Mount Airy, St. John the Baptist Parish, La.
Public Domain

Dear Professor Gates:

I am trying to trace my great-grandfather Emile Perrilliat, who was born circa 1848-1850. He died in May of 1913. He lived in St. John the Baptist Parish, La. He was married to Claire (Clara) Thomas, also from St. John the Baptist Parish.

My problem is I cannot find him or his family before 1880. I have found that there were two individuals by the name of Emile Perrilliat: One was white and the other was “mulatto.” I am looking for the “mulatto” Emile.

I have looked for plantations in St. Charles Parish, Jefferson Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish that might have a slave owner by the name of Perrilliat. If you could please tell me another way to trace this person, I would appreciate it very much. —Claire Humphrey

You have already done quite a bit of sleuthing on your own, which made it easier for us to locate someone who could be your ancestor Emile Perrilliat’s slave owner—assuming that you are, in fact, related to the “mulatto” individual of whom you wrote.

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Starting With Census Records and Slave Schedules

U.S. census records are a valuable resource for tracing your ancestors, available online through websites such as Ancestry.com. For the years 1850 and 1860, separate slave schedules were also compiled. The names of the slaves were not typically listed in these documents, but they include the names of the slaveholders, along with the age and gender of their slaves.

In the 1860 census slave schedule for St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana, we located an individual by the name of “A. Perilliat” (spelled with one “r”), listed as the owner of four slaves: a female, age 40, and three male children, ages 12, 8 and 4. Cross-checking that record with the 1860 census shows that A. Perilliat resided in an area known as Bonnet Carré in St. John the Baptist Parish. In the mid-1860s, the area of Bonnet Carré was also called St. Peter, and today it is called Reserve.

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The 1860 census listing for A. Perilliat states that he was born in France circa 1799 and his occupation was carpenter. No one else is listed in his household (remember, slaves were considered to be property, which is why they were listed in a separate schedule). In the columns provided in this census for the amount of real estate and personal estate owned by an individual, the real estate column is left blank for A. Perilliat, but the value of his personal estate was listed as $2,000.

Establishing a Connection Between an Owner and the Enslaved

Regarding the slaves owned by A. Perilliat, the 12-year-old male listed in the slave schedule corresponds with the age and gender of your ancestor, Emile Perrilliat. Although the information in these census records does not prove that Emile was one of A. Perilliat’s slaves, it warrants further research to determine whether a connection exists between A. Perilliat and your great-grandfather.

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Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the 1900 census entry for Emile lists his father’s birthplace as France. You state that Emile was mulatto, as reflected in his 1880 and 1910 census entries. (Although he is listed as “Black” in the 1900 census, the enumerators for this census were given only the choices of “Black,” “White,” “Chinese,” “Japanese” and “American Indian” for the Color/Race column, so “mulatto” was not a choice in this record.) Could A. Perilliat have been not only his owner but also his father?

When the Census-Record Trail Goes Cold

Matches for A. Perilliat do not appear in the 1850 census or slave schedule, and a page-by-page search of the 1870 census listings in St. John the Baptist Parish did not result in matches for either A. Perilliat or your great-grandfather. It is possible that on those years they were living in a neighboring parish or their surname was spelled incorrectly in documents. Variant spellings of this surname are seen in the census records, such as your great-grandfather’s 1900 census listing, where the census taker spelled his surname “Prier.”

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There are a number of other sources that you can utilize to try to locate these individuals. Based on his absence in the 1870 census, it is unclear whether A. Perilliat died prior to 1870 or moved to another area. In case he died, you may wish to search for probate records pertaining to this individual to see if any additional information about his slaves is provided in these documents. Probate records prior to 1845 were kept in probate courts. Since 1845 the St. John the Baptist Parish Clerk of Court has kept these records. We suggest that you contact this office for more information on how to search its records for A. Perilliat.

City directories are another valuable resource for tracing the whereabouts of an ancestor. A number of city directories are available online through websites such as Fold3 and Ancestry.com. There are gaps in these city-directory collections, so to find other information about residents of St. John the Baptist Parish from the mid- to late 19th century, try checking repositories such as the St. John the Baptist Parish Library, which may have a local-history collection that will benefit your research.

If you have not located a death notice or obituary for your great-grandfather, you may wish to contact this library to inquire about its newspaper collection. Death notices and obituaries may provide additional details about your great-grandfather’s early life and provide clues regarding his parentage and possible owners. A number of newspaper databases are also available online through free and subscription websites, including GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com and Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

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In addition to town and parish libraries, a number of university libraries have special collections pertaining to slavery. The Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University has among its holdings a collection titled Slavery Documents Collection, 1758-1865. Louisiana State University also has a collection of slavery documents dated 1804-1860. A finding aid for this collection is available online (pdf). The library at Xavier University of Louisiana has the Heartman Manuscript Collection on Slavery, which includes a number of documents pertaining to slavery in the New Orleans area.

And while it might not pertain to Emile Perrilliat, keep in mind, if you explore other parts of your family tree, that the New Orleans Public Library’s African American Resource Center has a number of collections available on microfilm, including inward and outward slave manifests for the Port of New Orleans.

You mentioned a white individual by the same name as your great-grandfather who resided in the area during this time frame. It is possible that A. Perilliat has a family connection to this Emile Perrilliat, so we recommend taking a closer look at him if you have not done so already. If the Perrilliats were a prominent family in the area, family papers or other documents may be available for research, which could shed more light on the origins of your Perrilliat family line.

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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 researchers from Eileen Pironti, a researcher at 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.