African American Lives
Analyzing the Evidence
The Science and the Investigators
Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Sharing Stories
For Educators
About the Series

Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Intro The Challenge Choosing Your Route Making the Journey
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the archives with his cousin John Gates
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the archives with his cousin John Gates
For AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the desire to delve into his family's past had its roots in an old family story. Supposedly his great-great grandmother, Jane Gates, had been given a house by her former owner, Samuel Brady. Brady had also, according to family legend, fathered Jane's children. For years, Dr. Gates had wanted to find the truth behind these tales, and the series gave him the opportunity to explore these questions.

Follow along with Dr. Gates as he uncovers the evidence of his family's past -- and learns some surprising truths.

Jane Gates Detail from Cumberland, Maryland land records Jane Gates' house Jane Gates' house
Jane Gates Detail from Cumberland, Maryland land records Jane Gates' house
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with his father and his aunt Helen Gates Stephens
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with his father and his aunt Helen Gates Stephens
Dr. Gates begins his search by returning to his father's hometown of Cumberland, Allegany County, Maryland. He knows only the outlines of the story: Jane Gates, born into slavery in Maryland, owned her own home in Cumberland by the 1870s. Gates family legend holds that Jane Gates' former owner, Samuel Brady was the father of Jane's five children, and that he gave her the home after the end of the Civil War.

Dr. Gates' search of the public records begins at the Allegany County Courthouse, where he finds the original land deed for Jane's house and lot. Surprisingly, the record shows that Jane Gates purchased the house outright in 1871 for $1,400. Wondering how it might be possible for a former slave to save -- or even earn in the first place -- that amount of money only five years after the close of the Civil War, Skip asks an aunt, Helen Gates Stephens, if she might remember, but even she can only remember that Jane owned the home, not any details about the transaction.

Jane Ailes, in Cumberland, Maryland
Jane Ailes
Dr. Gates turns to professional genealogist Jane Ailes, (coincidentally a third great granddaughter of Samuel Brady, and if the legend is true, Gates' cousin). Ailes first checks the 1870 U.S. Census, and finds Jane Gates, listed as a nurse and laundress, living with two of her children (ages 22 and 12), along with two grandchildren by another daughter not living in the household.

Finding few leads in the public record, Ailes revisits her own family's documents. She is surprised to find no mention of Jane (or any Gates at all) in Samuel Brady's personal papers or his estate documents (Brady died in 1870). Not finding any document that supports Jane Gates having lived on Samuel Brady's farm, either in Hampshire County, Virginia (now West Virginia), or after Brady's move to Allegany County, Maryland in the late 1850's.

Samuel Brady's older brother, John Brady, who lived in Hampshire County, died suddenly in January 1851, leaving no will. In his estate papers, Ailes finds an 1851 inventory and appraisal of his personal property. Listed just below corn and cattle, she finds the Brady slaves, listed by their names and dollar values. On this list is a woman named Jane, with two children -- Florence and July Ann. Each year that John Brady's estate remained open, the slaves were rented out by way of an auction. Even other family members rented slaves from the estate to run the Brady farm, while other slaves were rented to neighboring farms and relatives. The slave named Jane was rented in some years to John Brady's son, James M. Brady. She rented each year for an increasing amount and was highly valued in comparison to the other female slaves. The last slave rental record from John Brady's estate were found for the years 1855 and 1856.

Then, checking the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, Ailes finds that Hannah Brady, John Brady's widow, owned a slave named Jane, age 41 (some counties did list slaves by name in their Census schedules).

Since Jane Gates gives her age in the 1870 Census as 51, this woman named Jane in the Brady household in 1851-1860 is a likely candidate for being Jane Gates. If this is Jane Gates on the John Brady farm and later the property of his widow, Hannah Brady, this could partially explain a recollection of Jane Gates' son Edward (born in 1857 and is Dr. Gates' second great grandfather) of spending his childhood on a Brady family farm.

