Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. You will also want to search marriage records for these states to see if you can find a marriage between him and Julia around 1870. As you can see from our search of census records, it’s important to search for a variety of spellings of the Cabarrus surname.

What About That Homestead Act of 1862 Land Certificate?

In your own research, you found a certificate (a copy of which you forwarded to us) granting land to Lawrence Cabarrus under the Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act was created by Congress as a way of encouraging westward expansion and settling new lands in America. Land was granted to individuals who filed an application and paid all the accompanying fees. The land was free, as long as it was developed over the next five years. This usually meant that a house or farm was built on the site.


Acquiring land through the Homestead Act was available to all United States citizens. This included African Americans after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which no longer limited citizenship by race or color. Florida was the only territory on the East Coast that had land available under the Homestead Act.

The applications for land under the Homestead Act can include more detailed genealogical information, such as a person’s place of birth and their previous residences. None of the Homestead Act applications are digitized; however, they can still be ordered from the National Archives and Records Administration. To do this, it is important that you know the exact legal description of the land. Since you have a certificate showing that Lawrence “Cabarras” was granted land in 1890, you already have the exact legal description. More information on ordering copies of Homestead Act applications and accompanying documents can be found at National Park Service Homestead National Monument of America’s website (pdf).


What About the South Carolina vs. North Carolina Discrepancy?

It is possible that Lawrence could still be related to the Cabarrus family of North Carolina, even though many of his records show his origins in South Carolina. Perhaps his ancestors assumed the Cabarrus surname after leaving the plantation in North Carolina and kept the name after they were sold, sent elsewhere to work or were emancipated. Since the surname Cabarrus is fairly rare in the south (Stephen Cabarrus migrated from France) and many records of Lawrence had similar spelling of Cabarrus, you are right to think that there is at least some connection to the plantation of Stephen Cabarrus.


We encourage you to continue to work backward to find more records of Lawrence and his ancestors in North and South Carolina. Also, keep searching the records of the Cabarrus family and see if you can find what happened to the slaves after the death of Stephen’s brother, Auguste.

How Can DNA testing Prove the Family Connection?

As mentioned, you can compare DNA test results for the descendants of Lawrence Cobbaris with those for descendants of Stephen Cabarrus. Two kinds of tests can be performed: autosomal DNA, which is the test that gives us ethnic admixture predictions; and Y-DNA, which must be done on male relatives known to be descended from Lawrence Cobbaris and Stephen Cabarrus.


Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore told us in a series of emails that in the case of autosomal analysis, your best chance of getting a positive match, if there is one to be had, is having test done on a member of the oldest living generation descended from Lawrence Cobbaris and Stephen Cabarrus – on your side that appears to be your mother, Cobbaris-Hart. She cautions you to keep in mind that if the relationship is more distant than second cousins, a family relationship can’t be ruled out even if there is no match. “They will both inherit [autosomal DNA] from their common ancestor, but they may not inherit the same DNA from that ancestor. That is why, theoretically, only about 90 percent of true third cousins will show a match and about half of fourth cousins,” she explained. Among the services providing autosomal DNA testing are 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and Family Tree DNA.

In the case of Y-DNA testing, you can get a match through the males in your respective family lines, which is informative even if the possible family connection is more distant than second cousins. The best strategy, said Moore, “would be a Y-DNA test of a male Cobarris (relationship to Elma: brother, son of a brother, male paternal cousin) and a Y-DNA test on one or more of Stephen's direct male line descendants carrying the surname Cabarrus or similar ones.” She added, “Of course, this test would only bear fruit if Lawrence was a direct male line descendant of Stephen or his father/brothers, rather than descended through a female who took Stephen's surname (for example, a female slave who was fathered by Stephen).”


There is one Cabarrus in the Family Tree DNA database, said Moore, so a male line relative of Stephen may have already been Y-DNA tested. If so, instead of tracking down a Stephen Cabarrus descendant you could have a male Cobbaris relative take the test via Family Tree DNA. “If they are indeed a match, the Cabarrus male will come up in the results,” she said.

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 editor-in-chief 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 Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The NEHGS, founded in 1845, 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.