Slave Ancestral Research

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When beginning your slave ancestral research it is important to note that not all slaves took the names of their last owner. Names could have been changed from a previous owner, a family member, or for some other reason. African American genealogy research typically encounters the 1870 brick wall. The 1870 U.S. Federal Census was the first that African Americans were counted in after emancipation. Once you get back to 1870, you need to determine whether your ancestors were slaves or free.

If your ancestors were listed in the 1860 U.S. Census, they were more than likely free people of color. If they are not listed in the 1860 Census, then they were enslaved. The key to slave ancestral research is finding the last owner. To research your enslaved ancestors you must take two approaches. First, review the surname. Determine whether it is an unusual surname, such as Bentley, Ailes, Dwelle or Meeks, or a common one such as Berry. If it is a common name, then your path is a bit more complicated.

For very common surnames, the first approach is to review the Freedman's Bureau records for labor contracts. The Freedman's Bureau was established after slavery to help newly emancipated African Americans make the transition. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to as simply the Freedmen's Bureau, was a U.S. federal government agency that aided distressed freedmen (freed slaves) during the Reconstruction era of the United States. The Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which established the Freedmen's Bureau on March 3, 1865, was initiated by President Abraham Lincoln and was intended to last for one year after the end of the Civil War.

Kenyatta D. Berry-fade_x.png The Freedmen's Bureau was an important agency of the early Reconstruction as it assisted freed men in the South. The Bureau was part of the United States Department of War. After emancipation, a number of African Americans entered into sharecropping agreements with their former masters. For example, my third great-grandfather Lewis Carter entered into a sharecropping agreement with his former master Dr. Taylor.

Once you have this information, the next step is to determine if this is truly their last master. To do that, check the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules for the name of the white person on the labor contract. The 1860 Slave Schedule lists the number of slaves owned, age, race (black or mulatto) and sex. All slaves are listed under the names of their owners not by the slave’s given name. For unusual surnames you need to review the whites in the county in 1870 with the same surname.

Once you have found all the whites in the county with the same name, check the 1860 Slave Schedule. If you are able to find a slave listed within the age range, sex and color of your ancestor then you are on the right track. When you have the name of the last owner, you can begin to research dual lines, the slaveholding family and your ancestral family. It is important to learn more about the slave holding family since, as property, slaves could have been given to other family members. These exchanges were sometimes documented in estate or family papers, which are available in courthouses and libraries. 

— Kenyatta D. Berry

Additional Resources

African American Slavery and Bondage

Finding Slave Records (North Carolina)

The Sixteen largest American slaveholders from 1860 Slave Census

 

Researching Free People of Color

Researching Free People of Color

How do you know if your ancestor was a free person of color?

Where to Start Tracing Origins

Where to Start Tracing Origins

A genealogist is like a detective, searching for clues in the records.

Using Court Records

Using Court Records

Probate and court records document the lives of our ancestors.

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