Prather family papers Image of James Prather's signature
Prather family records
Ailes continues her research, and comes across something interesting: manumission references to two Gates men living in Allegany County -- one an 1826 free Negro's registration in Washington County, Maryland for a Jack Gates (in which he says that he was born in Allegany County and manumitted by Sarah Prather in a document signed in 1820).

Following this discovery, Ailes rushes back to the Allegany County courthouse to search for information about Sarah Prather and her family -- and hopefully her slaves. There she finds another manumission: a Benjamin Gates, aged 41, freed by James Prather Jr. in 1832. Ailes also discovers Sarah Prather's will, in which she bequeath two slaves --Susanna and daughter Fanny (no last names) -- to her daughter Ruth and instructs that Susanna is to be freed in 1831, all of Susanna's female children are to be freed at age 25, and the male children at age 28.

Susanna's other named child is "one female called Jane, hereinafter bequeathed to my grand-Daughter Elizabeth Riely, who is to be free at the age of twenty eight years." Elizabeth Riely marries into a family who were near neighbors and business associates of Susan Forman Parsons -- Samuel Brady's wife's -- immediate family in Hampshire County.

According to evidence Ailes finds, Susanna and Fanny were taken into Virginia to live with Ruth Prather and her husband, and then returned to Allegany County to work her husband's farm prior to 1830, but no further evidence has been found of Susanna's daughter Jane who went to Elizabeth Riely. The February 1825 inventory and appraisal of Sarah Prather's estate reveals, however, that Jane was 5 years old at the time of the appraisal. This places her birth year as 1819 or 1820, very close to that extrapolated from Jane Gates' age as given in the 1870 census, and the same birth year as the slave named Jane found living in the household of John and Hannah Brady from 1851 to 1860. If Susanna Gates is indeed Jane Gates' mother, Ailes' research has pushed Dr. Gates' knowledge of his family back an entire generation.

Following Ailes' discovery, geneticist Dr. Rick Kittles finally lays to rest the rumor that Samuel Brady, or any member of the Brady family, had fathered Jane Gates' children. Y-chromosome testing reveals that Dr. Gates shares no descent with a confirmed male descendant of Samuel Brady and a descendant of Samuel Brady's brother, much to the disappointment of the Gates family.

The test leaves Dr. Gates without answers to many of his questions: What was Jane's special connection with the Brady family? How did Jane raise the money for that house? Who was the father of Jane Gates' children? Dr. Gates may have discovered an entire new generation for his family tree, but he's still left wondering about -- and looking for answers to -- the questions that drove him initially.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with genealogist Johni Cerny
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with genealogist Johni Cerny
Dr. Gates continues searching for his father's ancestors, flying to Salt Lake City, Utah to search through the three billion records kept by the Church of Latter Day Saints. He's met by genealogist, Johni Cerny, and they turn their attention to the Family History Center's archives.

Searching through estate records, Cerny finds records of the Bruce family, of Hardy County, Virginia (now West Virginia) -- just an hour's drive south from Allegany County, Maryland. In the wills of Abraham and Elizabeth Vanmeter, she finds yet another surprise. In 1820, Abraham Vanmeter wrote his will and gave one-third of everything he owned to his wife, including five named slaves. But further along in Vanmeter's will he wrote:
Considering the great hardships of Slavery to which an unfortunate class of beings among us is Doomed, and wishing as much as (in consideration of their faithful Servitude to me) in my power lies to ameliorate their condition: It is my Will and Desire that all my negro Slaves be at my Decease completely Emancipated agreeable to the existing Law of this Commonwealth.
The inventory and appraisal of Abraham Vanmeter's estate included Joe, valued at $200; Sarah, wife of Joe, valued at $225; and their ten children. The total value for the Bruce family was $2,100. According to Cerny's research, Joe and Sarah Bruce were Skip's fourth great grandparents on his father's mother's side.

