Tracing Your Roots: Was My Black Kin’s Land a Gift from a White Man?

 Joe P. Daniels (Family photo courtesy of William Daniels)
Joe P. Daniels (Family photo courtesy of William Daniels)

Dear Professor Gates:

My paternal great-grandfather, Joe P. Daniels, and his mother, my great-great-grandmother Matilda Jackson, settled in a small community called New Hope in Kilgore, Texas, by way of North Carolina. The story goes that one of the main contributors of this community was an Army officer named John Holt. He fell for Matilda Jackson, who already had children Joe, Ada and Ida Jackson. He relocated the family—first to Arkansas, then to East Texas.

According to the 1880 census record that I’ve located, my great-grandfather was listed as mulatto. He was one of the only colored men in the area to have land free and clear, roughly 30 acres, which he passed on to his children. I wonder if John Holt had anything to do with the inheritance. I request your help confirming a connection between John Holt and the Jackson family. —William Daniels

Your question noting your great-grandfather Joe P. Daniels’ “mulatto” designation implies that he was mixed race, and 1) somehow that ties into his being one of the few men of African descent in the area to hold land, and 2) it could be relevant to his mother’s alleged relationship with John Holt. We should note that, as was stated in a previous Tracing Your Root column, the racial status of a person listed in the federal census (black, white or mulatto) “was ultimately the personal interpretation of the census taker, based on assumptions made regarding skin color and other aspects of an individual’s appearance, regardless of what the occupant of the home told her or him. Therefore, one can’t necessarily infer parentage, complexion or much else based on that designation in a census record.”


You could take an autosomal DNA test through one of the major genealogy testing companies, such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA. The results will include an estimate of your ancestral origins, called admixture, broken down into percentages. Taking into consideration what you know about the rest of your ancestral lines, if the test results reflect more European ancestry than expected, that information could be illuminating. These tests also compare your DNA with a database of others who have already taken DNA tests and, in many cases, provided their family trees. If there is a descendant of John Holt tested, shared DNA could be detected between you, indicating a genetic relationship to Holt.

Since you are male and descend from Joe through the direct male line, you could also have a Y-chromosome test done. If you later locate a patrilineal male descendant of John Holt with whom to compare DNA, you could then determine whether you carry a matching Y-DNA signature to Holt’s male line, which would prove that you are related. Ideally, you would want to have the oldest generation tested on this ancestral line for the autosomal DNA test, but you told us that many of your older kin on that line are deceased, so this may not be an option.

How Did Your Ancestor Come by His Land?

To answer your question, we decided to focus on whether we could locate a document that would help point us to when and where Joe P. Daniels became the legal and lawful owner of about 30 acres of land. That could help us find out whether he purchased the property or it was bequeathed or subsidized, as your family story goes. Determining all of that would allow us to see if there are records linking his property ownership to John Holt.


We started with census records, which frequently included information about property ownership. Specifically, the 1870, 1900, 1910 and 1920 U.S. census population schedules included questions that would indicate whether or not a family owned the land and/or home in which they were enumerated. We began with the 1870 census, the first one that listed all of the African Americans it counted by name, hoping that Matilda Jackson or another member of the Jackson household might have been listed as a property owner. (Joe P. Daniels would have been too young at the time to own land in Kilgore, Texas.)

Interestingly, we first located a Joe Jackson, not Joe Daniels, residing with his mother, Matilda Jackson, in Precinct 2, Rusk County, Texas. Also in the household were his two sisters, Ada and Ida Jackson, as well as James Daniels (born in North Carolina in 1851), Emma Camp (born in Texas in 1854) and Albert Jackson (born in Texas in 1856). No relationship was indicated in the census, so we cannot assume how or if these other individuals were related to Joe Daniels or Matilda Jackson. However, it is possible, given their surnames, that they were relatives.


We then checked the eighth and ninth columns of the census record, which indicated the value of real estate and the value of the personal estate owned, respectively. Yet when it came to the household of Matilda Jackson, the census enumerator included check marks in the eighth column rather than a dollar amount. And since the census enumerator did include a dollar amount for other households on the same census sheet, we cannot know what was meant by the check marks, since this practice was not included in the 1870 census instructions (pdf).

