U.S. War Department map of the defenses of Washington, D.C., 1865 
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

I have been working on my family tree for the past two years and have become stuck. My great-great-grandfather William Prue was born in 1840 in Virginia and married Anne Upshur Prue, who was born there in 1845. Their children included my great-grandfather James Prue, who was born in 1885 and married Lucy Fractious Prue (1884-1980).

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The Prues have been in the Washington, D.C. area since 1840 in the historic Hillsdale section of Anacostia in the city’s Southeast section, from what I understand. All my life I have been told that there are two sets of Prues: the white ones and the black ones, from whom I am descended. I would like to know who my great-great-grandfather William Prue’s parents were, what plantations they came from and who was the white family that owned them. I will send you the information that I have pulled up so far. —Tia Prue Fails

It appears that your ancestors settled an area of Washington, D.C., with great historical significance to the post-slavery Reconstruction era in the district, as well as to the development of Howard University. In the records we located for William Prue, he was residing in the Hillsdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., an enclave next to Old Anacostia that included free and formerly enslaved black homesteaders.

A Neighborhood Born of the Reconstruction Era

In the years immediately following emancipation, black people with no other place to live crowded into the alleys of Georgetown and Washington City. To relieve the problem and also provide funding for education, the Freedmen’s Bureau acquired land from the white landowning Barry family, explains Crossing the River: Race, Geography and the Federal Government in Anacostia, a site developed by educator Mary Halnon for the American Studies Department at the University of Virginia.

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“By 1867, the bureau had assembled $25,000 worth of land there, which it sold, rented, and leased to blacks, to raise money for higher education (Howard University was among the recipients),” according to Crossing the River. Anacostia’s first public school also received funding from the profits of the Barry Farm project.

By 1870, Barry Farm had been settled by more than 500 families. Among its residents were two of the sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, writes John Muller in an excerpt from his book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia (an excellent source of information about the period). Douglass himself purchased his Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, in 1877.

In 1871, the Barry Farm community was renamed Hillsdale, the name it bore when William Prue lived there. According to Cultural Tourism DC, “Several of Hillsdale’s early houses still exist, especially along Elvans Road Southeast, but most have been razed and replaced with more modern structures.” Among them is a public housing project, also called Barry Farm.

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Determining When the Prue Family Arrived in DC

The earliest record you have for your William Prue is the 1900 U.S. census, when he was residing in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Anne, and two sons, James and Daniel. (The record can be accessed for free via FamilySearch.) According to the record, William Prue was born about 1840 in Virginia. His wife, Anne, was also born in Virginia about 1845. Their son William Prue Jr. was living directly next door and was born in March of 1872 in the District of Columbia. If this record is accurate, it means that your Prue ancestors arrived in Washington, D.C., sometime between 1840 and 1872. Searching for records of the family between these dates may provide even more clues about when they settled in the area.

Based on what we know from the birth dates of William Prue’s children in the 1900 census, we would expect that he was living in Washington, D.C., 10 years earlier, but no matter what combination of search methods we used, we were unable to locate him in the 1880 census. When encountering this kind of roadblock, other records, such as city directories, may help in determining exactly when an ancestor starts appearing in local records.

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The earliest city directory we located William Prue in was in 1883, when he was working as a gardener and was living near Stanton Avenue in Hillsdale (available via Ancestry.com, subscription required). He was the only person with that surname recorded in the directory, suggesting that there were not any other families with the Prue name residing in Washington, D.C., at the time. We also noted that in subsequent city directories, William Prue is always residing in Hillsdale, as are his sons, and they appear to be the only Prues recorded in the directories between 1883 and 1900.

Since we were having difficulty locating your William Prue earlier than 1883, we decided to broaden the search to anyone with the surname Prue living in Washington, D.C. The earliest record we located (also via Ancestry.com) for an individual with the surname Prue was for Sally Prue, age 12, residing as a servant in the household of Charles H. Mansfield in 1880. According to the record, Sally Prue was black and was born in Virginia. Since she was the only Prue recorded as living in Washington, D.C., in 1880, and the record states that she was born in Virginia, this is another record that seems to suggest that the Prues originated in Virginia rather than Washington, D.C.

In our search we also noted that there does not appear to be any white families with the Prue surname living in Washington, D.C., at this time or in any other earlier federal census. This suggests that despite family lore, there may not have been a white family with the Prue surname residing in Washington, D.C., at the same time as your Prue ancestors.

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Finding Leads via the Freedmen’s Bureau

So what now? Looking into the history of the area may help direct you to further records of your Prue family. Based on what we’ve already outlined, it seems highly possible that your Prue ancestors moved to the area in the early years following the Civil War as part of the Barry Farm project. Since this was a Freedmen’s Bureau project, there may be records of your Prue family in the papers of the Washington, D.C., Freedmen’s Bureau office.

Currently, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project is working to digitize and make the historical Freedmen’s Bureau records searchable. You may be able to start there to see if any records for your family have already been digitized. For records that have not yet been digitized, you can still search for them on microfilm through the Family History Library or at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The microfilms for the District of Columbia field offices include records for the Barry Farm and the Freedmen’s Village in Washington, D.C. This collection contains lists of people who settled there, so there is a good possibility that you could locate your Prue ancestors as a part of these records.

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You may also want to check records for the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, via FamilySearch, to see if any of your ancestors opened a bank account. These records often include information about the account holder’s family and place of birth and sometimes include the names of former slave owners. You could order these films and view them at your local Family History Center.

Broadening the Search

If you are still having difficulty tracing the Prue family back further, you may want to keep some other research options in mind as well. As we were searching for the Prue name in census records and city directories, we noted that there were a number of individuals with the name Pruett recorded in the Washington, D.C. area. Since it is possible that Prue could be a shortening of the Pruett surname, you may want to consider the option of searching for this surname as well.

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Additionally, it is possible that the story of two Prue families is accurate but that they resided near each other in Virginia instead of in Washington, D.C. With this in mind, you may want to shift your search to Virginia.

Finally, it is possible that the Prue name was not adopted from a former slave owner at all and was a name the family either adopted after or during slavery. If you think there is a chance that William Prue was in Washington, D.C., prior to the end of slavery, it is possible that he may be recorded in a petition for compensation when slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia in 1862.

Washington, D.C., was the only place in the United States to offer slave owners compensation for freeing their slaves, and the records often include detailed descriptions of the enslaved persons and their families.  (Dorothy S. Provine has compiled abstracts of these records in Compensated Emancipation in the District of Columbia: Petitions Under the Act of April 16, 1862.) Since there is the possibility that Prue was not the surname used in these records, search for individuals named William who are the right age to be your William Prue. You can also search these records for free through Ancestry.com in the collection Washington, D.C., Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-1863.

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You could also investigate the possibility that your Prue ancestors were free prior to the end of slavery by searching collections such as District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861. Some emancipation records are also available to search for free on Ancestry.com; for example, Washington, D.C., Slave Emancipation Records, 1851-1863.

Again, if you are having difficulty locating the Prue surname, search for variations of the name or for individuals who match the description of your known ancestors, in case the Prue name was adopted later than these records.

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., 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 about researching African-American roots.