In 1823, Abraham Vanmeter died, freeing seven members of the Bruce family and leaving five of Joe and Sarah Bruce's children to remain enslaved to his wife Elizabeth Vanmeter until the time of her death. Even more surprising, when Elizabeth Vanmeter died she left her entire estate to the Bruce family -- lock stock and barrel -- all the land, money, buildings, and household items.

Consequently, some of Dr. Gates ancestors were living as free people, and living securely on their own land and with their own income, long before Emancipation.

Military records at the National Archives
Military records at the National Archives
Johni Cerny also uncovers evidence that suggests one of Gates' maternal ancestors, his great-granduncle, John R. Clifford, had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Dr. Gates visits the National Archives to learn more about Clifford, and meets with archivist Reginald Washington.

In the index to the records of the U.S. Colored Troops, Washington locates Clifford's service records. Cerny had been correct -- Clifford did serve, in Company F of the 13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment. Born in 1848, John Clifford had enlisted in 1865 at the age of 16, served six months, and was discharged in Louisville, Kentucky. He was eventually buried with full military honors in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and in 1954, his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery. He is the only one of Gates' ancestors to receive this honor.

The old Hardy County courthouse, Hardy County, West Virginia
The old Hardy County courthouse, Hardy County, West Virginia
Curious about the Clifford family, Dr. Gates returns to work with Jane Ailes. They meet at the Hardy County Courthouse, where Ailes has found interesting records relating to Dr. Gates' fourth great-grandfather, Isaac Clifford, and his wife Judy (or Julia) Lewis, both born before 1776. Isaac Clifford was a free man, and had probably moved from New Jersey to Hardy County, Virginia, where there was a large free black population.

Detail of a paper relating to Isaac Clifford's lawsuit against James Ryan.
Detail of a paper in Isaac Clifford's lawsuit against James Ryan.
First, Ailes finds a June 4th, 1796 marriage record for Isaac Clifford and Judy Lewis, but even more interesting are court records that date back another few years. Ailes finds the proceedings of a lawsuit filed by Isaac Clifford in 1794 against James Ryan -- for trespass, assault and battery, and false imprisonment. Evidently, Isaac Clifford. a free black man, was accusing James Ryan of holding him against his will. Clifford filed his lawsuit to regain his freedom, calling several witnesses on his behalf, including a white man named James Clifford (perhaps a relative) to testify on his behalf. An all-white jury found James Ryan guilty as charged in 1796, and restored Isaac Clifford to freedom, even awarding him damages and court costs.

Detail of a page of John Redman's pension application.
Detail of a page of John Redman's pension application.
Jane Ailes continues to dig for information on Skip Gates' maternal ancestors, and manages to track down even more information about Isaac Clifford's possible grandson, also named Isaac, and his third wife, Elizabeth Redman. Her grandfather, John Redman, born before 1763, was Dr. Gates' fourth great grandfather. From Redman's 1823 Revolutionary War pension application, Ailes and Gates learn that Redman -- a free black man -- fought in the Revolutionary War, having enlisted in the Continental Army at Winchester, Frederick Co., Virginia under Lieutenant Vincent Howell. John Redman states that he was enlisted for four years and "that he was in no battle except one in the neighbourhood of Savannah with the Indians under their Chief, Sago." He was in North Carolina at the time of Cornwallis' surrender (October 1781) and was discharged from service by Captain Hughes in North Carolina. John Redman first appears in the Hardy County records in 1801.

Skilled genealogical researchers pushed Dr. Gates' knowledge of his family back in time further than he'd ever thought possible. Not only had Gates traced his ancestors back to the very beginnings of the United States, but he found that parts of his family had been living as free people since the colonial period. Dr. Gates may never have been able to answer his initial questions about Jane Gates, but in the process he learned a huge amount about family members he never would have known about had he not begun asking those questions.

Henry Louis Gates, traveling through Maryland and West Virginia Henry Louis Gates, Jr., his father and his cousins visiting the grave of their ancestor Jane Gates
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., pausing in his travels through Maryland and West Virginia Henry Louis Gates, Jr., his father and his cousins visiting the grave of their ancestor Jane Gates

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