Was my ancestor a free person of color?

BY: HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. AND MEAGHAN SIEKMAN, NEHGS RESEARCHER

Dear Professor Gates:

I have been researching my paternal line and have run into the proverbial wall. I have followed my great-great-grandfather Hy Nash back to Abbeville, S.C., in February 1871, when he was murdered. I know he was born about 1830 in South Carolina. He was elected county commissioner, so of course he had a target on his back. There are a few articles written about his death, but I can’t find out who owned Hy before 1860.

This is the sad part about my search! All of the Abbeville records before 1871 have been lost as a result of fires, so there is absolutely nowhere to look. I have found articles about his murder in old newspapers and even a book, but that is it. I would really like to find out who owned my great-great-grandfather before 1860 or find out if he was a free person of color. —Jack Weston Nash

From what you have found so far, you have a very interesting ancestor! If you are having difficulty locating local records prior to 1871 because of fires, you could turn to national records to trace Hy Nash back further in time.

First Check Post-Slavery Census Records

Since you have been able to trace your great-grandfather to Abbeville, S.C., in 1871, he was likely living there in 1870, when the U.S. census was enumerated. The census record not only could provide an earlier record for your great-grandfather but will also contain information about his household that may help you identify relatives.

When you are having difficulty locating records on an individual, it is usually helpful to search for documents of relatives because they can provide clues about your ancestor.

We searched the 1870 census on FamilySearch, which has a record for Hy Nash in Cokesbury, Abbeville. According to this record, Hy Nash was a 40-year-old “Mulatto” who was born in South Carolina. This matches what you know about Hy Nash, who was born circa 1830.

There were eight people living in this household. It seems likely that Ellen Nash, age 36, was Hy Nash’s wife, and the rest of the people in the household (all age 18 or younger) were his children. If you look at the original record, you will see that Hy Nash’s occupation was county commissioner and he could read and write, as could his younger children.

It can also be helpful to note the households of neighbors, since closely related families often settled near each other. In this case, there is a Jasper James and a James James, both recorded as 35 years old and Mulatto, living directly next door. The previous page of the census lists a number of black families, including the Arnold and Butter families, all of whom were born in South Carolina. Perhaps these were relatives of your Hy Nash.

Then Check Census Records and Schedules During Slavery

To answer your question of whether Hy Nash was free or enslaved in 1860, a first step would be to check the 1860 census to see if he is listed in his own household. If he was a free man in 1860, he would have been recorded on the census by name. Since the record may have recorded his name differently, you could compare his household in 1870 with records in 1860 to see if you can locate a close match.

Based on the 1870 census record, Hy Nash should have the following people in his household in 1860: Ellen, born circa 1834; S. Nash (male), born circa 1852; T. Nash (female), born circa 1854; C. Nash (female), born circa 1857; and Jm. Nash (male), born circa 1859.

We did not locate him as a free man in this census, although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The next step is to turn to the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules. They mostly recorded the slave owner’s name and do not list slaves by name, which makes noting the age and gender info found on the 1870 census for Hy Nash and his family important.

Since the enslaved were not named, you will need to compare what you know about your Nash family with the descriptions of slaves included in the census. Many slaves adopted the surname of their former owner after the end of slavery, so your best option would be to determine if there were Nash slave owners in or around Abbeville in 1860.

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