Free Women of Color With their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, circa 1764-1796
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a 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, 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.

This is the sad part about my search! All of the Abbeville records before 1871 have been lost as a result of fires, so there is absolutely nowhere to look. I have found articles about his murder in old newspapers and even a book, but that is it. I would really like to find out who owned my great-great-grandfather before 1860 or find out if he was a free person of color. ‚ÄĒJack Weston Nash

From what you have found so far, you have a very interesting ancestor! If you are having difficulty locating local records prior to 1871 because of fires, you could turn to national records to trace Hy Nash back further in time.

First Check Post-Slavery Census Records

Since you have been able to trace your great-grandfather to Abbeville, S.C., in 1871, he was likely living there in 1870, when the U.S. census was enumerated. The census record not only could provide an earlier record for your great-grandfather but will also contain information about his household that may help you identify relatives.

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When you are having difficulty locating records on an individual, it is usually helpful to search for documents of relatives because they can provide clues about your ancestor.

We searched the 1870 census on FamilySearch, which has a record for Hy Nash in Cokesbury, Abbeville. According to this record, Hy Nash was a 40-year-old ‚ÄúMulatto‚ÄĚ who was born in South Carolina. This matches what you know about Hy Nash, who was born circa 1830.

There were eight people living in this household. It seems likely that Ellen Nash, age 36, was Hy Nash’s wife, and the rest of the people in the household (all age 18 or younger) were his children. If you look at the original record, you will see that Hy Nash’s occupation was county commissioner and he could read and write, as could his younger children.

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It can also be helpful to note the households of neighbors, since closely related families often settled near each other. In this case, there is a Jasper James and a James James, both recorded as 35 years old and Mulatto, living directly next door. The previous page of the census lists a number of black families, including the Arnold and Butter families, all of whom were born in South Carolina. Perhaps these were relatives of your Hy Nash.

Then Check Census Records and Schedules During Slavery

To answer your question of whether Hy Nash was free or enslaved in 1860, a first step would be to check the 1860 census to see if he is listed in his own household. If he was a free man in 1860, he would have been recorded on the census by name. Since the record may have recorded his name differently, you could compare his household in 1870 with records in 1860 to see if you can locate a close match.

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Based on the 1870 census record, Hy Nash should have the following people in his household in 1860: Ellen, born circa 1834; S. Nash (male), born circa 1852; T. Nash (female), born circa 1854; C. Nash (female), born circa 1857; and Jm. Nash (male), born circa 1859.

We did not locate him as a free man in this census, although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The next step is to turn to the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules. They mostly recorded the slave owner’s name and do not list slaves by name, which makes noting the age and gender info found on the 1870 census for Hy Nash and his family important.

Since the enslaved were not named, you will need to compare what you know about your Nash family with the descriptions of slaves included in the census. Many slaves adopted the surname of their former owner after the end of slavery, so your best option would be to determine if there were Nash slave owners in or around Abbeville in 1860.

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We located a slave owner named M. Nash living in Laurens, S.C., with a male slave about 30 years old, who would have been the right age to be your Hy Nash.

Laurens is only 35 miles from Abbeville, so it is possible that your Hy Nash moved to Abbeville after the Civil War. Listed directly under the 30-year-old man in the record are a number of children, including a male born circa 1851, a female born circa 1853, a female born circa 1854, a female born circa 1857 and a male under a year old. These are very close matches to the ages of Hy Nash’s children. This record is strong evidence that they may be your Hy Nash and his children.

To determine who M. Nash was, you can search the 1860 U.S. census for M. Nash in Laurens. You will find Miles Nash as the head of household with a wife and eight children. This record was recorded by J.W. Motte on June 30, 1860, which matches the day and recorder of the slave schedule, suggesting that we have located the same person.

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You could also check the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedules for Miles Nash to see if you can locate any slaves matching the description of your Hy Nash.

Also Check Property and Probate Records

Because the records indicate the possibility that Miles Nash owned Hy Nash prior to the end of slavery, you could search for land and probate records for Miles Nash and his family to see if any of them mentions Hy Nash. FamilySearch has South Carolina Probate Records available to browse online. Since you know you are looking for Miles Nash in Laurens County, you could go straight to the volumes for that county to see if he left a will.

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It’s true that we did not locate Hy Nash in the 1860 U.S. census as the head of a household, suggesting that he was not free by that date, but because census records are not always complete, you could still explore the possibility that he was free prior to the end of slavery. Freeafricanamericans.com has an article on members of the Nash family who were free before the end of slavery. The individuals listed in this source were from North Carolina in the mid-18th century. You could search for more information on them after the dates included in the article to see if you can connect your Hy Nash to this family. 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.