One of my early surprise successes in genealogy was finding Miles Lassiter, my maternal 4th great grandfather. I had learned from my 2nd great grandmother’s (Ellen) death certificate that my 3rd great grandmother’s maiden name was Nancy Lassiter, so I had gone looking for her in the census. I had worked my way backwards using her married name, Dunson, also learned from the same death certificate.
I found her first as a widow in the 1880 census. Ellen, or Grandma Ellen as my mother (Margaret) called her, was married and living elsewhere, but her sister Adelaide, whom my mother knew, was still in the household. I moved back to the 1870 census. Both Nancy and her husband Calvin Dunson were living together with some of their children, again, not including Grandma Ellen who was married and whom I had identified with her family living nearby in Randolph County.
My mother knew almost nothing beyond Grandma Ellen. Grandma Ellen had died when my mother was about six years old, too young to really ask anything about her family history. For whatever reason nothing was passed down beyond that, so I had no real information about whether Nancy was free before 1865 or not. I figured I should see what I found, so I looked for her. There she was in 1860, with her husband Calvin, and this time with Grandma Ellen. The census said Ellen (EAllen) was about nine years old. “Well,” I reasoned, “why don’t I keep looking? I wonder if she’s (Nancy) in the 1850 census?” So, I looked. Yes, there she was! She was living in the household with an older man, old enough to be her father, Miles Lassiter. He was head of household. Also, in the household were some other young people who could very likely be her siblings: Abigail, Collier, Jane, and John. Another young person, Parthena, may have been a cousin, since she was listed in a different place in the order, but at this point I did not actually know the details. Also, in the household was another older man, Samuel, who could be Miles’ brother. One issue, of course, with the 1850 census is that relationships are not recorded. If you don’t already know the relationships, or cannot confirm them in the 1880 census, where they are for the first time recorded, you just can’t be sure.
I was feeling like I was on a roll, so I decided to see just how far back I could go. I looked at the 1840 census, but didn’t see anything. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop there, but I decided to see if there was anything in 1830. To my surprise, there he was, Miles Lassiter, free man of color. I am still amused by noting that whoever did the indexing wrote it as Smiles, because the person recording his name on the census form seems to have written his first name over another name that started with “S,” but in doing so did not obliterate the “S,” leading the indexer to believe the “S” was part of his name. Of course, the 1830 census is even more enigmatic than the 1850 census, because before 1850, only the head of household’s name is recorded. I could count tic marks, but it really wouldn’t mean anything without other information from other records. For that reason, Miles’ absence from the 1840 census, which also did not record names beyond head of household, didn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, he could have been living in someone else’s household, someone whose name I did not know and therefore, I had no way of confirming where he was. The only thing I could surmise at this point was that, he was a free man of color and, although he was not listed in the 1840 census, he was still alive in 1850, but not recorded in 1860, or beyond. Looking farther back was not possible because the 1820 census for Randolph County no longer exists and Miles was either too young or not financially independent enough to be head of his own household any farther back than that, or not even free any farther back. 1830 was as far back as I was able to go in the census.
I could assume that Miles had died sometime after 1850 and before 1860 by noting what because of those who were in the house with him in 1850. In 1860, as noted above, my 3rd great grandmother Nancy was living with her husband, Calvin, and their children. Collier, here called “Cal,” whom I believed to be her brother, was living nearby, apparently married and with two children; in his household, also, were two people who had been in Miles’ 1850 household, Samuel, who might be Miles’ brother and Abigail, who might be Collier and Nancy’s older sister. Most of this information would be confirmed in later censuses, although Samuel would not live long enough to have his relationship recorded in the 1880 census. Abigail, about whom I wrote in a previous post, would live until sometime after 1910, and have her relationship as a sister confirmed in the census and other documents as well.
What the census could not tell me at that time was how long Miles had been free. Was he born free? If not, when was he freed? Who was his wife? Were these all his children? Who were his parents, and, of course, when did he actually die? Those questions would have to be answered another time, after a lot more research. Right then what was exciting was that I could tell my mother that she had free ancestors. Her response was priceless. “Yes,” she had heard that from her grandmother, Louise (who raised her and her sister), when she was a child. Of course, she had thought her grandmother was wrong and, well, crazy, because everyone knew that black people had been slaves! No teachers had ever said anything about free people of color. She really hadn’t learned anything more.
