Karen Hughes White, Co-Founder of the Afro-American Historical Society, had been told for years by her aunt that she was related to the Chief Justice John Marshall. Although she originally ignored this comment, Karen would soon find this connection documented. In the year 2000, a woman Karen  vaguely knew, Constance, entered into the organization with an unrecorded will. Karen discovered that this document was created by her great, great, great grandfather Hezekiah Gaskins. The unrecorded will was found in his son’s third wife’s previous house.

The story of Hezekiah Gaskins is an example of oral history, archival research, and community help. Through bringing in old documents Constance found in her house, this woman was able to assist Karen White’s own genealogical research. Oral histories are then validated through historical documents.

Examining the documents pertaining to Hezekiah Gaskins provides insight into the intricacies involved in researching African American genealogy. Some sources are missing, like birth and death records and marriage certificates. However, from the records found, a narrative of Hezekiah Gaskins can be constructed, and the 19th century familial structure and state legislation explored.

U.S. Census (1850). Courtesy of Ancestry.

This 1850 U.S. Census¹ is the earliest recorded document directly linked to Hezekiah Gaskins.

The document lists a “Kiah” Gaskins on line 27 rather than Hezekiah. Kiah is listed with Edward C. Marshall, the son of Chief Justice John Marshall. Because of the evident relationship between Hezekiah Gaskins and Edward Gaskins in future documents, it can be assumed this is referring to the same person. This record provides insight into Hezekiah’s occupation by age 26, which is a carpenter. Additionally, one can determine a birth year for Gaskins from this census. Since this was taken in 1850 and Gaskins is documented as 26 years old, it can be presumed that his birth year was 1824.

Using this historic map of Fauquier County,  “Ashby Gap” is located on the Southern most tip of the county. Although it does not provide a specific district name in this map, it could be assumed that this is the area referenced in this census.

Under the literacy section, Gaskins’ space is left blank. While this could be used to assume he was literate, reading the next census taken in 1860 proves otherwise. It was commonly against the law to teach enslaved individuals to read and write. Because of the atmosphere during this period, even freed individuals often were illiterate. In “Self-Emancipation and Slavery: An Examination of the African American’s Quest for Literacy and Freedom,” Anthony B. Mitchell explains, “due to the climate of overt violence, many Africans did not aspire to read or write for fear of sudden death and/or limited prospects for freedom.”² Keeping this population illiterate was a mechanism of control and power. The fact that his space is left blank in this census is strange and could point to the list taker feeling it was unnecessary to include.


This document is the 1854 deed³ from Edward C. Marshall to Hezekiah Gaskins for his wife referred to as “a certain female negro slave” and three children, Nancy, Polly, and Frances. It is stated that Gaskins paid Marshall $300 in exchange for his wife and children. Additionally, Marshall states that all “future increase” (referencing future children) will also belong to Hezekiah Gaskins.

During this period, many freed black individuals were unable to raise the funds to purchase their enslaved family. If this exchange did not happen, the constant threat of separation loomed over the family. In Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, Heather Andrea Williams explains, 

The process of separation could occur in one of several ways. Sometimes people knew that sale or departure was imminent and had an opportunity to attempt to intervene […] Other times sale and separation were sudden and shocking.4


To keep his family together, it was essential for Gaskins to purchase them as soon as possible.

It was crucial for Hezekiah Gaskins to purchase his wife and children rather than buying their freedom due to the current political environment in Virginia. This decision was owed to legislation regarding manumission in Virginia during this period. In History of Slavery in Virginia, James Ballagh explains, “In the session of 1805 and 1806 the principle of the act of 1691 was revived, and no slave emancipated after the 1st of May, 1806, could legally remain in Virginia after becoming of age.”This was later expanded in 1851 to state that those who stayed “forfeited his liberty after twelve months, and might be seized and sold by the overseers of the poor for the benefit of the poor.”Since this deed is dated only three years following this ruling, it was essential for Gaskins to maintain ownership over his wife and children rather than granting them freedom.

Although Hezekiah Gaskins was a free man, his family was still by law enslaved.

This 1854 Willby Hezekiah Gaskins follows the deed from Marshall. It is dated less than a month after the deed. This short document emancipates his wife and children upon his death and bequeaths his estate and unpaid debts from others to his said family. He specifically says this will revokes all other wills previously made by himself. The “X” was Gaskin’s signature as he was illiterate and could not sign his name.

It was essential for Gaskins to make a new will now that he held ownership over his wife and children. Since his wife and children were considered property, if he did not include them in his will they would be sold off following his death. This was important to implement legally as the state could seize his property after his death if no legal document specifically emancipated them. A primary fear of being sold was that they would be sent further south. Between the beginning of slavery in the U.S. to the Civil War, over half a million slaves in Virginia were transferred out of state. The other pressing fear was the more than likely separation of their family. Despite the pleas of those enslaved to be bought with their family, slave owners tended to make purchases based off of individual value.8

Using the 1860 census as a reference places Nancy at 6, Polly at 3, and Frances at 1. Although these children were incredibly young, they would have been wrenched from their mother without a second thought. The short period between Hezekiah Gaskins’ new will and the purchase of his family evidently is to prepare for this possible situation and to ensure the protection of his family.

