Celebrate Black History Month with our guide to tracing your African-American roots and reclaiming the lost heritage of your slave ancestors.
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:
Who were your ancestors' neighbors?
How old were your ancestors and their neighbors?
Where were they born?
Are there others in the neighborhood with the same surname as your ancestors?
Do neighboring families have any surnames in common with your ancestors?
Do the ages of your ancestor's children indicate they were a family before the Civil War?
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.