In fairness, my mother was raised primarily in Elizabeth, New Jersey, away from most of her relatives. In fact, until I started this research around 1976, she’d never even heard of, or met, most of the people we would come to meet and with whom we would spend time in the coming years. Her grandmother, Louise, died in 1936, only a year after my mother married and when my mother was still very young (22). It hadn’t occurred to her to interview (“grill”) her grandmother about their family history. My mother thought whoever was back in North Carolina from her grandmother’s time was undoubtedly dead. Little did she know.
I followed the family forward in the census, particularly the family of Collier/Colier/Calier. At the time, only the 1900 census was available. I was able to determine that there were descendants still living in the same community that Nancy and Grandma Ellen had lived. By this time, Abigail was living in the home of Colier’s son, Ulysses Winston (called Winston). He was married and had several children, Mable, Vella, Will, and Calier. It was possible that in the early 1980s when I was doing this part of the research, one of them might still be alive, or their children, I thought. All I had to do was find a way to meet them, but that’s a story for another day.
 North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Ancestry.com. Ellen Mayo, date of death: 12 June 1920; Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina; Father: Calvin Dunston [sic]; Mother: Nancy Lassiter. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/1121/S123_110-2318/842351?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156399534/facts/citation/221711655280/edit/record
 1880 US Federal Census; Census Place: New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina, Nancy Dunson, “widow,” head. NARA Roll T9_978; Family History Film: 1254978; Page 1A. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/6742/4243412-00659/19787325?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156400421/facts/citation/221710705046/edit/record
 1870; Census Place: New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Calvin Dunson, head. Roll: M593_1156; Page: 400B; Image: 250; Family History Library Film: 552655. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7163/4277632_00250/22963668?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156400421/facts/citation/221710705187/edit/record
 1870 US Federal Census; Census Place: Union Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Anderson Smitherman, head; Ellen Smitherman. NARA Roll: M593_1156; Page: 506A; Image: 465; Family History Library Film: 552655. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7163/4277632_00465/22966086?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156399534/facts/citation/221436707299/edit/record
 1860 US Federal Census; Free Population. Census Place: Western Division, Randolph County, North Carolina; Calvin Dunson, head; Nancy Dunson; EAllen Dunson. NARA Roll: M653_910; Page: 212; Image: 429; Family History Library Film: 803910. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7667/4237516_00429/38955713?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156399534/facts/citation/221436707272/edit/record
 1850 US Federal Census; Free Population. Census Place: Southern Division, Randolph County, North Carolina; Miles Lassiter, head; Nancy Lassiter. NARA Roll: M432_641; Page: 136A & B; Image: 278 & 279. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8054/4204420_00278/12941844?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156400532/facts/citation/221436746765/edit/record#?imageId=4204420_00278
 1830 US Federal Census; Census Place: Regiment 1, Randolph County, North Carolina; Miles (“Smiles”) Lassator, head. NARA Series: M19; Roll Number: 125; Page: 7; Family History Film: 0018091. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/8058/4410684_00017/242848?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36156400532/facts/citation/221710701113/edit/record
 1860 US Federal Census; Census Place: Western Division, Randolph County, North Carolina; Cal Lassiter, head. Samuel Lassiter; Abigail Lassiter. NARA Roll: M653_910; Page: 212; Image: 429; Family History Library Film: 803910. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7667/4237516_00429/38955682?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36231657676/facts/citation/221782038907/edit/record
 State of New Jersey, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Certificate and Record of Death. Louise Ingram, Date of Death: 11 April 1936; Certificate Registered #436C. Copy in the possession of the author.
 1900 US Federal Census; Population Schedule. Census Place: New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Winson [sic] Lassiter, head; Mabel Lassiter, daughter; Vella Lassiter, daughter; Will Lassiter, son; Calier C. Lassiter, son; Abbigail Lassiter, aunt. NARA Roll: 1213; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 0090; FHL microfilm: 1241213. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7602/4117841_00117/50368995?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/66453873/person/36231719026/facts/citation/221780081585/edit/record