African American Research
Submitted by Debbie Quinn
Researchers must become knowledgeable of slave management practices, the slave laws of the areas where his slave ancestors lived and read the county histories. Many county histories named the earliest settlers, and described how the Civil War affected movement of the population. The historical context is a very critical research tool.
At the time of the Civil War, the vast majority of African Americans were slaves. They had no legal rights and could not even claim a legally recognized state of matrimony. Although records generated after emancipation can be very revealing, records documenting slave families which were contemporary to slavery are usually records, both private and public, concerned primarily with their owner. The researcher of slave genealogy therefore must know the identity of a slave owner in order to research the slave. Slaveowning families--their migrations, births, deaths, and marital alliances--must therefore be the focus of research before any success can be achieved in tracing the lives of their slaves.
Many of the basic tools of genealogy can be successfully used to the research of the African American lineage going back to the Civil War. These include: vital records, federal census, cemetery records, inscriptions, etc. Many of the marriage, birth and death records in the old slave states were maintained by local governments in separate ledgers.
Many could have racially mixed backgrounds with African, Caucasian and American Indian ancestry. The possibility to find an antebellum free black ancestor in a time or place where the free black population was small is very unlikely.
An understanding of slave naming practices and their family life are important. Two books most helpful are Roll Jordan Roll by Genovese and Gutman's The Black Family In Slavery and Freedom.
The researcher must understand that our slave ancestors made different choices after freedom about their names and where they lived. If a slave ancestor did not take the name of his last owner and no family member knows about his early name changes, it may not be possible to learn the name of the slave master.
Slave ancestry research is characterized by "Ifs, Ands and Buts." When a researcher finds the given "name" of a slave ancestor within a document and identifies that "name" as his/her possible slave ancestor, the identification of that "person's" mother (as father's are seldom mentioned) depends upon "Ifs, Ands and Buts."
"If" the slaves "named" were not taken from their biological mothers as infants or small children "and" sold or given to a married daughter, then the female listed with the "named" slave ancestors may be the "named" slave ancestors' mother. "But" with divine guidance (I call it) or a streak of luck, persistent research may lead to finding other documents of the slave owner. Other documents among the slave owner's records may reveal a relationship.
Sometimes, the reference may be written "Mary and her child" with no name of the child "but" in another record the child's name may be recorded.
The "Name" Game
After freedom some slaves maintained their own surname traditions, regardless of who their owners might have been. They may have retained the surname of his or her owner, a slave ancestor, the first owner, or even the maiden name of the slave owner's wife "IF" she had become owner of the slaves prior to her current marriage. Sometimes, the freedman reversed and used the slave owner's surname as his (the freedman) given name or took another surname altogether. A priviledge of being free was "selecting" a surname. However, many in bondage had surnames which were kept secret from the slave owning family.
IF the freedmen moved to another county after freedom and no longer resided near his/her former slave owner in 1870, "and" with no reliable oral family history, the researcher may have to be contented with the information given in the 1870 Federal Census and feel successful in having located his ancestors to 1870. That alone is an accomplishment! IF a freedman moved away for a few years after freedom, then returned to work for his old slave owning family, the employer listed in early tax records may indicate the name of the freedman's former slave owner. To discover "IF" a slave ancestor retained the maiden name of the slave owner's wife, the researcher may look at marriage records of all 1860 slave owners in the county and/or books of early marriage records in the county in which one's slave ancestors lived. The marriage records would give the maiden name of the brides. IF the wife brought slaves into a marriage, relatives of those slaves may have been sold and the ones remaining with her may have decided to retain the wife's maiden name in the event their "sold-away relatives" may one day be reunited.
To identify the slave owner of one's slave ancestor will require a genealogical search of the slave owner's family beginning with the earliest record of his entry into this country. Identifying the surname of the slave owner is a gigantic hurdle "BUT" the important one.
The Federal Census:
It has already been noted that African Americans were enumerated as all other U.S. residents from 1870 (the first census year following the Civil War and emancipation) onward. Prior to 1870, however, the situation was far different. Although free African Americans were enumerated by name in 1850 and 1860, slaves were consigned to special, far less informative, schedules in which they were listed anonymously under the names of their owners. The only personal information provided was usually that of age, gender, and racial identity (either black or mulatto). As in the free schedules, there was a column in which certain physical or mental infirmities could be noted. In some instances the census takers noted an occupation, usually carpenter or blacksmith, in this column. Slaves aged 100 years or more were given special treatment; their names were noted, and sometimes a short biographical sketch was included.
Sometimes the listings for large slaveholdings appear to take the form of family groupings, but in most cases slaves are listed from eldest to youngest with no apparent effort to portray family structure. In any event, the slave schedules themselves almost never provide conclusive evidence for the presence of a specific slave in the household or plantation of a particular slaveowner.
Prior to 1850 there were no special slave schedules for the manuscript census, as slave data was recorded as part of the general population schedules. In these, only the heads of household were enumerated by name. To search for slaveowners of the same surname in the 1860 slave schedules of the county in which the African American family resided in 1870. Starting in 1850, another supplemental schedule, the mortality schedule, listed all deaths within a year before the regular census enumeration. The deaths of blacks and mulattoes, both free and slave, are recorded in them, even though their names have not been included in many of the indexes to these schedules. The deaths of slaves were generally enumerated in four fashions: unnamed (as in the slave schedules), but perhaps with the owner identified; by first name only, by first name and surname; and by first name with the owner noted.
Finding your ancestors in the 1870 census is the first step toward solving the mystery of their years in bondage. After the Civil War, most recently freed slaves remained at or near the place they'd lived before the war. Many who did relocate were reuniting with family they'd been separated from.
