Mining the Census for African Americans

There are several guides and tools on the web to help locate African American ancestors. The website MySlaveAncestors offers some fairly specific guidance for people who are new to doing this work. Since the guidance on that website applies tools in this blog to the search for African American ancestors, I decided to try to trace someone in order to see what I could find by mining Census for African Americans.

I am not African American myself (although according to a DNA test I have a bit of African American ancestry), so I don’t have names of specific ancestors to trace. I decided, however, to trace someone who lived near one of my ancestors in Tennessee during the late 1880s, to work my way through a concrete example of using the tools discussed in MySlaveAncestors and this blog as a whole.

I selected Mr. Ellis Coffin, who in 1880, was renting farmland adjacent to my ancestor Dewitt Harris in Monroe County, Tennessee. I wondered what I could find out about Mr. Coffin and his family background. I used Ancestry.com because I have a membership. The tools themselves are public record; one does not need to subscribe to Ancestry.com to have access to them, but subscription offers a convenient “one stop shop,” as it were.

By entering the exact name Ellis Coffin, living in Monroe County, Tennessee, the only records that surfaced were the census from 1880, more recent censuses, and more recent Tennessee databases. I was able to determine that he was born around 1842 in Tennessee, and was married in 1867. I wanted to trace backward to see how far I could go.

I decided to narrow the search to the African American collection, which I could do at the bottom of the search page. Ancestry.com allows users to specify collections, and doing this helpfully eliminated, say, Coffins from London and Ireland. When I entered his probable date of birth into the African American collection, I found six slaves born about when Ellis was born, owned by J. A. Coffin and C. W. Coffin in Monroe County in 1850. Slave schedules had been added to the federal census in 1850 and 1860. But rather than listing slaves by name, enumerators needed only to put their owners’ names.

Presumably Ellis was born a slave to the Coffin family.  So, to find out more about the context of his birth, I searched Coffin in Monroe County, Tennessee, in 1850, this time using the “free” census rather than the slave census. I found one family; the name was spelled incorrectly but someone had suggested a correct spelling. (Users of Ancestry.com can suggest correct spellings when they find the name of an ancestor spelled incorrectly.) The head of the family was James A. Coffin. Going back to the Slave Schedules, I found that he owned 18 slaves in 1850.

While I didn’t want to shift the focus of my search away from the Black slave and onto the white slave owner, I was curious as to who James Coffin was, so I Googled his name (adding the word “Tennessee”). I found out that he had been a county clerk and a member of the Board of Trustees of a local college. Going back to Ancestry.com, I decided to see if there were property records of his purchase of slaves. I didn’t find such records there. However, I had visited the Monroe County courthouse several years ago, and in the course of tracing property records of my own Harris ancestors, located the purchase of a slave family of three by my great-great-great-great grandfather (Dewitt’s grandfather), from James A. Coffin. The deed named the family members. Although Ellis was not one of them, I felt uncomfortably close to him when I made this realization.

As a quick way to find out a little more about James A. Coffin’s family, I consulted the Public Member family trees in Ancestry.com. What I found useful was locating James’ middle name. I decided to Google his full name to see what came up. (Adding the term “slaves” didn’t help, as his name showed up in a few very long documents in the capacity of County Clerk.) Perhaps the most important thing that surfaced was that the Coffin family’s papers are housed at Houghton Library of Harvard University. It is very possible that one would be able to track down details of Ellis Coffin, his family, and who the Coffins bought them from, in these family papers of former slaveholders.

In short, although I didn’t find out as much about Mr. Ellis Coffin’s roots as I would have liked to have found, I found more than I had anticipated. And next time I’m in Boston, I’ll drop into the Houghton Library to see what more I can learn of this family who was born into slavery.

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