Don’t stop your family history search at the Emancipation Proclamation. Use these techniques to discover African-American roots obscured by slavery.
MY third-great-grandfather Lewis Carter was born about 1817 in Virginia and spent most of his life there. The 1870 census shows him living in that state’s Madison County with his wife and six children. He was a farmhand with real estate valued at $4,700 and personal property worth $1,150.
Such substantial holdings aren’t bad for a “mulatto” so soon after the end of slavery. Was Lewis Carter freed before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863? Did a former master reward his work with this land? Had my third-great-grandfather scraped together enough money to buy property?
My search for the truth about Lewis Carter arose from a curiosity familiar to many African-Americans: Where did my ancestors come from? What were their experiences in slavery? Slavery has clouded the answers to these questions, but it hasn’t erased them entirely. These resources and strategies will help you learn who your enslaved ancestors were and reconnect with your family’s history.
Studying slave communities
The enslavement of Africans in the United States began in 1619, when a Dutch trader sold slaves to settlers at Jamestown, Va. Millions of Africans were forced to cross the Atlantic over the next 200 years—a branch of the slave trade known as the Middle Passage. The Web site Voyages
details this trade. Britain and the United Stated outlawed importing (but not owning) slaves in 1807, though the practice continued illegally for years.
Not every white Southerner owned slaves, and whites weren’t the only slave owners. Little has been written about African-Americans who owned slaves, but it appears the practice was common in Louisiana, South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. Anthony Johnson, a free African and former indentured servant, won a court case in 1654 that, ironically, declared his servant a slave for life. You can learn more about this phenomenon in Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 by Larry Koger (University of South Carolina Press, $18.95).
Whether someone was a slave depended on his or her mother’s status: If the mother was a slave, her children were slaves; if the mother was free, so were her children. A slave community could consist of a large plantation with 100-plus slaves, or it could be a small farm with just a few slaves.
To research your slave ancestors, you’ll first need to trace your family tree back from yourself to the time slavery ended in 1865, documenting your ancestors in as many historical records as possible. For help with this, see the November 2007 Family Tree Magazine, as well as A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors by Franklin Carter Smith and Emily Anne Croom (Genealogical Publishing Co., $34.95) and the resources on page 54. Try to learn your ancestors’ names and where they settled after slavery ended.
Researching enslaved ancestors involves the same basic genealogical principles as any other family history quest, with this difference: You’ll need to study both the slave family and the owner’s family. Your goal is to reconstruct relationships in the slaveholding family and their process of acquiring slaves. The slave and white families were bound together not just as property and owner, but also as a community and a family unit. Their children played together, black women cared for white children, and the owners and slaves sometimes worked side by side. But more important, slaves were often “kept in the family.” As legal property, they could be passed down through inheritance, loaned out and given away as gifts to children. All of these actions could generate records under the slave family’s name.
Identifying your slave ancestor’s owner is a process. You might take an educated guess that proves untrue as you research that family. Don’t be discouraged from rechecking your research, forming another theory and trying again.
Discovering the slaveowner family
You probably already know slaves didn’t use last names. Your newly freed ancestor could’ve chosen a particular surname for a variety of reasons, so don’t assume your ancestor took his most recent master’s name. But because many freedmen did, start by researching white families with the same surname in your ancestors’ community, especially if it was an uncommon surname.
First, focus on the county where your ancestors lived in 1870. Look at county histories and find your family in the 1870 census (the first census to include former slaves’ last names). Next, examine the white families living in the same enumeration district as your ancestors. A few things to ask yourself: How many whites with the same surname lived in the district? Did they live near my ancestors? Can I find them in the 1860 US census? In the 1850 census? Are they listed as slave owners on 1850 or 1860 slave schedules? In 1850 and 1860, African-Americans were included on a supplemental slave schedule. Schedules are organized by the slave master’s name and list the slaves’ color, sex and age—not their names, but you still can use the ages to hypothesize about your ancestral family. Information also includes whether the slave was a fugitive or deaf, dumb, insane or idiotic; the total number of slaves the owner manumitted (freed); and the number of slave houses on the owner’s property. See page 24 for more on finding census records and slave schedules.
