Posted by Ancestry Team on February 13, 2014 in Ask Ancestry Anne, Research

This month’s question:



I found the census records that you referred to, and as you stated, the family’s race varies among the 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 census records.

It should be noted that on the 1930 and 1940 census there were no instructions for individuals of mixed race. Citizens were either one race or another. In 1910 and 1920, people of mixed race were identified as mulattoes. This may explain why they were listed as Negro in 1930 and 1940 but as mulatto in the 1920 census. The 1910 could be a different family, but I don’t believe so, given the names of the family. It is worth noting that Will’s age in 1910 is not consistent with any other census, so it is possible that someone who was not part of the household gave the information or that a mistake was made.

4 census records

The information on the marriage record is interesting for several reasons. All the census records that we have for the family are in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. But if this is the right marriage record, then they were married in Greene County. It could be a marriage record for a different Will and Nancy. I would agree this is not too likely, but it is a possibility. I could not find a marriage record for a Will and Nancy in Tuscaloosa County.

In the 1910 census, it states that they have been married 7 years, suggesting they were married in 1903—another piece of evidence supporting that this is the same couple.

It is curious that they are indexed as white if they are of mixed race, but indexing errors do happen.  I suggest that you call or write to the probate court in Greene County and get a copy of the actual record to better understand what is there. You may also find more information on Nancy’s parents.

From the wiki on Alabama Vital Records:

To enter into a marriage contract a man had to be at least seventeen years of age and a woman had to be at least fourteen years of age. If the man was under twenty-one or the woman under eighteen and as yet unmarried, the consent of the parent or guardian of the minor was required before a license could be issued. The marriage of these licensed parties could then be solemnized by a territorial, state, or county judge, an ordained minister, or a justice of the peace. The officiant was then required to file a marriage certificate with the probate judge of the county in which the marriage took place.

The census records are pretty consistent about Nancy being born about 1886–1887, which would have made her about 16 or 17 when she was married. The 1930 census tells us that she was 16 at the time of her first marriage. So there should be a signature of a parent or guardian with the marriage license. There may not be; she may have lied about her age, or the clerk may not have cared. But I believe this is one original record that would be worth the money to obtain. Also, the record will likely list the name of a bondsman, who may have been a relative of either Nancy or Will . Researching this person may lead you to more clues.

You can find the address of the courthouse on the Greene County wiki page.

I would also suggest that you find the death dates and copies of the death certificates for Willie Lee and her brothers and sisters. Death certificates often list the parents’ names, and this would help validate the marriage certificate we believe to be correct. Also, any marriage records for Willie Lee and her brother and sisters would likely have the parents’ names, which would provide additional evidence.

Nancy may have indeed been of Native American ancestry —or she may not.  Many families have this story passed down, and often it is not true. But you research this the same way you do any other family. Learn everything you can about your grandmother’s generation. Don’t stop with your direct ancestor; research brothers and sisters as well. The clues to the previous generations may be stored in the records they’ve left behind.

You might also consider doing an AncestryDNA test. Or having your oldest living relative do one. Or both of you! This might reveal if there is Native American ancestry in your tree.

And don’t be discouraged! Some families are easy to trace, but most are not. They take persistence and digging. Use indexes as guides to original documents such as marriage licenses and death certificates. Sometimes we are lucky and the originals have been digitized and put online. But more often than not, they are not online. At least not yet. In that case, use the information from the index to go to the source.  The answers are out there.

Happy Searching!

Ancestry Anne


  1. Arli82

    Brenda, I feel your pain of locating African American relatives. I do however agree with Anne about researching other relatives and obtaining documents.

    Sometimes after searching for long periods you may need to take a break and pick up the search after a little while. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Some states are not up to par as others with information or you may have to look into other resources or speak to relatives and friends of relatives to get simple questions answered.

