Walking With My Enslaved Ancestors

by Ancestry

Jason Atwater* was on a mission: to discover the names of his enslaved ancestors.

He never dreamed his research would lead him to the Virginia plantation where his ancestor’s legacy lives on to this day.

What Were Their Names?

After taking an AncestryDNA® test, Jason became curious about his African ancestors who had been enslaved.

Who were they? What were their names?

African-American family working on plantation.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

He started doing research on Ancestry® and had some initial luck but hit a roadblock.

Slave record research can be hard: Slaves were not always listed by name, just by age and gender.

But he was determined. His breakthrough moment came when he got a “shaky leaf hint” from Ancestry via email.

Jason instantly clicked on the hint. And what he saw, he could scarcely believe:

Handwritten list highlighting the author's relatives.
Jason’s ancestors, Darby and Lucy.

There it was, the “List of Negroes from the Berry Hill Plantation,” bearing the names of Jason’s great-great-great grandparents, Darby and Lucy Duncan.

Learning his ancestors’ names was incredibly meaningful,

“Here are their names. These were real people, with real lives…It makes me very emotional  to think about how horrible their lives must have been, but knowing their names, I can honor them.”

A quick internet search revealed that Berry Hill Plantation was in Virginia.

Pathway leading up to entrance of Berry Hill Plantation property.
The approach to Berry Hill Plantation.

Further research revealed that Jason’s ancestor Darby Duncan had been the chef at Berry Hill.

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Family Journey

It turned out that Berry Hill Plantation was transformed into a resort and conference center. Initially Jason was conflicted about visiting.

But when he learned that on site there was a restaurant called Darby’s Tavern, in honor of his ancestor, Jason was inspired to make the trip.

He invited his mother Dolores and his sister Valerie to join him.

The author and his family arriving at the property.
Jason, his mother, and sister seeing Berry Hill for the first time and experiencing waves of emotion.

When Jason and his family visited Darby’s Tavern, there was a surprise in store for them.

Not only was Darby’s Tavern named after his ancestor. It was located in the same part of the house where Darby and his wife Lucy had lived.

The author visiting restaurant named after his ancestor, Darby's Tavern.

Darby, it turned out, had been such a well-respected chef that he had been sent to Louisiana to train with the finest chefs of the day.

And some of the original cookware was still on the premises. Jason actually got to touch the pot that Darby used to cook dishes like his famous jambalaya.

The author visiting the kitchen.
Jason gets to see the pot Darby used to cook in.

What Will You Discover?

For Jason, the quest to find the names of his slave ancestors evolved into something bigger than he ever dreamed.

While not all of us may uncover the living legacy of a slave ancestor, we might well find more than we expect.

Find out how your past can inspire your future with Ancestry.


*Jason is an Ancestry employee. This is his actual family story. Travel provided by Ancestry.