This search will probably take you back to a county or parish somewhere in the South. From 1790 until 1900, 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South, mostly in rural areas. For many ex-slaves, the migration northeast, north and west didn't begin until after 1900.
If your ancestors were in the North in 1870, it's possible they were freed prior to the war. Even so, you'll probably have to search for a slaveholder since most free blacks were slaves at some point. Records documenting their freedom were usually recorded in county courthouses in probate or deed records.
If you can't find your ancestors in the 1870 census, it's likely they lived in the same state, county and community in 1880. So make 1880 your focus instead.
Look carefully at the community where your ancestors lived in 1870. Ask:
Your answers will help determine if those living in the neighborhood are related or connected in other ways.
Though your ancestors' surnames were crucial in recent records, the key to identifying them in your pre-Civil War search will be their first names. Pay close attention to the given names of your ancestors' family as well as those of their neighbors. Compare the names of suspected ancestors you find in any slave documents with those living in the neighborhood in 1870. This may be the only way to establish that they are one and the same.
Slaveholders rarely identified slaves by their formal given names in records; instead they used nicknames. So consider the possible variations of names that may have been used to identify an ancestor. My ancestor James Humphreys, for example, would always be listed as "Jim," Jane Green as "Jenny," Jesse Humphreys as "Jess," Martill as "Till" and Elizabeth Weathersby as "Betsy." Such a thorough and complete review of the 1870 census may reveal the identity of several new and previously unknown generations.
Slaves were property. And so the focus of research must always to some extent be on the slave owner. Probate records are important tools in this process. As valued parts of an estate, slaves were sometimes mentioned by name or may have been referred to as having been inherited from another family member or else purchased from a particular party. Note that slaves were specifically identified only in so far as the identification served the purposes of the testato? Slaves can be identified in a will by name and by family, or else can be listed as simply an anonymous portion of a slaveholding.
The smaller the number of slaves in an estate, the more likely there will be some sort of identifying language in the will. It is sometimes possible to trace a particular slave through two or more wills.
Other probate documents may also be helpful, such as estate inventories drawn up to execute the terms of a will. Slaves are sometimes mentioned by name in such documents. Bills of sale may also be found among probate documents if, for example, slaves had to be sold in order to pay an estate's debts. The location of wills in the slave states has been considerably aided in several instances by the indexing of these records on a statewide basis. Many such indexes have been published. The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed early extant wills for many of the counties in the Southern slave states.
Deeds and Other Local Records:
As with any genealogical research, the quest for African American ancestry requires one to become familiar with the records and record-keeping practices of the state and county in which one is conducting investigations. It maybe discovered that references to slaves exist in a variety of local record groups. County deed books may contain, in addition to real estate transactions, documentation of slave sales. Caution should be exercised in interpreting some deed records, particularly deeds in, or of, trust. If a slave is named in such a deed, it does not necessarily mean that there was a change in ownership, he could have been used as collateral.
Could document any number of situations involving slaves and their owners.
Can also contain information regarding slaves.
The Slave Bills of Sale Project of the African American Family History Assoc. in Atlanta, GA - transcribed, indexed and published two volumes of documents.
Personal papers of any slaveholder are likely to contain information on slaves. Many of these records have been given to the research libraries. They are business records since the plantation was a family business. Records of slaves can be found in several contexts. Clothes, blankets, or cloth were often issued on a regular basis to all slaves, and careful plantation owners kept good records of these distributions. Field hands were issued tools and implements and held accountable for them. It also might contain daily tasks undertaken on the plantation and which slaves were dispatched to fix a fence, etc. As property, slaves could also be mortgaged or rented, sometimes they were even insured.
A child born of a slave mother became the property of the mothers’ owner, so the owner maintained a record of that birth in the absence of an official vital record. Deaths may also have been recorded. Many owners maintained records outlining slave family groups, but sometimes the mother and children were only listed.
A collection of papers will not necessarily be limited to one person, generation or even a family of the same surname. As the plantation or parts of it were willed to relations, the records could also be transferred with the property.
Some manuscripts have been registered with the “National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections” [NUCMC] which has an index to make it easier.
Vital records were not mandated by many state governments prior to the Civil War, but there were exceptions.
Some owners baptized their slaves and these records were often as detailed as other baptisms, which included the slave owners name. The Anglican/Episcopalian churches kept the majority of their records. The South Carolina Historical Society microfilmed many of these records:
Slave births and deaths may also have been recorded in the slaveowner’s bible.
Runaway slave advertisements
Contained the physical descriptions and sometimes biographical information, but again the slave owner would have to be known. Many of these advertisements have been published in: Lathan A. Windley, “Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History From the 1730’s to 1790”, which is a 4 volume collection.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands
Referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau was established by the federal government in 1865. They assisted ex-slaves in their transition to life after slavery. Their records may not be of value but the Assistant Commissioners records might hold some information. These records will contain various reports from the district field offices including lynchings and assaults upon African Americans.
Mississippi is the only state that registered local “slave marriages” covering the years 1865-1866 that occurred before emancipation and following the civil war. The names of parents is not included but the descriptions given are quite unique, residence is also included and the military unit if they served in the war. Labor contracts were also drawn up between ex-slaves and plantation owners between 1866 and 1868. Many laborers are identified by given name and surname. This Mississippi Department of Archives and History has them on microfiche index. Labor contracts can also be found in the assistant commissioners’ records for Arkansas and Tennessee from 1865 to 1868.
Transportation papers from the Asst. Commissioner for the Dist. Of Columbia assisted ex-slaves who were trying to re-unite the family members.
The Freedman’s Savings & Trust:
Was incorporated in 1865 by act of Congress as a banking system for ex-slaves
National Archives Microfilm Publication M589 is an index to the Civil War service records of USCT and other African American servicemen.