“The Forgotten Hero”: How Ancestry Helped One Woman Find Her Civil Rights Activist Ancestor

by Ancestry® Team

All of us have forgotten heroes in our family stories, people who made a difference in the lives of those around them.

But some, like American civil rights activist Octavius Valentine Catto, are especially remarkable.

How did Octavius Catto’s fifth great-grandniece Jennifer discover him in her family ‘s past?

It All Started With a Family Tree

Jennifer had been doing family history research on Ancestry® for a number of years. She had traced her family tree back a few generations.

And in the farthest reaches of her treeabout five generations backshe had an ancestor named “Carrie Catto.”

Jennifer's family tree
Jennifer had traced her family tree back to “Carrie Catto,” born in 1882

Carrie*, Jennifer’s third great-grandmother, shared an ancestor with Octavius Valentine Catto, “The Forgotten Hero.”

But Jennifer had no idea of the famous connection until Ancestry researchers did a little sleuthing.

Finding the Connection: Working Backwards

Was the Catto last name a clue that Jennifer’s third great-grandmother Carrie Catto was related to the influential activist Octavius Catto? Ancestry researchers were intrigued.

One way to find a connection to a famous ancestor is to start with what you know about that famous person and work backwards in the family tree, from the oldest generations to the most recent.

That’s what Ancestry researchers did.

They knew, from work done by scholars, that Octavius Valentine Catto was the son of a Methodist clergyman named William Thomas Catto, born in South Carolina in 1810.

They searched census records, and in an 1850 Census record, they found W(illia)m T Catto: A Methodist clergyman. Born in South Carolina, in 1810. Bingo. 

1850 US Federal Census for William T Catto highlighting William and his son Octavius
This 1850 census record for William T Catto matches known details about him and Octavius

And listed among William T Catto’s sons was Octavius, age 11. That meant he was born in 1839. Octavius Valentine Catto, “The Forgotten Hero,” was born in 1839. Another match.

Photo of Octavius Valentine Catto
Civil rights activist Octavius Valentine Catto was born on February 22, 1839

Subsequent research confirmed that the Octavius listed in the 1850 census record was in fact the Octavius Catto, American educator, intellectual, and civil rights activist.

Following the Family Thread

At this point, researchers had found Octavius Catto in a census record. But how was Jennifer related to Octavius?

A closer look at the same 1850 census record showed an older brother of Octavius named William Catto born in South Carolina, age 13.

1850 US Federal Census record for William T Catto highlighting his son William
The 1850 census record for William T Catto also shows his son William, age 13

If William Catto was thirteen in 1850, he was born in 1837.

Researchers then uncovered a second census record: a record from 1900 showing William Catto, born in 1837 in South Carolina. The details matched: They had found Octavius’ brother William, ten years later.

A 1900 census record showing William Catto and Carrie McCloe as his daughter
A 1900 census record showing Carrie McCloe (Catto) as the daughter of William Catto

And guess who was listed as William Catto’s daughter: Jennifer’s ancestor Carrie McCloe (born Catto).

There it was. Jennifer’s third great-grandmother Carrie, the person who was the farthest back in her family tree, was in fact her connection to Octavius Valentine Catto, through her father, who was Octavius’ brother.

Meaningful Connections

For Jennifer, finding Octavius, her fifth great-granduncle, was such a revelation. She reflected,

“I think a lot of our history is put into this box of Black people were slaves, then they were free, and now we’re here. But there’s so much more to us than just the struggle.”

Ancestry records show that in the 1860 Census Octavius Catto was a Pennsylvania school teacher. An 1871 teachers list shows Octavius listed as “Principal of Male Department.”

As Jennifer later learned, after a trip to see his tombstone in Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia, and as narrated by Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.,

“He’s linked to nearly every important Black movement of his time.”

Catto joined forces with Frederick Douglass to raise 11 regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops.

1863 Broadside listing Catto as a speaker
An 1863 Broadside listing Catto as a speaker calling men of color to arms

He campaigned for the ratification of the Reconstruction amendments after the Civil War. And he successfully led the fight to desegregate Philadelphia’s trolley car system in 1867.

Tragically, Catto was murdered at the age of 32, on October 10, 1871. He was in Philadelphia on his way to quell an election day race riot and protect Black voters.

In the words of Professor Gates,

“He died as he lived, fighting for the rights of Black people.”

A bronze statue of Octavius Valentine Catto
A statue of Octavius Valentine Catto in Philadelphia

He was a hero for all of us. But for Jennifer he was even more than that:

“Seeing his name on Ancestry, seeing the cemetery and the headstone, seeing this [statue], just touching it, I feel a sense of connection. This is where I come from.”

Jennifer holding hands with the statue of Octavius Catto
Jennifer holding hands with the statue of her fifth great-granduncle Octavius Catto

Who Will You Find in Your Tree?

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*Carrie was also known as Catherine.