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Re: Researching Mulatto Ancestors

I think I'd start by saying first - make no assumptions.

This is true for all genealogical research (or for any research).
This does not apply to only "the deep south", for the term "mulatto" (or other such descriptions of phenotype - like white, black, colored) were used across the America's.

The first assumption that many beginning researchers make is that the term "mulatto" refers to the child of one "black" and one "white" parent. Nothing could be further from the truth. It can indicate that - but more often than not - it doesn't.

The second assumption that many researchers make (and not always beginners) is that the term mulatto (found in census and other records) describes a person of African-ancestry of very fair complexion. It can, and often does, but in many cases does not.

To add to the confusion - the assumption is made that the term is applied across time consistantly. This too is erroneous - since the same individual - documented across census periods and in other records may be listed as "white, mulatto, black, colored, negro or indian".

The third assumption that many researchers make is that the person designated as "mulatto" particularly if enslaved, is the biological child of the slave-holder. This is also a fallacy. We all know that some slave-holders increased the slave population by indiscriminately spreading their genes amongst those they held in bondage - but the practice of renting out enslaved women as sexual objects to local males and visitors, the sexual use of slave women by overseers, and the liaisons between "white" females (both bonded and free) and African-ancestored men are also documented - read the court records.

Beware jumping to conclusions - the fact that the surname of the former slave is the same as the slaveholder, and the former slave is listed as mulatto doesn't add up to "the father of this person was the slave holder".

Another assumption is that those classified as "mulattos" were born and bred here in the the USA. A quick look at the 1910 census refutes that - there are 763 persons indexed in that census - listed as born in Africa, who are labelled "mulatto" - 700 from Massachusetts.

The converse is also true - there are many persons listed in the census of Puerto Rico - who, had they been on the mainland, would have been listed as "mulatto" but have the letter "B" next to their names(B = Blanco or in English - White)

I will use my own family as an example. I have quite a few ancestors listed as "mulatto". They range in skin color from pale beige, with blue eyes, to the darkest brown tones. A few - listed as mulatto, show no sign at all of European ancestry. I have their pictures to prove it. So how did this come about? Several of them had a parent who showed traces of some type of admixture. The categorization by the census taker was more often than not based on whim - and individual perception - rather than on some scientific formula.
If the census taker looked at them at all. We have no way of knowing.

I have learned to be careful when doing searches to explore all avenues - and hunt for my ancestors in all the categories - finding some listed as white on a marriage record, mulatto on a census record of the same time and black on some other piece of paper.

Another assumption is about free versus enslaved. All FPOC were not mulattos. All house slaves weren't either. A quick look at the registry of free Negroes for Loudoun County VA - which has detailed physical descriptions of each individual who registered (including every mole, or scar) lists persons of all hues, here's a sample:

bright mulatto
dark complexion
dark mulatto
very dark mulatto
not quite so black
brown color
copper color
black color
light complexion
light brown complexion
yellow color
dark color
dark copper color
fair mulatto
very dark complexion
bright copper
nearly black
quite black
somewhat light complexion
bright brown color
nearly white

The clerks obviously had no real scale to use.

What is even more confusing are those persons of no African ancestry who lived with or married a spouse of AA ancestry who are then listed on the census as mulatto or black. Due to laws restricting marriage between the races - some Europeans opted to become black. Not many - but it happened.

I am not downplaying the problems associated with identifying the offspring of slaveowners, and overseers. Proving it can be difficult - though with the advent of DNA testing this in some cases may now be possible. Oral histories in families may be valid - and may be myth.

Some children of slaveowners were spirited away - and many very fair offspring passed into the general European ancestored populace. A few even inherited from their fathers. Other offspring were given no preference and remained on the plantation, as slaves, or were sold away as a result. The market for "fancies" is also well documented - particularly in Louisiana.

This is a complex issue - an has no simple answer or solution.
It can be a rough guideline - if you know your ancestor was very fair complexioned, and enslaved, and age 40 - and the slave schedule of a particular owner only lists one 40 year old "mulatto" - bingo - you may have found him or her. But you need to back up your research to prove it - digging into wills, tax records, bills of sale etc.

Proving their parentage however, is far more difficult. Some researchers have done so. A few have been fortunate enough to find diaries, court proceedings or other documents proving it.

Most of us will not. Many families accepted children of the mother, not sired by the father of record, and have kept their silence on the matter. I received a letter from an elderly relative last year who listed my grandfather's uncle's (all former slaves) - noting that there was one uncle, Douglas who was significantly lighter in color than his siblings, and was purported to have been sired by a slavemaster. Douglas and his children "disappeared". I've never found him. Truth or fiction? I don't know - but I haven't stopped looking for this Douglas - searching for all "mulatto" and "white" Douglas'es in records of TN and KY.

On the other hand - as more "white" researchers dig into their family histories, and uncover a "mulatto-in-the -woodpile" (grin) and accept it - and begin to look for the truth of the matter - we get more clues. We've seen evidence of this right here at Afrigeneas.

Anyway, just my very long-winded 2 cents on the matter.

Hope this helps,


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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