Who Was My Enslaved Ancestor’s Owner?

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Dear Professor Gates:

My third great-grandfather Cain Dick was born between 1821 and 1824 and died around 1910 in Rock Creek, Guilford County, N.C. I was trying to search for his parents and the origins of his slaveholders, only to run into a complication. I came across three male individuals who had the same surname as my third great-grandfather, all of whom owned slaves. There was a Thomas Dick, who was from Guilford County, born circa 1800. He owned slaves but later willed them to his children: John Dick, Martha and Thomas Jr. Then there was Hiram C. Dick, who was also a slaveholder, and James Dick. Can you help me find out which one of these men is linked to my great-grandfather and help me locate information on his parents?Yola

We’re not surprised that you’re having a tough time hunting down Cain Dick’s origins; it proved to be a challenge to us, too. However, you started down the right path by seeking slave owners with the same last name as your ancestor. As you’re clearly aware, a number of former slaves adopted the surname of their former owner.

Searching Census Records for Clues About the Enslaved

U.S. census records are a useful source for tracking ancestors and their slaveholders. Federal census records for the years 1790, 1800 and 1810 include a column for the number of slaves in a household. Beginning with the 1820 census, the census information on slaves becomes more detailed, listing the gender and age range of slaves in a household.


Since you know that your third great-grandfather Cain Dick was born between 1821 and 1824, one suggestion for determining his former slaveholder is to check census records for individuals with the surname Dick residing in Guilford County. According to the 1830 census listing for John M. Dick of Guilford County, his household included one male slave under the age of 10, which corresponds with the gender and age range of your ancestor Cain Dick. Ruben Dick, another individual from Guilford County, also had a male slave under the age of 10 listed in his household for the 1830 census.

Note that the 1850 and 1860 censuses include a separate slave schedule, which lists the ages, gender and color of slaves in a particular household. These census records are available at Ancestry.com for a fee.

Checking Wills and Probate Records

You noted that one slaveholder you located was Thomas Dick of Guilford County, who owned slaves and later willed them to his children. Probate records can be a valuable source when searching for your ancestor’s former slaveholder, since the names of the slaveholder’s slaves are oftentimes noted in these documents. A number of probate records are available online or through microfilm rental at FamilySearch. The records pertaining to Guilford County are available at this site.


We quickly reviewed the will of Thomas Dick, which was written Dec. 12, 1820, within a few years of Cain Dick’s birth. It is noted in this will that he bequeathed several of his slaves to his children, including his “negro man Abram” and his “negro girl Esther.”

In addition to wills, an inventory of the deceased person’s estate may be included in these probate records, which oftentimes provide a list of an individual’s slaves and their value. Once you learn the names of Cain’s parents, you may be able to find them, as well as their son Cain, listed in these probate records and learn the chain of ownership.


Looking at Death and Burial Records

There are other avenues for finding the names of Cain Dick’s parents. You don’t know his exact date of death, but you state that it was circa 1910 in Rock Creek, Guilford County. We checked the database North Carolina Deaths, 1906-1930, available at FamilySearch, for the name Cain Dick, but we did not find any matches. However, there are several listings for individuals with the surname Dick, including several of his children.


We suggest that you review these records and take note of the cemeteries where these individuals are buried. It is possible that Cain is buried in the same cemetery as one of his children, so we recommend that you contact the cemetery office or search cemetery database websites, such as Find a Grave, to try to locate Cain’s burial location. When you determine where Cain is buried, check that cemetery for other individuals buried there with the surname Dick. It is possible that his parents or other relatives are buried in the same location.

Statewide registration of death records in North Carolina began in 1913. Although you believe that Cain died in 1910, we suggest that you contact the State Archives of North Carolina to inquire about whether or not a death record is on file.


Consulting Newspaper and Historical Archives

Once you have Cain Dick’s date of death, you can search local newspapers for his death notice or obituary, which may provide you with the names of his parents or other siblings. There are several subscription websites that provide access to digitized copies of a number of newspapers, including GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com. The Library of Congress provides free access to a number of newspapers, including those published in North Carolina, through its collection Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.


In addition to online sources, many local libraries have area newspapers available on microfilm. For those who are unable to visit a particular library, many librarians offer photocopying services and will provide you with a copy of death notices or obituaries.

Local and county archives and historical societies are also valuable resources for conducting research on your ancestors and their former owners. The Government and Heritage Library at the State Library of North Carolina has a number of records available on microfilm, including wills, deeds and tax lists, which are available through interlibrary loan. The holdings of the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill include the North Carolina Collection and the Southern Historical Collection.


Many local libraries also have a local history or genealogy collection that may be of use to you in your research, both for the family of Cain Dick and for his former owner. You have a challenge ahead of you, but plenty of options for further research. 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 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 Eileen Pironti, 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.

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