Here’s an example: Prince Ailes was born about 1845 in Arkansas, the son of a slave named Charlotte, born about 1815 in Mississippi. His brother Frank was born about 1851 in Arkansas. To identify Prince’s last owner, I first found Prince in the 1870 census, in Union County, Ark., with his wife, two children, mother and brother. In the same county were two white households with Aileses: Martin Ailes and Ackley Ailes. I searched for both in the 1860 census. I found “Auckley”
living with her parents Walker and Martha Aills in Union County. Walker owned six slaves in 1860; two were within the right age range for Prince and Frank. I also noticed Auckley was born in Mississippi—as was Prince’s mother, Charlotte. In 1850, Walker and Martha lived with their five children and seven slaves in Union County. The 1850 Union County slave schedule lists two slaves about the ages Prince and Frank would’ve been.
Freedmen’s Bureau records may not only contain valuable information for finding ancestors post-slavery, but they also might hold clues to former owners’ names. The bureau, created after the Civil War under the purview of the War Department, became the primary structure through which freed slaves sought aid, protection and assistance. These records, generated between 1865 and 1872, include:
labor contracts between planters and freedmen
registers of transportation
correspondence and registers of outrages and violence against freedmen
bounty applications for soldiers discharged for the US Colored Troops
registers of payment claims (related to Civil War service) of Colored Troops veterans, their families and others
correspondence from bureau field agents and local residents
Records from Freedmen’s Bureau field offices are available on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration
(NARA) in Washington, DC, and its regional facilities
, as well as through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library
(FHL) in Salt Lake City. (You can borrow FHL microfilm through a Family History Center near you; click here
for a directory.) Some state libraries and archives also have records for their states. Check your state archives and see NARA’s online guide here
Freedmen’s Bureau records at the Library of Virginia
might’ve helped me find the owner of my third-great grandfather Lewis Carter. Since the 1870 census listed Lewis as a farmhand, rather than a farmer, I thought perhaps he worked for someone. Freedmen’s Bureau records contained a labor contract dated Jan. 5, 1866, between Carter and a Dr. John W. Taylor of Madison County, Va. For farming Taylor’s land, Carter would receive half the crops. That was a standard sharecropping agreement after the Civil War, common between freed slaves and their former owners.
In 1860, John W. Taylor lived in Madison County with his wife and four children. He owned real estate worth $12,500 and personal property worth $20,570, which included 20 slaves. Of those, one, “a mulatto male, age 43” matched Lewis Carter’s age and description. But none of the slaves matched the age, race and sex of Lewis’ wife and children, so I’ll need to keep researching the Taylor family and their associates.
Records of the Freedman’s Savings Bank & Trust Co., or Freedman’s Bank, operated from 1865 to 1874 for former slaves and their descendants, also can help you learn about your family’s whereabouts when slavery ended. Surviving records include depositors’ names, birthplaces, occupations and residences. Records are on microfilm at NARA and the FHL, and on CD at Family History Centers. Search digitized versions on FamilySearch, on the subscription site Ancestry.com
and on HeritageQuest Online
(free through subscribing libraries).
Researching the slaveholding family
Create a basic genealogy of both your family and the slave owning family. Include collateral lines—relatives such as siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Census records can help. Searching the 1840 and 1830 census, I noted Walker Aills lived in Amite County, Miss., before he migrated to Arkansas. He had one slave whose age was in the range of Prince and Frank’s mother. But what happened to Charlotte in 1850 and 1860? During those two years, Martin’s son owned two female slaves, ages 35 and age 7. The 35-year-old could’ve been Charlotte.
Because slaves were considered property, many records that name them are with the slave owner’s other property-related records: Wills, probate files, inventories, account books, deeds and tax records can help you discover your enslaved ancestors. Typically, slaves are identified by first name and color (such as black or mulatto). A few of these records are online, either digitized or as indexes that will tell you the name of the repository holding the original. Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy
catalogs information about slaves in Louisiana from 1719 to 1820. AfriQuest
has a variety of wills and court records.