This is the 1860 U.S Census.9 Between this document and the last one, Hezekiah and Fanny had another three children. Hezekiah is now listed as a Stone Mason and Fanny is listed as a houseworker. It is important to note that Fanny is listed as “M”under the color section. This letter stands for Mulatto, which today translates to being of mixed racial ancestry. This could lead to possible speculation over her lineage.

While this census appears regular at first glance, after deeper examination a possible new genealogical connection can be made. Listed under all the children of Hezekiah and Fanny is a Martha Gaskins. She is only 14 years old, but is not one of their children. Under the 1854 deed, Martha is not listed. Her birthdate can be assumed to be 1846/1847 from her age in 1860. Putting Martha Gaskins into FamilySearch with a birth date of roughly 1846 and the country of Fauquier in Virginia brings forward the 1850 U.S. Census.10 In this census, she is listed on the second image on line two. She is recorded as the youngest child to a Moses and Joanah Gaskins. Additionally in, Fauquier Register of Free Negroes, 1817-1865, Joanna Gaskins is listed under section 112.11 And in Fauquier County Personal Property Tax List, 1786-1819, Moses Gaskins is listed as a free man.12

If Moses and Joanna Gaskins were Hezekiah’s parents, then that would explain his free status and would make Martha Gaskins his younger sister.

U.S. Census (1860). Courtesy of the Ancestry. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/34268528:7667?tid=&pid=&queryId=4481fa91d0a3b06b76c43416b44db2f9&_phsrc=zNx1&_phstart=successSource.

This is the 1861 Free Negro List.13 Hezekiah Gaskins is listed alongside an Aaron and Tom Gaskins. In the book, Fauquier Register of Free Negroes, 117-1865 the three men are listed together again.14 In 1854, the year the register in the book was recorded, Hezekiah was 27, Aaron was 23, and Thomas was 21. Although it can not be said for certain that the three were brothers, this is a possibility.

According to the Library of Virginia’s website, “Beginning in 1793 in cities and in 1803 in counties, free African Americans were required to register themselves.”15 Registering was crucial during this period if one lived in the South. These “free papers” protected the free individual from being deemed a slave and taken into bondage.16 Although these papers certified their freedom, there were still many restrictions placed on these individuals. After 1848, the free black population in Virginia could not leave the state regardless of the purpose.17




This is the 1870 U.S. Census18 listing Hezekiah and Fannie (not listed as Fanny like in the previous census). Hezekiah is recorded as a Laborer and Fannie is once more “keeping house.” This is the last record with Hezekiah Gaskins alive. Although this list of documents does not include a recorded death certificate, it can be presumed that between this census and the following document Gaskins passed away.

During this period, finding employment as a free man proved increasingly difficult. By 1853, legislation in Virginia had restricted the free black workforce immensely. There was a list of various jobs that were illegal for free African Americans to work, this included: medical practitioners, entrepreneurs, and teachers.19 Despite Gaskins being previously listed as a carpenter in 1850, and a stone mason in 1860, he is now a laborer. In Loudoun County (the next county north from Fauquier) a vast majority of the free black population was listed as “Laborer.” Out of the various jobs listed, “Laborer” amounted to 60% of the population.20 This decrease in quality jobs was purposefully done by the white community as a way to impress the social hierarchy. Although the specific laws would have been repealed after the end of the Civil War, the social environment of racial politics continued to restrict job opportunities for the black population.

U.S. Census (1870) Courtesy of Ancestry.

This 1871 indenture21 marks the exchange of a parcel of land in Fauquier County from Edward C. Marshall to Fanny Gaskins along with her five children. In this document Hezekiah Gaskins is recorded as deceased. Although no death certificate for Gaskins has been recorded, sometime between the 1870 U.S. Census and this 1871 indenture, Hezekiah Gaskins died.

The parcel of land mentioned in this indenture can be located with this historic map of Fauquier County. It is near the North West corner of the county, between the titles “Triplett’s” and “Markham.” The precise location of the parcel is unknown, but the general area can be presumed with this map.

In 1870, there were 517 free African American female landowners in Virginia.22 The next year, Fanny would join that percentile. Owning land elevated and protected Fanny in society. Without her husband, Fanny was a single black woman which was the most vulnerable and powerless group in society.23 This act of Fanny’s previous owner granting her land was somewhat taboo during this period. White citizens preferred to keep the free black population in poverty to restrict their opportunities of social climbing.24 Not only did Fanny gain ownership of land, her five children are also listed in this document. Although she was left in a vulnerable position in society, Fanny now owned land alongside her five children.

As shown above, conducting genealogical research is a complex process. I ran into a plethora of issues during this project, which included:

  • Misspelling of names: The first census lists a “Kiah” rather than Hezekiah. In the deed from Marshall to Fanny, Hezekiah is misspelled numerous times as “Hezikiah.” Fanny is spelled as both Fanny and Fannie, Polly is spelled as both Polly and Polley.
  • Misspelling of words: Triplette’s Mill as Mil in the deed to Fanny, Hezekiah spelling emancipate as “immancipat” in his will.
  • Period specific characteristics: using an “f” rather than a double “s,” the term “to wit,” words like aforesaid, hereunto, and whereof.