  2. Lois Byers/Michael

    Hi: I to am having problems finding info on my African American ancestors. Their names were Albert Byers born 1820, somewhere in SC, exact place nit known. I am looking for his parents and his siblings. I found he and his wife Harriet born 1846 in St Clair, Ala., but no marriage is listed for them. There was also a grandson William who born in 1878 to either Maggie or Mary, Albert and Harriet’s two daughters, that bit bit of information is not known either. I have hit do many brick walls, that it’s not funny. Just need to break down the walls so that I can keep going. I feel in my soul that there is so much rich history in this family, but can’t get to it, don’t know where to look. Just need an open door. Thanks for any help or suggestions.
    Warm regards,
    Lois Byers/Michael

  3. Ruth Detjen

    I would say go for autosomal DNA testing first. That should clarify the Native American family tradition. I too was told there was Native American in my background, but the DNA revealed none. There was 13% African and 87% European. My maternal grandfather was described as black on my mother’s birth certificate in 1912, mulatto in the 1870, 1880, and 1910 censuses. I couldn’t find him in the 1900 census. And “colored” on his death certificate in 1914. My grandmother, who was his third wife, was a generation younger than he and was born in Russia. She said “his people came from England” so he must have been fairly light-skinned. No race was given on their marriage certificate from New York City. He was born in Virginia and they lived in Brooklyn, NY until his death in 1914 from congestive heart failure and hypertension ( which is something I inherited too.)

  4. Jo H.

    “His father was born in NC and his mother in SC.” This could be a clue. In these states there were many mixed race people, and they were often identified as white in some censuses and black or mulatto in others. Moreover, “Indian” was not always an available option. And as I understand it, the racial designation was usually decided by the census taker, not by the people themselves.

  5. Robert H

    One of the interesting things we have found is that the race recorded by the census taker in the early days is what race the father was. Given the Racial Integrity Laws in Virginia we have found that if the father was white and the mother was Indian, they generally recorded mulatto or white as the race of the child. If the father was Indian and the mother was white, they were recorded as colored or negro. Don’t know if others have encountered this but it seems to hold true in the records we have looked at. There is also a problem in the very early days of recording a name of an Indian as their baptized name. An example would be of Pocahontas. Her Indian name was Matoka. In many of the records her name is recorded as Rebecca. Makes it tough to trace unless you know both names.

  6. Anne Hebert

    I was looking into the possibility that part of my family came from Louisa County VA. So that lead me to the “Melungeon” story of West VA. As it turns out the laws determining race became stricter as time went on. People moved away west (which is now Mi, OH, West VA,) to avoid these restrictive laws because if you were any race but white you could not vote and on and on… The point being they moved changed what they called themselves to white. DNA tests will not revel much of anything unless it is a direct line either mother mother mother daughter or father father father son and so forth. As I am finding out I actually do have Native American ancestors but none of that was reveled in DNA. Perhaps in the future they will be better but right now it is new and limited. Keep searching. I found a whole bunch but one persons middle name. Many records are not yet on-line. I have to go to Richmond to keep looking.

  7. Cece Boyer Myers

    Anne, I have found information on death records to be very suspect. Frequently those supplying the background info had little if any familiarity with the parents of the deceased. Sons especially seldom knew the maiden names of their grandmothers. And with the exception of liturgial records of marriage, I’ve never found the parent’s names listed.

    If I had a nickel for every “Cherokee Indian Princess” mentioned in research letters, I would be rich!

    Cece Boyer Myers

  8. Kristen Allen

    Don’t give up! Locating African-American records is very frustrating. When I am ready to scream, I take a break, sometimes for months at a time. When you go back to it, hit it from a different angle such as researching other family members – siblings, aunts, uncles, in-laws, even neighbors or other people in the same area with your relative’s same last name. I have found connections that way, especially from the death certificates of those people. All it takes is one clue to break through that wall. You never know where that clue is going to come from.

  9. lee bibb

    Starting out with a common name, Will Smith, in Alabama is a daunting task. I did a search in Brookwood, Tuscaloosa Co. in the 1900 Census for Will Smith and found him. He was a boarder and farm laborer, born in Alabama in May 1875, age 25, single. His ages in 1920, 1930, and 1940 are consistent with the 1975 birth. I could not find a Will Smith in the 1880 Census to fit him, except…there’s a William Smith, age 5, mother Kizzie, age 45, no father in the household, in Boligee, Greene Co., Alabama.