Next, we located the 1880 census record that you mentioned, with 19-year-old Joe Daniel (a variant spelling) living with his widowed mother, Matilda Jackson, and siblings in nearby Gregg County, Texas. However, it was in the 1900 census (back in Rusk County with his wife, Alice, and nine children) that we located our first evidence that Joe P. Daniels was a property owner. In columns 25-28 of the census, the questions included the following: whether the property was owned by the head of the household or whether it was rented (25); whether the real estate was owned free or mortgaged (26); whether the property was a farm or a house (27); and the number of the farm as indicated on the farm schedule, also known as the agricultural schedule (28).


According to the transcribed responses, we had evidence that Joe P. Daniels owned the farm property where his family resided; however, it was a mortgaged property. In addition, while the census enumerator indicated that Daniels’ farm was No. 163 on the farm (or agricultural) schedule, it turns out that the agricultural schedules for 1900 and 1910 were destroyed by congressional order, preventing us from accessing the information they contained. It is worth noting here that the next-door neighbor of Joe P. Daniels was a gentleman by the name of Nathan Daniels, who was also born in Texas and also owned mortgaged farm property where his family resided. Future research on your part could determine if they are related.

Joe P. Daniels and his family remained in Rusk County, Texas, at the time of the 1910 census. As of April 10, 1910, Joe owned the farm free of a mortgage. As a result, we can be confident that your paternal great-grandfather entered into an agreement to mortgage property in Rusk County sometime before 1900 and had completed his payments by the enumeration of the census in 1910. A record of these transactions should be available in the records of Rusk County.


In order to determine when Joe Daniels acquired the land (between 1880 and 1900), check the land records of Rusk County to find out if there are any deeds or mortgages for Joe Daniels. The land deeds of Rusk County can be ordered on microfilm from the Family History Library and delivered to your nearest Family History Center for a fee of $7.50. A more complete set of records for Rusk County can be found at the Texas State Library, which, in addition to land deeds, contains tax records and vital records. Contact your local library to arrange an interlibrary loan of the microfilmed records you wish to access.

How Does John Holt Enter the Picture?

Next, if a land deed cannot be located, it is also possible that John Holt bequeathed the 30 acres of land to Joe P. Daniels at the time of his death, and Joe later mortgaged the land in order to, for example, help save money or settle other debts. Therefore, to locate a last will and testament for John Holt (also known as a probate record), we examined some additional cemetery and census records to determine his residence at the time of his death. According to the 1870 census, a John T. Holt (transcribed as Halt) was a white man who was enumerated in Precinct 2 of Rusk County and born in Louisiana about 1844. While this birth year would make John close to 10 years younger than Matilda Jackson, he was the only John Holt enumerated in Precinct 2, Rusk County, and therefore the likely candidate for your family story. At least we have established that they were neighbors.


A gravestone for John Thomas Holt, husband of Lavinia Holt, shows that he may have died in 1879 in Gregg County. Knowing this, you should search the probate records of Rusk County for any records for John T. Holt between 1875 and 1885. The probate records of Rusk County must also be ordered from the Family History Library or the Texas State Library as described above.

If John T. Holt was, in fact, an Army officer, we suggest searching the database Fold3 (subscription required) for any pension records to determine whether they also name Joe Daniels in them. You can also check Bounty and Donation Land Grants of Texas, 1835-1888 to determine if Joe P. Daniels acquired the land from John Holt through a land bounty issued for Holt’s service in the Civil War. A brief search by us did not yield an exact match, but we did see a John E. Holt listed.


We wish you luck in your continuing search for answers.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Zachary J. Garceau, 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,, 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.


CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist and founder of the DNA Detectives, was also consulted for this answer.

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The Thugnificent Pangaean

My grandfathers farm was not a gift from a white man, but an extraordinary act of trust on behalf of a white neighbor. For 30 years, my grandfather paid a white neighbor the mortgage money for his 10-acre spread. On her death, her heirs gifted the land back to my grandfather. He trusted her and she stayed honest despite being immersed in biased bigoted lawyers, deep south real estate scams and theft, and corrupt small town clerks, assessors, and sheriffs, all common in rural Virginia after the early 1900s.