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Interview with Paul Heinegg, Author of the New 6th Edition of Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia & South Carolina from the Colonial Period to About 1820 (Part One)

Heinegg, Paul

Genealogy Pointers: When did you first get interested in African American genealogy?  Why?

Paul Heinegg: I was working in Saudi Arabia in 1985, living in a community in the middle of the desert (much like a military compound) with about 200 other U.S. families when a co-worker came back from vacation and told me how he was looking at his grandmother’s photos and realized we were second cousins. We then realized that he had visited his great grandfather, who was my grandfather, at my home in Brooklyn when we were both about 12 years old. He had done some preliminary research, and I promised to do more when I took my vacation. On vacations we stayed in Queens, N.Y., with my mother-in-law. I visited the main branch of the N.Y. Public Library’s genealogical section on 42nd Street. That was about the time “Roots” made genealogy popular among the general population.

GP: What direction or blueprint did you have for how to proceed with your work?

PH: The following year I recounted the aforesaid story to my mother-in-law, an African American from North Carolina, and she asked me to look into her own roots. Our whole family became fascinated when we found that she had relatives who were free before Emancipation. (My wife has an ancestor with the uncommon name of Tann. We found him in the 1850 and 1860 census for North Carolina.) After some research of North Carolina records available in New York, I went to the NC State Archives in Raleigh to do further research. Fortunately, the archives was closed that day, and I had to be content with browsing the shelves of the state library. There I found Weynette Parks Haun’s abstracts of the county court records which contained several decades of colonial history of some of my wife’s ancestors. I realized then that the county court records would be my main focus.

Once my research was seriously underway, I employed the following methodology:

  • determine all the names of the families counted as “other free” (non-white) in the 1790-1820 census and colonial tax records for North Carolina and Virginia.
  • read all the colonial and early national court records for North Carolina
  • write the family history of all those families
  • read all the colonial and early national court records, tax lists, free Negro registers, newspapers, church records, etc., for Virginia
  • rewrite the family histories based on that new information

Following this process, I ran across new family names all the time. And since people are often not identified by race in the records, a rerun of that entire process turns up new information (as it did for this 6th edition).

About 2015 the Library of Virginia started going through their collection of loose county papers (not in bound volumes) and published over 16,000 digital images on their African American Narrative site. Those images are one of the new sources for this edition.

Heinegg, Paul

The other major source for this edition are the files of all the Virginia county court, wills, deeds, and tax records that I borrowed from the Library of Virginia on interlibrary loan for the previous edition and was able to go through again right on my computer thanks to Familysearch.org. They also put all the North Carolina deeds, wills, estate records, apprenticeship records, and payment vouchers for Revolutionary war service on digital media accessible from home computers.

GP: It’s my understanding that you did not originally intend to look into so many Free African American families. How/why did that change?

PH: Once I had a general picture of my wife’s ancestry, I became more interested in the fact that about 10% of the free population of her home county of Northampton, North Carolina, was counted as “other free” in the 1800-1810 census. I have always enjoyed solving puzzles, and the puzzle of the origins of such families consumed me for the next 3 decades.

GP: You were living in Saudi Arabia when you published several of the earlier editions of the book. How were you able to get your hands on the information you needed? Wasn’t that very difficult?

PH: Distance was a barrier, but not an insurmountable one. I bought copies of the court records that Weynette Haun had abstracted and purchased the microfilm copies of all the other colonial court minutes and colonial tax records from the NC State Archives for $10 a reel. I also rented microfilm of the early N.C. and Va. census, marriage and Va. parish registers from a company called Heritage Quest, which sent their microfilm to me in Saudi Arabia.

I started by making files of all the census records and tax records so that I would recognize the family names when reading through the court records. (Many colonial and early national records don’t identify people by race unless they applied to the case law—e.g., someone not paying the discriminatory tax on their wives, for example.)