The biggest obstacle in conducting African American genealogical research is locating documents. As described in the page “Genealogical Research Roots,” the history of documentation for African Americans is sparse. Difficulties in tracking enslaved ancestors today reflects the inhumanity of slavery. The institution attempted to erase identity and individualism which has influenced genealogical researchers. Because of insufficient documentation, Hezekiah Gaskins does not have a definitive birth or death date. Additionally, it can be presumed that Moses and Joanna were his parents, but no records specifically indicate this.

A rough narrative of Hezekiah Gaskins life can be constructed. He was born a free man in roughly 1824 and met an enslaved woman, Fanny, through his relationship with the son of Chief Justice John Marshall. He and Fanny married and had three daughters together. From working as a carpenter, Gaskins was able to purchase his wife and children from Marshall for $300. After this exchange, Gaskins rewrote his will to bequeath everything to his family and emancipate them in the occasion of his death. In the next six years, Fanny and Hezekiah had two more children, both sons. Then, between 1870-1871, Gaskins died of an unknown cause at the likely age of 47. Following this, Marshall gave Fanny a parcel of land that he owed the deceased Gaskins.

While this provides an outline of Gaskins life, it has many holes. Just as the introductory paragraph showed, community help can enrich a narrative greatly. Up until 2000, Hezekiah’s Will, emancipating his family and bequeathing his estate to them was unrecorded. Over time, more documents could surface that may fill in empty parts of his narrative.

1. 1850 Census, Fauquier County, Virginia, accessed November 6, 2023, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/15012191:8054?tid=&pid=&queryId=9e1f8f8965c96fb7fda2d31c152ac35f&_phsrc=pIr1&_phstart=successSource.
2. Anthony B. Mitchell, “Self-Emancipation and Slavery: An Examination of the African American’s Quest for Literacy and Freedom,” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2, no. 5  (July 2008), 88.
3. Deed Book 54, Fauquier Courthouse, Warrenton, VA, [Deed from Edward C. Marshall to Hezekiah Gaskins 1854] 122, Afro-American Historical Association, The Plains, VA.
4. Heather Andrea Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost  in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 70.
5. James Ballagh, A History of Slavery in Virginia (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1902), 125, https://www.ancestraltrackers.net/va/resources/history-slavery-virginia-v24.pdf.
6. ibid 125.
7. Will Book, Fauquier Courthouse, Warrenton, VA, [Will and Probate Hezekiah Gaskins 1854], Afro-American Historical Association, The Plains, VA.
8. Clayton E. Jewett, and John O. Allen, Slavery in the South a State-by-State History (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2004),  271
9. 1860 U.S. Census, Fauquier County, Virginia, accessed December 6, 2023, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/39166449:7163?tid=&pid=&queryId=d2a432a1237f06b59567d4ca77f7f869&_phsrc=pIr2&_phstart=successSource.
10. 1850 U.S. Census, Fauquier County, Virginia, accessed November 6, 2023, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/15007288:8054?tid=&pid=&queryId=0817d3de-4bc2-4be2-acf1-be089eef1400&_phsrc=BeY1&_phstart=successSource.
11. “Fauquier Register of Free Negroes,” accessed November 23, 2023, https://freeafricanamericans.com/fauquierfn.htm.
12. “Fauquier County Personal Property Tax List, 1786-1819,” accessed November 23, 2023, https://freeafricanamericans.com/fauquier.htm.
13. Ended Cause, Fauquier Courthouse, Warrenton, VA, [Fauquier County, VA, Free Negro List July 25, 1861], Afro-American Historical Association, The Plains, VA.
14. Courtney Gaskins, Karen Ibrahim, and Karen White, Fauquier Register of Free Negroes, 117-1865. (The Plains: Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County, 1993).
15. Library of Virginia, “African American Research at the Library of Virginia to 1870,” accessed November 23, 2023, https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/burned_juris/superior_courts_info.htm.https://lva-virginia.libguides.com/c.php?g=1162917&p=8489814.
16. John H. Russell, The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865 (New York: Johns Hopkins Press, 1913), 101.
17. ibid 107.
18. 1870 U.S. Census, Fauquier County, Virginia, accessed November 6, 2023, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/39166449:7163?tid=&pid=&queryId=d2a432a1237f06b59567d4ca77f7f869&_phsrc=pIr2&_phstart=successSource.
19. Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 291.
20. ibid 293.
21. Deed Book 63, Fauquier Courthouse, Warrenton, VA, [Deed from Edward C. Marshall to Fanny Gaskins and her five children 1871] 498, Afro-American Historical Association, The Plains, VA.
22. Loren Schweninger, “Property Owning Free African-American Women in the South, 1800-1870,” Journal of Women’s History 1, no. 3 (1990): 33,  https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh.2010.0034.
23. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South, 162.
24. ibid 296.