Federal soldiers at the Appomattox courthouse in April 1865
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My great-great-grandmother Leah Ballard Ancrum Williams was born circa 1840 and died in 1917 in Camden, Kershaw County, S.C. It was said that she bore 18 children, some before and some after slavery ended. We recently discovered her 1917 death certificate listing her mother’s name as Hannah Reynolds. This was great news to us, since we’d searched for her mother’s name for years.

On a hunch I did a Google search for “Hannah Reynolds slave,” and I came across the story of a Hannah Reynolds who was the only civilian casualty at Appomattox. She was enslaved by Dr. Samuel Coleman, who, realizing that his house sat on the periphery of the battlefield, took his family and fled, leaving Hannah to mind the house. In the final battle, a volley of bullets pierced the wall, striking Hannah. She died several days later, but after the Confederacy had surrendered. We like to think she died a free woman.

We’d like to know: Is this Hannah Reynolds our Hannah Reynolds? —Sharon Harper

Researching female ancestors can be a challenge for anyone, and it can be even more difficult when researching female African-American ancestors before the Civil War. Fortunately, you have already found out that your third great-grandmother was named Hannah Reynolds. To determine if she was the same Hannah Reynolds who was the only civilian casualty at the infamous battle that ended the Civil War, you can approach this question by working in two different ways: first by researching the Hannah Reynolds of Appomattox and second by searching for even more records of your ancestor of the same name. As you gather information on each of these women, you’ll want to look for any similarities—such as age, place of birth, location of relatives and the use of common family names—to see if there is any evidence that links your ancestor to the Civil War. Here is how you can get started.

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Research Hannah Reynolds of Appomattox, Va.

Find out as much as possible about the Hannah Reynolds who was fatally injured at the Battle of Appomattox on April 9, 1865. From a variety of books on the battle, we found that Hannah was about 40 years old at the time of her death and was the only slave owned by Samuel H. Coleman and his wife, who owned the house where she was shot. It’s said that Samuel’s father-in-law gave him the house after he married.

If Hannah was, in fact, 40 years old when she was killed at Appomattox, she was probably born circa 1825. The records you shared with us show that Leah Ballard was probably born between 1836 and 1840. From this it seems that Hannah Reynolds might be a little too young to be the mother of Leah Ballard, but the information we found so far about Hannah was just an estimate of her age. Finding documentation of her actual age will help you determine whether or not it is feasible that she was Leah’s mother.

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To learn more about Hannah’s life before the Civil War, you’ll want to research the family of Samuel Coleman to see if you can find records of any slaves he had. For example, the 1860 U.S. census record for Samuel H. Coleman shows that he was living in Appomattox County, Va., with his wife, Amanda, and working as a farmer. The record also shows that he was born in 1837 in Virginia. Since he had his own house at the time, it is possible that he owned slaves.

We looked him up on the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedules and found an entry for his household. We see that he owned only one slave in 1860, but it’s not quite what we expect, since the census record lists that the slave was a 14-year-old boy. This means that Hannah was enslaved by this family between the years of 1860 and 1865.

We see from this 1850 census record that Samuel H. Coleman was the son of Schuyler P. Coleman, a farmer in Appomattox. A quick search of the 1860 Slave Schedules shows that Schuyler owned several slaves; however, none was close in age to Hannah Reynolds.

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Next you’ll want to try to determine when Hannah came to live with the household. Usually this requires combing through some land and probate records, but almost all of the Appomattox County Court records were destroyed in a fire in 1892. Because these records are lost, you’ll need to find other sources of information to learn about the sale of slaves in Appomattox.

A good place to start is to look at advertisements published in the newspapers for the sale and auction of slaves. Typically, these announcements gave mostly a physical description and only occasionally gave out a name. However, they can give you some insight about how slaves were sold around Appomattox and where they came from.

For example, you’ll want to see if any slaves from South Carolina were being sold near Appomattox. The Virginia Chronicle project has many digital copies of Virginia newspapers from before and after the Civil War, including papers from Lynchburg, which is a large city near Appomattox. These are at the Library of Virginia.

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Since the story of Hannah Reynolds is tied to a major event in U.S. history, there may be some primary sources available that can give you more information about Hannah’s life and death. The National Park Service operates the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. The site contains many of the historic buildings, which feature artifacts related to the battle. You may want to consider contacting the museum on-site to see if it has any additional information or primary sources concerning the life of Hannah Reynolds.