At that time I had no intention of publishing. It was just a puzzle to be solved for my own satisfaction. I made individual files of all the families and put them in general genealogical format to put all the information in perspective. After I had over 300 pages of family records, I realized that I had to share this and with great difficulty set about learning to write about them. (I am an engineer, more comfortable with equations than sentences.)

To be continued April 26,  2022

7 thoughts on “Interview with Paul Heinegg, Author of the New 6th Edition of Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia & South Carolina from the Colonial Period to About 1820 (Part One)

  1. My ancestors were among those free African Americans before emancipation and apparently were descendants of the famous Ann of Stratton Major Parish of King and Queen who had the five “molattos”. I read early writings of Paul Heinegg and actually called and talked with him on occasion. He was always gracious and talkative. I learned from him that he traveled extensively to collect his information directly from archives and court records. When I asked how could he possibly do this, he replied, “I have no life,,,” chuckled a bit and said that he enjoyed learning the information. Paul was a special, hard working man.

    1. Dear Mr. Davenport,

      Thanks for your kind words about Mr. Heinegg. I will make sure he sees them.

      Joe Garonzik
      Genealogical.com

  2. […] a short interview with Heinegg online at genealogical.com, which provides more background about how this work began. You can also find a […]

  3. […] a short interview with Heinegg online at genealogical.com, which provides more background about how this work began. You can also find a […]

  4. I have seen the online information about John Smith, of Currituck County, North Carolina. I have seen first-hand the registrations of his possible descendants, Sarah and Elijah Smith, in St. Bride’s parish, Virginia. We have been trying to tie Marina Smith to this family. Marina Smith was born free about 1804 and evidently lived her entire life in St. Bride’s parish along Butts Road in what is now Chesapeake, Virginia. The earliest record of her is in the 1840 census in St. Bride’s parish. Evidently, prior to 1840, she was living with a parent or maybe a husband. We have not identified siblings or parents for her. We know that she had children, David, Watson, Virginia and Mahala Smith and that the father of David Smith was Edwin Smith. Marina Smith’s daughter, Virginia, married a Willis Northern and a Stephen Smith, Sr., born in Camden County, North Carolina, the son of Miles and Susan Smith. Stephen Smith, Sr., and his parents were slaves. Does any of Mr. Heinegg’s research mention Marina Smith? We would greatly appreciate any information that he has on her….Thank you for time and consideration, Mike Tutor

  5. I have only recently discovered through the magic of genetic genealogy that I am descended from Free People of Color from the swamps and pocosins of Northeastern, NC. In fact, I match with many names in the lists made by Paul Heinegg. My yDNA is African, meaning that my patrilineal descent if likely African and not an ancient phenomenon. The names Bass, Archer, Nickens, Butlers, Bunches, White, Keenes, Bazemores, Bonds, Dunlows among many others appear in matches. The closest to my yDNA are the Basses, likely from Bertie and Northampton Counties. Two Bass names are prominent in Bertie, Isaac and Cader who seem to have been in proximity to my family. Since there was a great deal of endogamy in this geographic area, I should not be surprised.

    What has become apparent is that my family of Cales are not really Cales. That comes out loudly and clearly in the DNA work. What is also more and more clear to me is that my first identified progenitor, Charney Cale, making up an “Indian” story trying to hide his status and each subsequent generation became more White in the process . There was a residual loyalty to his hidden background in that his progeny in the Big Woods of Bertie County were Unionists with one great . . . g uncle dying as a captive in Andersonville.

    Any insight would be helpful. There was a lot of fooling around in the Big Woods.

    William F. Cale, MD retired

  6. Thank you for your hard work Mr. Heinegg! I am a descendant of the Chavis family (Elizabeth Chavis – bound out to Hezrkiah Dorsett when she was nine years old – was my 4th great grandmother). Thanks to your great documentation, I can tell the story of my family! How amazing to find out that Elizabeth’s grandfather Anthony served in the Revolutionary War ( he was present at the surrender of Cornwallis as well as the Battle of Monmouth). My family thanks you!
    Best regards,
    Angela Smith

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