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 tree—about five generations back—she had an ancestor named “Carrie Catto.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Who Will You Find in Your Tree?
Where do you come from? Who are the family heroes waiting to be discovered in your tree?
*Carrie was also known as Catherine.