    I tried finding Nancy Cockrell in the 1900 Census without results. However, there are no Cockrell families in Tuscaloosa Co, but a number of them in Greene Co (especially in Clinton and Eutaw). Bogilee is 10 niles SW of Eutah. Thus I’d hazard to guess that Will was originally from Greene Co and may be the one listed in Bogilee who returned to Greene Co to marry and returned to live in Brookwood. The antecedents are most likely to be found in Greene County.

  10. Taryn

    Further complicating matters is that laws against interracial marriage and race-mixing caused even more confusion as some people were passing for one race or another, depending on the circumstance. I have an ancestor who we know was White, but raised by a White mother who later married a Black man, all of a sudden the records say that everyone in the family was Black.

  11. Helen

    I have been faced with many brickwalls, in part due to adoptions. I was so excited to receive a copy of the original marriage certificate of my maternal grandparents (both adopted) expecting to find some new obscure clue. But alas, it was filled with errors! I was fortunate enough to know my grandfather and have several pictures of the two of them. There is no way either could be mistaken for white but the marriage license lists them and all parents as white! On census reports they were usually mulattos. On my grandmothers death certificate from 1925 there is a name listed as parent but I can’t decipher it (not her adoptive mother). I have to take long breaks sometimes.

  12. karol

    Just a note about names. I have found that people used various names at different times; our family has used the same names within the same families so that there may be multiple cousins with the same names – often with very similar birthdates! Not seeing the name may just mean that they were called something else at that time. My great-gmother used her given name growing up with a diminuitive of her first name. When she married and moved away she rearranged her names and used an entirely different nickname. All four names appear on different censuses. I am struggling with my 3x great-gmother now who appears as five completely different names with two different last names on our family trees, in the censuses, and in the obit. My gmother told me one of the names 40 years ago so it may have been a totally different nickname – or she had 3 names rather than 2. The census lists several in the household and there can be matches from census to census till you get them connected; age also helps. I found two men on the censuses who turned out to be the hired men – and then later married the daughters of that household. Of course on a funnier note I typed in my another great-gmother’s name and up came a Native American woman living at the same time whose name was the pronunciation of my g-gmother’s name. Don’t give up. It’s actually a lot of fun. Do what the others have suggested and take breaks. And soon you will start to see the puzzle pieces so you can fit them together.

  13. Ross B Yingst

    Don’t over look the possibility that boundary lines for States and Counties may have changed over the years.

  14. Linda Loughlin

    Hi Brenda,
    The census records can definitely be confusing. I have always thought that I had African American in my background. Relatives were confused when census records stated Mulatto for race.
    What I found is that I actually have Cherokee Indian ancestry. In those early census records they often put any mixed race as “Mulatto.” I checked the Indian Rolls (Guion Miller, Dawes, etc.)and found that mixed Indian and White ancestry was mistaken for African American and White mixed.
    You mentioned that you maybe had Indian ancestry too, so I hope this may help you in your quest.
    p.s. I encourage you to do the DNA Testing…it really helped clarify a lot of history and background for me!

  15. Toni S.

    Everyone’s comments have been very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to post your experiences and suggestions. I guess I won’t give up. It has been an adventure.

  16. mia

    I am African American but have always been told that both of my grandparents on my fathers side was half Indian. However in tracing my grandfather’s side I can nit find the Indian blood. We are from Wewoka and Wilburton Oklahoma. I would like to do a DNA test however I am a female. Would it be best for me to test my son or does it matter. My father is deceased but I do have a living uncle. What be the best test to take and whom should I test. I would also like to know what part of Africa we originate from.

    Thanks Mia

  17. Marzi

    Just a few words, Information about African-American is hard to find and its take patients, according to my aunt who was born and raised in South Carolina she told me as far as birth, dead and marriage records go it can be hard to find since the majority of black folk could not read nor write some families kept records in their family bible and churches were known to keep records of marriages, births and death, burials. In 1972 my father had to go and get a first cousin to testify that he remembered the day my dad was born(1919) in order to get a birth certificate. Sad thing my grandmother was a midwife who delivered many white babies recording their births according to State Laws. But not her own children.

    Finally, I’ve found a great many mistakes made by ask that oversight be corrected!! I’ve been waiting nearly 9yrs those mistakes have yet to be fixed. I don’t understand why a religious organization was placed over people historic records.

