One Man’s Quest to Find the Names of His Enslaved Ancestors

Family History
19 October 2017
by Ancestry

Jason Atwater* was on a mission: to find the names of his slave ancestors.

His quest led him to a bigger discovery than he imagined.

An Unexpected Clue

Slave record research can be difficult, as slaves were not always listed by name, but rather as property, simply by age and gender.

Yet Jason 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:

Jason’s ancestors, Darby and Lucy.

There it was, a document preserved for generations – the  “List of Negroes from the Berry Hill Plantation.”

And on that document, Jason found not one but two names! Darby and Lucy Duncan were Jason’s great-great-great grandparents.

The Source of His Strength – and His Love of Cooking

Jason was thrilled at his discovery. Just knowing 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.”

What added even more meaning and relevance to Jason’s life was that his ancestor Darby was the cook at Berry Hill. And his culinary legacy was so strong, that it lives on today, in a restaurant called Darby’s Tavern, on the site of the original kitchen at the plantation.

Darby’s Tavern is named after Jason’s ancestor Darby Duncan.

Cooking has always been a huge part of Jason’s large family. Cooking was an expression of love and family dinners were a big deal.

At his family’s huge annual reunion they’ve held for 125 years, his mother’s food is extremely popular.

She, in turn, passed on a love of cooking to Jason and his siblings. And now it turns out, a love of cooking runs in the family for many more generations than they’d guessed.

What Will You Discover?

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

He learned not only where in Africa his slave ancestors came from, but he discovered their names – and their legacies.

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.