How did my free black ancestor live under the Confederacy?

Dear Professor Gates:

My third-great-grandfather Jacob Sampson (1786-1870) of Goochland County, Va., owned a 500-acre plantation in Goochland before, during and after the Civil War. I know he was a slave until 1821, and the land is listed on an 1863 Confederate map of the county. It seems odd that there is so little information about a former slave surviving in the Confederacy. —Milton E. Brooks

Your ancestor has left quite a paper trail for a black person living in the antebellum South! However, don’t be overly shocked about his circumstance. As noted before on The Root, about 10 percent of the black people living in the United States in 1860 were free, and just over half of them—261,918—lived in the South.

Why did people like Jacob Sampson stay in the South after freedom? As covered in a previous 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column on The Root, many did not want to move away from family members who were still enslaved, or from communities where they had the contacts to find employment. At least one of those reasons may have applied to Sampson, as you will see from the information we pulled up about him.

Head of a Household Where Not Everyone Was Free

The earliest census record for Jacob Sampson in Goochland, Va., was the 1830 U.S. census. This aligns with what you know about him, since he was a slave until 1821 and would not have been included in the 1820 U.S. census as a head of household. You can access this census record (subscription required). Census records prior to 1850 included only the name of the head of household and the number of individuals in the household in certain age brackets.

When one is examining these earlier census records, it is important to look at both pages of the document because free people of color and slaves are recorded on the second page. In this census, Sampson’s household included eight total free persons of color and two slaves: one male between the ages of 55 and 100, and one male between the ages of 10 and 24.

There could be a number of reasons that Jacob Sampson had slaves in his household. One option to keep in mind is that they may have been relatives. As previously written on The Root, a number of free black people owned their relatives or spouses as a way to keep them safe from harm and exploitation.

Sampson was also recorded in Goochland, Va., in 1840 (subscription required), this time without any slaves in the household. There was only one person recorded in the column for “Free Colored persons—Males—36 thru 54,” and that was Jacob Sampson. Based on this evidence, it seems that the two slaves listed in the 1830 census were not in his household in 1840. Perhaps he had freed the two men and they had moved to another household. (There is another option, which we will get to shortly.) When examining the census, you may gather clues by looking at neighboring households with other free persons of color that may help you determine who these men were and what their relationship was to Jacob Sampson.

A Man of Means

By 1850, everyone in Jacob Sampson’s household was listed by name, which could provide you with a better idea of who was in the household in the earlier census records. Jacob Sampson was recorded as Mulatto. The record includes Franky Sampson, who was the same age as Jacob and was likely his wife, and eight individuals, all under the age of 24, who were likely his children. If you look at the original view of the record at FamilySearch, you will also notice that the value of the real estate owned by Jacob Sampson was $3,000. This is a significant sum for the time, particularly if he was formerly a slave.

Jacob Sampson was also recorded on the 1850 United States Census Slave Schedule. This census recorded the slave owner’s name along with a description of each slave in the household by age, sex and color. In this record, Sampson had four slaves in his household: a 19-year-old female, two 16-year-old females and one 16-year-old male.

To be sure this is your Jacob Sampson, examine the other slave-owner names next to his and compare them with the record of him in the 1850 U.S. census. You will note in both records a William O. Page and a Joseph E. Pleasant recorded as residing on either side of Jacob Sampson. This confirms that this is a record for the correct Jacob Sampson. This means that Sampson still had slaves in his household in 1850.

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