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Dear Professor Gates:

Family legend says that my great-great-great-great-grandfather Isom Ellis was a free man of color who bought his freedom and later that of his wife, Patience Bynum. I’d love to know more about him. He was born in 1802 in Wilson County, N.C. I believe he had a son named Robert. —Kevin J. Hagan Jr.

Your family legend describes a scenario that was far more common than many people realize. As reported in a 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column at The Root, the 488,070 free black people living in the U.S. in 1860 made up 10 percent of the total black population. North Carolina had the third-largest free black population (30,463) in the South, after Maryland with 83,942 and Virginia with 58,042. So the chances that your family story is true are certainly consistent with what we know about the relatively large number of free people of color in North Carolina.

Start With Census Records

A great first place to start researching your ancestor and verifying your family’s story is census records. This is because all free persons, regardless of race, were enumerated in these census returns. One exception was Native Americans, since they were not taxed by the federal government, but freed African Americans were included in the standard census returns as early as the first census taken in 1790.

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In a broad search of all federal census returns for Isom Ellis, the first record we find of him and his family is in the 1870 census. This is perhaps one of the most important census years for those researching African-American ancestry, since this was the first year to list all African Americans by name, along with their ages and places of birth.

In the record for Isom Ellis and his family, we see that he was living in the town of Stantonsburg in Wilson County. He was born in approximately 1803 in North Carolina. He was living with his wife, 62-year-old Patience Ellis, as well as an 18-year-old boy named Jacob Ellis. There was also the family of 47-year-old Amos Ellis living next door, who may have been a relative.

We then continued to work backward by searching the 1860 census for any records of Isom Ellis or his family. Our initial search did not return any results for Isom. This is significant; we’ll elaborate on why later on.

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We then broadened our search by using the advanced options to look for anyone with the surname Ellis who lived in Wilson County. The 1860 census returns did record a person’s race; however, you cannot narrow your search results by race on either Ancestry.com or FamilySearch, so you will have to look at each individual record to determine the person’s race. The instructions for the enumerators of the 1860 census (pdf) gave the following information:

Under heading 6, entitled “Color,” in all cases where the person is white leave the space blank; in all cases where the person is black without admixture insert the letter “B;” if a mulatto, or of mixed blood, write “M;” if an Indian write “Ind.” It is very desirable to have these instructions carefully observed.

So from reading these instructions, we now know that if this column was left blank, it wasn’t because the enumerator was careless or forgot; it was because the person listed on the page was likely white. In our search of the 1860 census, we did not find any person with the surname Ellis who was listed as any race other than white. As mentioned, a free black person should have been listed in the census.

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Locate the Slave Owner

The next step in finding more about the life of Isom Ellis is to try to determine by whom he was enslaved. This will also be useful for confirming your family’s story that he did purchase his own freedom. In our search we found that there were quite a few Ellis families living in nearby Saratoga, as well as other surrounding towns, including Wilson and Gardner, N.C. In looking at a map, we see that Saratoga is only about five miles from Stantonsburg, and there is an Ellis Street, as well as an Archie Ellis Pond, in between. This indicates that an Ellis family may have owned land there and that perhaps there was an Ellis farm or plantation in this area.

As you continue to research your ancestors, keep in mind that the names of geographic locations can change and that new counties were formed over time, especially in the Southern states. For example, the 1870 census record for Isom Ellis and his family shows that they were living in Stantonsburg in Wilson County. When Stantonsburg was first incorporated in 1817, it was a part of nearby Edgecombe County, since Wilson County was not created until 1855. Given this, you’ll also want to search for records of the Ellis family in Edgecombe County before 1855.

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Using this information, we then searched the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules to see if perhaps Isom and Patience were enslaved by the Ellis family. Since we found there were Ellis families living in nearby Saratoga in Wilson County, we first focused our search there. We found that there were four heads of households with the Ellis surname who owned slaves.

Keeping in mind that Isom would have been about 57 years old in 1860, we then looked at the entries for each family. We found that Penelope Ellis owned 19 slaves. The oldest was a 75-year-old female, but there was no entry for a man who was the right age to be Isom. Robert A. Ellis owned five slaves, with the oldest being a 50-year-old man. Hickman Ellis owned 23 slaves, including a 55-year-old male who was listed as black and a 55-year-old female who was listed as mulatto. William C. Ellis owned 13 slaves, but the oldest male was only 29 years old.

The entry for Hickman Ellis is the most interesting because he had a male and a female slave who were around the same age as Isom and Patience Ellis. We suggest continuing your research by searching the 1850 Slave Schedule for records of Hickman Ellis and other families with the Ellis surname who owned slaves.

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However, before you look further into Hickman Ellis, it might be useful to learn more about the Ellis family and their history in the areas of Saratoga and Stantonsburg, N.C. Because Isom Ellis was born shortly after 1800, we first searched the 1800 census in Edgecombe County, N.C., to see if there were any slaveholders with the surname Ellis. These households had the most slaves: John Ellis Sr. owned 27 slaves, and William Ellis Sr. owned 13 slaves.

We then searched to see if we could find a will or probate document for John or William Ellis in Edgecombe County. We did not see a will for John Ellis, but we did see that William Ellis left a will that was proved (meaning that he died and it was presented to the probate court) in 1813. In William Ellis’ will, he listed several slaves he left to both his wife and his children. The most interesting part is that when he listed the slaves he left to his wife, he listed them by name. Remarkably, he wrote, “I leave unto my said wife Unity Ellis, the following negroes, To wit, Arthur, Jonas, Isom, Belford, Listle, Pat, Minah, and Tesary & Hester.”