Most property-related records, though, are in county courthouses, local libraries, historical societies and state archives. Look up your ancestor’s county in a genealogy reference such as Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources (Ancestry, $44.95) or the Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists (Family Tree Books, $29.99) to see where old records are kept.
If you live near the repository, it’s just a matter of calling to ask about research hours. If not, you can write to request copies or see if the records are microfilmed at the FHL. Search the online catalog
by choosing Place and entering the county and state where your ancestor lived. (Some county names have changed over the years—enter the name during your ancestor’s lifetime.) Look for topics such as court records, wills, deeds and probate, and see if records cover the right time period. These records also could tell you about your ancestors:
Probate records: These are all the court records associated with the settling of a deceased person’s estate, so they may help you learn what happened to slaves he or she owned. A probate file might include a will spelling out who was to get which slaves, property inventories, deeds, account books and correspondence. These records are often found at county courthouses and state archives.
For example, the estate papers of Clark J. Cook, a white man I believe is the father of a mulatto man named George Dwelle, showed how the profits from selling Cook’s property were divided among his siblings. After Cook’s death, auctioneer Augustus Lafayette sold George and his mother Mary to Milo Hatch Sept. 2, 1851, for $2,300. See page 52 for more on George.
Inventories: Also often part of estate papers, inventories itemized all the deceased’s property at the time of death. Slaves would be listed with sex and age.
Account books: The executor of the estate kept account books, which may record when the deceased’s slaves were sold—and to whom. You might find them in probate file collections or on their own at historical societies, state archives and in collections of family papers.
Deeds: These papers record the transfer of property on the basis of a sale, gift or trust. Slaves were sometimes transferred via deeds. Deeds are usually in county courthouses, but might have been transferred to state archives. You’ll also find some on FHL microfilm—run a search on your ancestor’s county and look for the deed records heading.
Manumission papers: An owner or a court could issue these papers to document a slave’s freedom when the owner granted it (sometimes in a will) or the slave purchased it. The papers are often located at historical societies and state archives, and in manuscript collections held in state and local libraries (see below). NARA has Washington, DC, manumissions from 1857 to 1863 on microfilm M433.
Typically, larger plantations kept meticulous records regarding expenses for clothing or medical care. For these slaveholders, manuscript collections of account books, business and personal papers can prove valuable resources. Manuscript collections can be in various locations: city, county or state historical or genealogical societies; state archives; and public or university libraries. Most societies and libraries publish manuscript collection guides on their Web sites, so search Google
on the slave owning family’s name. See the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine
for more techniques for finding resources in libraries.
Don’t forget to ask for help. Testing my theory that Walker Ailes owned Prince Ailes, I posted my research and assumptions to the Aills mailing list on RootsWeb
. I was thrilled to receive a response from the descendants of Walker Ailes, who had records showing the Aileses indeed owned Prince. They even sent photos of Prince and Walker Ailes.
I’m hoping for equally satisfying results to my ongoing search for my ancestor Lewis Carter. As I continue to discover my heritage and learn more about my ancestors, I’m reminded of the challenges and connections that bind families across generations—and the uniqueness of African-American genealogy.
1619 First African slaves arrive in Jamestown on the White Lion
1654 John Casor becomes the first legally recognized slave in the United States
1705 Virginia declares all negro, mulatto and Indian slaves should be held as real estate
1774 Rhode Island bans the importation of slaves
1775 The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage (aka the Pennsylvania Society) forms
1783 Slavery ends in Massachusetts
1800 A slave named Gabriel leads a rebellion in Virginia
1807 British Parliament makes the slave trade illegal
1822 Denmark Vesey is hanged for planning a slave rebellion in Charleston, SC
1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Virginia
1831 William Lloyd Garrison founds the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator
1848 Connecticut abolishes slavery
1850 Fugitive slave laws require runaway slaves in free states to be returned
1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published
1857 US Supreme Court rules Dred Scott can’t sue for his freedom
1863 Emancipation Proclamation takes effect
1865 13th Amendment prohibits slavery