  18. John

    “Mulatto” simply meant that someone was of mixed “race” heritage in the opinion of the census taker. If they thought someone was, in their opinion, not fair skinned enough to be white they were mulatto. Wether the mix was black/white, white/native or some other ethnic identity the census taker thought of as non-white could be labelled as mulatto. This included at various times people of Arabic, Italian, Jewish and French ancestry. We inherited a very xenophobic viewpoint from the English. By the way, the ‘mul’ in mulatto is not pronounced like ‘mule’.

  19. Lee Bibb

    Reply to #18 John: The census taker was constrained by the choices that the census form allowed. He couldn’t just make up some description but had to use one of the several choices listed at the bottom of the form. The examples that you cite: Arabic, Italian, Jewish and French were always listed as WHITE in the censuses. But prior to 1920 there were probably no more and a few hundred Arabic persons in the US. You seem to be a victim of racial xenophobia yourself. Wise up.

  20. Marsha Maxey

    I also am doing an Indian sear h. My great grand mother was to be full indian. My block in this search is trying to confirm her maiden name (Washington) as well as to get info on her dad (deceased). Where do I go from here as I need more info to submit to the tribe. Also, initially, are all birth certs and marriage licenses have to be forwarded to the creek/ cherokee tribe?

  21. Elizabeth Campbell

    The census records from the 1930 census reflect prejudices of the census takers. My great aunt was married to an African-American man whose parents were both mulatto. My Great Aunt and Uncle took in my great grandmother to care for her in her old age. Suddenly my Great aunt and her mother became N because the head of household was. Because of discrimination against mixed marriage my great aunt let it go. She was a wonderful lady and I never met her husband but my mom liked him.

  22. jennifer hallman

    I am white but have worked on African American geneologies in NC for many years.I have also run into this situation. Sometimes it was up to the census taker to record the race and they didn’t ask. Sometimes they forgot to fill it in and added it later. Sometimes they just put a first letterand the W looks like an N. I have found that in NC , the best indication is to look at the race of the neighbors. Usually, the neighborhood is consistent in race during the time period.

  23. Lee Bibb

    Brenda Little & Anne:

    As you know this can be addicting. I’m stopping because there are too many things I don’t know about the family. Brenda: check the marriage cert for Nancy & Will to see where in Greene Co they were married. If location is not noted, find loc of man who married them in the 1900 Census. I have found in Springfield, Greene Co, in the 1900 Census, an 85 year old Francis Cockrell and her 4 grandchildren are living with her, one of whom is Annie, b. Mar 1882. [Annie=Ann=Nannie=Nancy]. Other 3 siblings born in 1888, 1892 and 1894, making me suspect that Annie might actually be b. in 1886 – another possible census taker’s error. The witness to the marriage for Nancy might be Francis, thus confirming all of this. This is the only Francis I’ve found. Good luck on that.

    In Brookwood in 1900 the major occupations of black men were either coal miner or day laborer. My guess is that the day laborers (like Will Smith) worked at the mines above ground. The Hassell location is still unidentified to me, but it was a sawmill and was close enough to the Smith farm that in 1920 Census Will and his three sons worked at the sawmill and Nancy was a farm laborer.

  24. Lee Bibb

    Brenda Little & Anne:

    I forgot to add regarding Will’s parents, Frank and Sallie Smith, that there was a couple by that name living in Monroe County, AL and in the 1880 Census they have a son, Willie, age 8. This might be who you are looking for but I don’t know how you can tie them to your Will.

  25. Fran Westbrook

    I really can sympathize with her. I had a g grandmother only information I has was Sabra married to John C. Dixon living in Phiadelphia, Neshoba county, MS. The only way I found my gold mine was to be consistent. So every year we went to Salt Lake City to FHC starting 1988 for seven straight years. At first I flitted from one section to another. Then I decided that the only way I was gonna find relatives was to look at census and go thru every household. Well after seven summers of doing this daunting task it paid off. I found in John C. and Sabra Dixons household was her brother Benjamin Boydstun along with his wife and new born baby. I was rejoicing. Then looked at family histories and BINGO. Abook written by Ms Weaver and there was Sabra. Her dad a Revolutinary War Soilder. Samuel Boysdtun(Boydston) from TN. What a great find persistence brought. Just don’t give up. Set it down. Walk away. But please go back. You will find the end of the rainbow.