From this record alone, we can’t definitively determine whether or not this is a record of your ancestor, but it is likely that this is your forebear. Your fourth great-grandfather, Isom, would have been only 10 or 11 years old in 1813, but the fact that there was an Isom Ellis who was a part of the estate of William Ellis, and who lived near what is today a part of Wilson County, presents a significant lead for your research.

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Fortunately, Isom remained in the Ellis family, so we can continue to search for more records of him by searching for a will or probate document for Unity Ellis. We found that her will was proved in 1818 in Edgecombe County, but it did not list any slaves by name. We also found records of her and her husband in the estate books of Edgecombe County, which give a more detailed account of how an estate was actually divided. We found one interesting entry that stated the following:

Pursuant to the annexed order to us direction we the commissioners met on the 19th of March at the late dwelling house of William Ellis, deceased, and thought proper to divide the negroes between the heirs instead of selling them, after claiming the negroes that belonging to the Estate of said deceased [Unity Ellis] a draw was made as follows:

The record continues to list several of the slaves of William and Unity Ellis, many of whom were listed by name in William’s will from 1813. The last entry states that the slave named Isham was given to Willie Ellis. Although the name is spelled “Isham,” it has a very similar sound to “Isom.” There can be little doubt that Isham and Isom are the same person, since census takers spelled names phonetically.

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Search “Browse Only” Probate Record Collections on FamilySearch

All of the will and probate documents we found for the Ellis family are available online for free on the website FamilySearch. As you can see from these records, will and probate documents can be valuable resources for African-American genealogy. FamilySearch has many collections of probate documents online for a variety of counties and states, but most of these collections are not indexed, so they cannot be searched using the standard search box. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of the collections.

FamilySearch labels the collections “browse only” because to use these records, you need to flip through the images manually to read the text, just as you would with a regular book. Most of these collections are first broken out into some order (usually by geographic location and year).

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For example, the North Carolina Probate Records from 1735 to 1970 are divided first by county and again by record type and year. From the main collection page you click on the “Browse through images” link, and then you can pick from a list of counties. On the page for Edgecombe County, we see a list of different record types (such as estates, inventories, wills and accounts) and the years included.

Finding an index for these collections is the key to locating documents that are relevant to your research. In general, an index can be found in one of three places. Some collections have a general index for each record type for each county.

In Edgecombe County, there is an index of all wills from 1682 to 1905. This is where we found that William Ellis’ will was proved in 1813 and Unity Ellis’ will was proved in 1818. Using this information, we then clicked on the link for Edgecombe Wills 1810-1823 (Vol. E). On this page, there was another index at the front of the book, which gave us page numbers for William’s and Unity’s wills.

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We did not see a general index for the estate files, but from the wills we know approximately which years William and Unity died, so we knew we had to look at the books for those years. When we clicked on the estate book for 1813 to 1816, we didn’t see an index at the front of the book, but we found that the last five images in the collection were a complete index of that book. So if you don’t find a general index, be sure to check the first few and the last several images for each book.

Once you select a book to look at, you can browse through the images by using the arrows at the top of the page or type in the image number you want to jump to. Remember, the image number at the top of the page rarely corresponds to the page number that is written on the book, since there were often additional title pages or indexes scanned at the beginning of each book. When looking up a page number you found in an index, look at the page number that is actually written on the book page, when possible, rather than the image number at the top of the Web page.

Searching collections this way does take some time and a little bit of practice to learn the ins and outs of each collection type. Despite these challenges, these collections can help give you details of your African-American ancestors’ lives that may be hard to find elsewhere.

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Next Steps for Learning About Your Ancestor

You now know that William and Unity Ellis of Edgecombe County had a slave named Isom or Isham, who was later given to their son Willie Ellis. You also know that Wilson County, where your ancestors lived, was created from Edgecombe County in 1855. There was also a Hickman Ellis who lived in nearby Saratoga, who owned one male and one female slave who were around the same ages as Isom and Patience Ellis. The next step in your research will be to put all of these pieces together and confirm the connection between the Isom or Isham Ellis who was given to Willie Ellis in 1818 and your fourth great-grandfather.

You can accomplish this by first researching Willie Ellis and seeing if you can find a will or probate document for him or his wife that lists his slaves by name. You’ll also want to research Hickman Ellis to see if he has any connection to William and Unity Ellis, and also to see if you can find a record of the slaves he held before slavery was abolished in 1865.

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Was Isom Ellis Free Before 1865?

Last but not least, you’ll want to determine if and when your ancestor actually bought his freedom. Because Isom Ellis can’t be found in the 1860 census, he was likely not free at the time. This means that he could have purchased his freedom and that of his wife only between 1861 and the end of the Civil War in 1865. As late as 1864, free people of color were still purchasing family members and/or freeing relatives they had already purchased. But we have not yet found documentation for either of the purchases in your family legend.

That doesn’t mean those purchases didn’t happen; it just means we have no record that they did happen. You should be prepared to discover that your ancestor remained a slave until the end of the Civil War. It makes all of the information that you, and we, have found about him even more remarkable, since finding genealogy records of African Americans prior to the 1870 census is notoriously difficult.

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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.