Author searches for black roots




Each February schools and libraries all across the country celebrate Black History Month. The U.S. Post Office unveils a new stamp honoring a famous black American and PBS television and radio stations broadcast shows celebrating black American artists, musicians and their works.

In honor of Black History Month, PBS is broadcasting several shows that focus on tracing black African-American genealogy. The centerpiece for this month of special programs is a four-hour series by author and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., which uses genealogy and DNA science to trace the roots of a group of black citizens back through American history to the African continent.

In one episode, Mr. Gates marvels at the discovery that he is descended from free black men, living in early Virginia.

Although there were many in Rhode Island who profited from the slave trade in Providence, Warren, Bristol and Newport, there were also free blacks living in the Capitol, documented as early as 1796 on a map called “Owners and Occupants of Providence.”

For one family with black roots in Johnston, there are a few clues remaining for family researchers to trace, a few photos to accompany the stories.

In the “Images of America” series on Johnston, R.I., written by Johnston Historical Society President Louis McGowan, there are photos of two members of the family: Benjamin Onsley and Dolly Eaton Walmsley.

The Onsleys, who lived on Morgan Avenue, were of Native-American ancestry, hailing from the Wampanoag tribe, according to McGowan. Dolly, the matriarch of the family, was born in Connecticut in 1827 to a black father named Ira Smith, and a mother of Native-American descent. Dolly is buried in Pocasset cemetery.

Sunnyvale, Calif., resident Nancy-Jo Nunez is a modern descendant of the family. She is also an avid genealogy enthusiast and searching for details of her family has been an all-consuming hobby. Like the subject of the PBS series, she has also had her DNA tested and found that her maternal line is 46 percent Black, 38 percent English/European and 16 percent Native-American Indian.

Nancy-Jo’s maternal grandmother was the great-grandchild of Dolly Onsley, through her daughter Elizabeth "Lizzie" Onsley, one of Dolly’s 13 children. Lizzie partnered with Neland Gibbs, of Warwick, also of mixed African-American and Native-American heritage, so Nancy-Jo has several branches with mixed ancestry.

Finding information on minorities is a challenge for researchers, although modern technology and the Internet have made more information available at their fingertips. Many vital record databases are available online – sometimes for free, sometimes by subscription – as well as other information, like census and city directories. The Rhode Island State Archives, located in downtown Providence, has public records for certain years (death records for 1853-1955, birth and marriage records for 1853-1900, and some earlier town records) available free for the public to view.

But there can be problems with some of these records, says McGowan. “Checking on numbers is tricky because blacks and Native-Americans were usually lumped together,” he said.

The word “Mulatto” was also often used to describe someone of mixed ancestry, or, generally, non-whites.

Early censuses list only the names of male property owners, the number of males and females in the residence, the number younger and older than the age of 16 and the number of slaves.

“It is difficult to determine when the first slaves came to Rhode Island, but there is an indication that black slaves were here as early as 1652,” reads a quote from the R.I. Black Heritage Society Web site, which continues, “By the late 17th century, Rhode Island had become the only colony in New England to use slaves for both labor and trade.”

Early census records show blacks listed as slaves owned by white families but also indicate a number of “free” blacks. The state of Rhode Island, which was very active in the slave trade in the early 17th and 18th centuries, was also among the earliest of states to support the emancipation of slaves.

The first Rhode Island Black Regiment, formed in 1778, was the first black army unit in history, according to the RI Black Heritage Society Web site, which suggests many black slaves joined to gain their freedom, fighting valiantly in the Revolutionary War.

Freedom did not come easily.

In 1784, the R.I. General Assembly passed the Negro Emancipation Act, freeing the children of slaves when the men became 21 and the women 18, according to the society’s Web site.

When the town of Johnston was incorporated in 1759 it was mostly farmland. The farms were run by the families who owned them and didn’t seem to need slave labor. European immigrants came to the area and were employed in manufacturing as the towns grew and factories were built.

“There were never many blacks in the town, though,” said McGowan. 

There was one Johnston man listed among the ranks of the 14th Colored Regiment, which fought in the Civil War. And although it offers rosters with names, an 1898 book written on the subject, “History of the 14th Regiment of Heavy Artillery  –Colored,” has the photos and biographical sketches of only the white officers. The Marion J. Mohr Library has a copy in its genealogy reference section in the reading room.

Benjamin Franklin Onsley was born in Johnston in 1867, a son of George Angell and Louisa Onsley, who was born in 1847 in Providence. Louisa would marry three times, but did not marry the father of her child. Louisa was the daughter of Samuel Judson Onsley (or Warmsley, or Walmsley, as it was sometimes spelled) and Dolly Eaton Smith, who were married in Uxbridge, Mass.

These various name-spelling changes also present a challenge for researchers.

Through her online research and that of state-wide repositories, Nancy-Jo has been able to find more information about Benjamin Onsley, who is listed as a horse trader for a time in Johnston, a farmer and a vault cleaner, according to U.S. Census records and online Johnston city directories.

“I wish [the town of] Johnston would have a dedicated homepage link to genealogy specific to their records, especially on people of color,” said Nancy-Jo. The town does not currently have any records of this kind online.

Nancy-Jo is also researching several other families with African-American roots with Johnston connections: her ancestor Richard Dorsey Clinton, who was born about 1820 in Maryland and taken to England by the age of 10 by his slave master.

Later, as a free black, Richard married a white woman named Mary Jane Worthington, who was born in England and immigrated to the U.S. shortly after the end of the Civil War. The couple settled in Johnston. “They had four of their five children born in Johnston,” said Nancy-Jo.

Clinton descendents now live in East Providence, Connecticut, Florida and Virginia.

The Onsley name itself has died out in Johnston, although there are descendants of the family still in town.

The Onsley descendents live today in Providence, Johnston, Bristol, Arizona and Missouri.

Nancy-Jo, through her research, has made sure the name will not be forgotten in Johnston history or within her own immediate family. Her godchild was named in honor of this family.

“She lives in Hawaii and is 3-years-old. Her name is Onsley Garedo,” said Nancy-Jo proudly.

For more information on researching genealogy in Rhode Island, visit:, or


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