While it’s not uncommon for details on various censuses to conflict, in the case of Liv Tyler’s Elliott ancestors, one such conflict hinted at hidden ancestry. While census records for George Elliott consistently recorded him as white, his father Robert Elliott was listed as mulatto in the 1870 census. Was this just an enumerator’s error or did the Elliott family have some African American roots? Clues lie in the context of additional records and of history.
Few records provide the facts surrounding how a person viewed themselves racially or how they were accepted in the community. The area where the Elliotts lived was ninety-five percent Caucasian. This was particularly relevant when it came to learning about the lives of these ancestors.
George Elliott was a veteran of the Civil War and one particular record held a clue. The U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 for George W. Elliott includes the battles he fought, and enlistment dates, as well as personal details. In addition to the enlistment and discharge dates, the record includes at least the year of birth (often a full birthdate), the place of birth, and a physical description.
A physical description can be of immense value in an era when photography was not widely available to the general population and is particularly helpful in this case. For George W. Elliott his description of black hair, black eyes, and dark complexion matched the mulatto ancestry. Taken by itself this detail was interesting, but it also stresses why it is important to know the history of a specific source and what was included in it. The fact that only white soldiers were included on this list showed that George W. Elliott either viewed himself as white or at least presented himself that way. The added detail that he was a musician in the military delighted Liv Tyler because of the tie to her father’s early life as a drummer.
George Washington Elliott listed in in U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 at Ancestry.com.
The second record that added detail to this family was the newspaper article found in the Plattsburgh Republican. Too often we assume that only vital events (births, marriages, and deaths) or details of specific newsworthy stories will be found in the newspaper. The article about Robert Elliott was based upon an interview he gave when he was an elderly man. It recounted his service as a drummer boy at the Battle of Plattsburgh (again highlighting the musical background of the family), as well as his guardianship by Captain Wright.
A county history mentioned that Robert Elliott was a black man, thus raising the possibility that this guardianship was in fact service as an indentured servant. In this instance, it was important to understand the historical background of slavery in New York. At the time of Robert’s birth, male children born to a slave would have been indentured servants until age 28.
The research on Liv Tyler’s ancestors demonstrates how important it is to not only understand the reason records were created, but also who should be included in them. Additionally, the laws and historical context of an area can impact how a document is viewed.
Learn more about Liv’s journey or see videos about other celebrities’ ancestries on TLC.com. Watch full episodes of the show on TLCgo.com. Discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.