Unlocking Slavery's Legacy
Tracing your African-American ancestors before the Civil War almost always means identifying their slaveholders. Here's how to get started.

Like many researching African-American ancestry, Franklin Smith wasn't far along in his family history search when he discovered that family information and stories of his ancestors' lives during slavery were virtually nonexistent. When he asked his mother about this, she told him the "old folk" never spoke of slavery, and her generation (she was born in 1919) knew better than to ask. Reliving the shame and humiliation they had experienced was something her elders were unwilling to consider. For the most part, tracing your African-American ancestors back to 1870 requires traditional research. But the rules change when you begin looking for family before that date; without family oral tradition, this becomes a major challenge. To make the jump to pre-Civil War research, you'll first need to identify your family's slaveholder and research that family's records. (For an overview of African-American research, see "7 Steps to Finding Slave Ancestors" from the February 2001 Family Tree Magazine.)


Let's look at two strategies to help you assess likely slaveholder candidates for your ancestors, whether they adopted the surname of their last slaveholder or assumed a different name. The first, the same-surname approach, involves looking for white families in your ancestors' county of residence with the same or similar surnames. The second option is to try a location-based approach, which will require you to familiarize yourself with your ancestor's 1870 neighborhood using census records, land records and/or other courthouse records.