  26. Betty Baber

    I am looking for native American relatives in Maxey, Ragland, Self or Terry families. There is a Pocahontas
    Maxey but some of the relatives believe the Native American relatives are from the Terry family. Two Terry sisters married Ragland brothers but I have not been able to find any proof.

    Thanks to everyone for sharing their information it was very helpful.

  27. valerie upton

    making this short, I hope. I followed one family in New Orleans, where I knew the father was from Italy and white, but I guess he was dark skinned, so in New Orleans, he became black on the census. His white wife, and children were listed as black, most of the time, but every once in a while, you would find a record, that showed they were white. when the father died, the next census showed everyone as white. the other thing I have found, in my husbands line, one of the daughters, of a know white family married an Indian, they were on the census as blk, or one of the different terms for a mixed race person. Just keep looking, and usually sooner or later some record will show up, that helps put it all together.

  28. Lynette p Dunn

    I had my DNA through National Geographics . I was told from my third great grandma that we were 4th generation Chickasaw Indian. I know my Grandmother , Mother and one sister carry the dark eyes and hair and the rest of the family have light eyes. We show no Native American in the DNA but we do show Black Ancestry way back in the original maternal lines ..hmmm. I have talked with several other people going through this same issue. I know I am a very mixed blooded American which is not uncommon, I feel blessed and I am going to meet my family in different states very soon as we have already connected through Ancestry. Thank you

  29. Monica Tucker

    I am having a difficult time finding out information. I believe that much of the information was due to the fact that some family members may have fudged the truth about their relationship status. My grandmother, Nannie (Clark) Davis was married to my grandfather, Johnnie Jenkins…but on the census, it shows her as being his niece…though they were not related. It’s confusing. I’m ready to give up but I won’t. I can find more information about my mother’s father’s side of the family than I can her mother. I do know that my great grandmother was Indian…however, the older family members won’t talk about anything… that’s all I have to go on. Frustrated. My family is originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Jenkins/Fultz and Clark/Davis families.

  30. Alida Spry


    I believe I found Nancy Cockrell in the 1900 census Clinton, Greene Co., Alabama indexed as “Nannie Cockrell” age 6 born in Alabama. She’s listed as Black with parents William and Lugenia, siblings Baella, Frank, Ida May, John and Emma.

    I can try to track those parents back farther if you would like. Just let me know! I’m always happy to help! Good luck!


  31. Alida Spry

    Follow up to my previous post:

    Also found marriage for WIlliam Cockrell and Lugenia Burton

    Name: Lugenia Burton
    Gender: Female
    Marriage Date: 26 May 1888
    Marriage Place: , Greene, Alabama
    Spouse: William Cockrell
    FHL Film Number: 1290853

  32. Lee Bibb

    Alida: #32 and #33:

    But if tht was the right Nancy, she would have been 9 years old when she married in 1903 – when she was 17. That’s why I rejected that family.

  33. Ernest Vasquez

    I read all the above comments with great intrest. Any comments about Mexican-Americans from the lower Rio Grande Valley of Southwest Texas? I’ve heard many stories of how people changed thier names to avoid capture during Texas-Mexico war. Any comments on this subject??

  34. M simmons

    Do you have any information on the pictures that accompanied this post. The lady in the center of the photo of the African Americans resembles my grandmother. I don’t think the person is my grandmother, but am curious if it could be a distant relative.

    Do you know where the picture was taken and the time frame.

  35. Susan J. Myers

    I too have been told all my life that I have Native American blood on my mother’s side. My mother’s maiden name was Sampson. My maternal grandmother’s name was Ethel Parker (who I was told was 1/4 Cherokee. She was born in Missouri in or around the 1900’s. According to my mother, my grandmother Parker’s people were from SC and the tribe was forced onto a reservation in the mid-west, possibly OK. I, like many people was told my ancestors were Cherokee, and Quantico Parker was a distant relative. I did some research, and found that Q Parker had 3 children with a white woman and all three children died early, before the age of 12, I believe. So, unless there are other children he fathered that aren’t accounted for…brickwall. I also read that the tribe forced to move to OK was Apache. HELP!!!! My mother is deceased, and all her siblings are deceased.

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