Kanye, Meet Your Great-Uncle

Megan Smolenyak
May 4, 2018 · 3 min read

Dear Kanye,

Like countless others, I was confounded by your recent comment about slavery being a choice, so I decided to explore your family tree (as a genealogist, that’s my instinctive response to many circumstances). Your sprawling roots extend to at least a dozen states, but since many are most interested in the branch sporting the surname they were born with, I took a deeper dive into your West line.

As soon as I realized they were from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I wondered whether your family might have been free before Emancipation. Nationwide, roughly ten percent of African Americans were free before the Civil War, but the percentage in this region was much higher — almost 50% for Maryland.

Turns out they were. The giveaway was the 1860 census showing your great-great-great-grandparents, Peter and Nancy West, with their children. “Free people of color” are listed in census records before 1870, the first one conducted post-Emancipation, but sadly, those who were enslaved remain nameless, which is why genealogists frequently refer to the “wall of 1870” in African American research.

But your West family was free, so this is where I first encountered Daniel, your third great-uncle, then 15 years old.

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1860 census for West family, Worcester County, MD (FamilySearch)

Noticing he was born around 1845, I knew he would have been of a likely age to serve in the Civil War. A quick search showed that he had, but the first page of his service record made me inhale sharply. He didn’t make it home alive.

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Excerpts from U.S. Colored Troops Service Record for Daniel A. West (Ancestry.com)

Daniel volunteered for the 19th Regiment (Co. K) of the U.S. Colored Troops, enlisting in early 1864 for a three-year term. A timeline of his regiment’s service reveals that he would have been among those who helped the Union reclaim Richmond, then the Confederate capital.

19th Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops (Maryland State Archives)

The war was over before long, but his tour of duty wasn’t, so he headed by steamship with his regiment to Texas, and this is when misfortune struck. Far more men lost their lives to disease than in battle (anywhere from 60 to 80% of fatalities were attributable to disease), and he was to join this dismal statistic. On September 13, 1865, Daniel died in the Corps d’Afrique Hospital in New Orleans and was buried at Chalmette National Cemetery shortly thereafter.

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Register of Deaths of Volunteers (Ancestry.com)
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Daniel West’s tombstone, Chalmette National Cemetery (Ancestry.com)

Whenever your travels should next take you to Louisiana, I hope that you might consider squeezing in a visit to pay tribute to this great-great-great-uncle of yours because he was far more heroic than his modest headstone might suggest. You see, Pvt. Daniel A. West was born free and made a deliberate choice to help those who weren’t.



Looking for a volunteer opportunity that helps uncover and preserve our history? Learn more about transcribing military records of African American soldiers in the Civil War.

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