April V. Taylor
Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is known for helping people trace their ancestry in a show he has on PBS entitled Finding Your Roots. A woman recently reached out to Gates for help finding information about her maternal great-great-great grandmother who lived in Washington D.C. as head of household with her son, according to the 1840 Free Persons Census.
The woman was able to find documentation of where Simpson lives in the 1850 census. Simpson was also listed in 1880 as a widowed cook. The woman who wrote the letter, Cheryl Bedini, wanted help from gates filling in the gaps about her ancestor, including why she was listed as widowed but had never listed her last name as being anything other than Simpson.
According to Gates, Simpson was living as a free woman in Washington D.C. around the time Solomon Northrup, whose life was detailed in the movie 12 Years A Slave, was kidnapped and forced into slavery in 1841. Sources show that there were large concentrations of free Black people living in Baltimore, Washington D.C. and the surrounding region around the time of the 1840 census. The census for that particular year lists 386,294 free Black people in the U.S. at the time out of a total of 2,873,648 Black people living in the U.S.
Gates speculates that Simpson became a free woman because she was either born free or was born a slave and freed prior to 1840. To understand the type of environment Simpson lived in at the time and what her life would have been like as a free Black woman, Gates suggests reading Letitia Woods Brown’s book Free Negroes in the District of Columbia 1790 – 1846.
To understand more about why Simpson appears to have been the head of household, Gates takes a closer look at the 1840 census and finds that many of the 22 other households of free Black people listed as living in the same neighborhood as Simpson were actually headed by women. Of the 22 households, only six were headed by men and 17 by woman, with 11 of the households having only women in them.
Gates suggests that this information implies that Simpson lives within a support system of free Black women. Using ancestry.com, Gates was able to find a household listed on an earlier census with women who may have been related to Eliza Simpson as well as a household on the 1830 census that may list an adult male relative of Simpson’s who cared for her as a child.
After suggesting multiple sources for her to continue her search into Eliza Simpson’s past, Gates also suggests researching Simpson’s life forward in an attempt to find more connections that would reveal more details about her life and family.