Once you find out a little bit more about Hannah Reynolds, you will want to do some more research on the family of Leah Ballard in Kershaw County, S.C., to see if there is any connection to the Hannah Reynolds who was killed at Appomattox.

Hannah Reynolds in Kershaw County

First you’ll want to see if you can find any records of Hannah Reynolds living in Kershaw County, where many of her descendants lived. Start by searching the 1870 census. From our initial search, we were unable to find any records of a woman named Hannah Reynolds; however, it is possible that she died before this year or she had married and was using a different surname.

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In your own research, you found an 1850 Census Slave Schedule record for L.W. Ballard that you believe lists your ancestor Leah Ballard. To confirm this and to see if her mother was living with her, you’ll want to find out when L.W. Ballard died and see if you can find will and probate documents for his estate if he died before the end of the Civil War.

We did find a record of L.W. Ballard in the 1850 census, which shows that he was born in South Carolina circa 1810. Interestingly, there was also an 8-year-old African-American boy named Joseph Thickle enumerated in the same household, but no other African Americans were listed by name. We were unable to find a record of L.W. Ballard in the 1860 census, which suggests that he died or moved away in the 10 years between.

We used the South Carolina Probate Records, Bound Volumes collection at FamilySearch to look up any possible will or probate documents for L.W. Ballard. We found that this county had will records online only up to 1868. The collection didn’t have any entries for L.W. Ballard, but it did have a will record for a Rebecca Ballard. Her will names several slaves, giving both their first and last names, but we didn’t see any mention of a woman named Leah or Hannah Reynolds. To continue your research, you will want to verify when L.W. Ballard died and see if you can find any will or probate documents.

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Because we aren’t finding many records of Hannah Reynolds in Kershaw County, you’ll want to look to earlier generations to see if you can get clues about Hannah’s life from the records of her children.

Looking to Earlier Generations to Learn About the Past

One way to learn more about a particular ancestor is to gather as much information as possible about their children. Their children’s birth dates and places can give you a timeline of where your ancestor lived. Also, as you can see from Leah Ballard’s death record, the parents’ birthplace is occasionally listed.

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In this case, only her mother’s information was given, but the record does state that Hannah Reynolds was born in Kershaw County. This fact is supported by the 1880 census record of Leah that you shared with us, which lists both of her parent’s birthplaces as South Carolina.

Next, let’s see if we can find any other records of Hannah Reynolds’ children, or siblings of Leah Ballard. We searched vital records for the state of South Carolina, restricting our search to records of Kershaw County, but we didn’t find any other records for someone with a mother named Hannah Reynolds. It’s important to remember that vital records in South Carolina generally weren’t kept consistently until the beginning of the early 20th century. As such, there could still be siblings of Leah Ballard, but they may have died before good records were kept, or their records are incomplete.

So far, all of the records for Leah Ballard seem to indicate that she and her family lived in Kershaw County for a long time. The fact that her mother was listed as being born in Kershaw County probably means that she lived there most of her life. Although it’s possible that she left South Carolina to go to Virginia, it would be quite the journey, since Kershaw County is almost 300 miles from Appomattox.

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You’ll want to keep researching land and probate records for any document that concerns Hannah Reynolds of both Appomattox and Kershaw County. As you collect your information, keep comparing the records of the two women and see if the stories fit together. For example, if you find a record of Hannah Reynolds living in Kershaw County after 1865, you’ll know for sure that your ancestor was not the Hannah Reynolds who died at the Battle of Appomattox.

In fact, it seems that you have encountered what we sometimes find when tracing family trees for guests in the TV series Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: the power of a name, and the false leads that a shared name can create. Think of family names as the surname version of a homophone: two words that sound the same (they may or may not be spelled exactly the same) but have completely different meanings. Lots of people, for example, surnamed Washington think they’re descended from George himself. Not. It’s the same with “Jefferson.” Or, in my own case, “Gates” (as in Horatio, not billionaire “Cousin Bill”!).

We wish you well in your continued search but think the likelihood of the Appomattox connection is slim. However, your Hannah Reynolds sounds every bit as interesting! We’re so happy you have found her.

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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. 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.