7 Steps to Finding Slave Ancestors

By Franklin C. Smith Premium

To trace your African-American ancestors before 1870, standard genealogical techniques don’t apply. Identifying slave ancestors, like these pictured outside their house in Fredericksburg, Va., circa 1862-1865, involves tracing the slaveholding families and locating their records.

In 1619, Dutch slave traders sold 20 African captives to the settlers of Jamestown, Va. For Americans with roots in Africa, this marked the beginning of your ancestors’ arrival in America. By 1808, when the importation of slaves was constitutionally prohibited, the United States was home to some 1 million slaves.

Your African ancestors were among the nation’s original settlers. For nearly 240 years, slave labor helped build America, yet most of these invisible souls have yet to be identified or acknowledged. Now it’s up to you, their descendants, to reconstruct the stories of their lives.

These stories of slavery went largely untold until Alex Haley’s Roots. After the Civil War, descendants of both slaves and slaveholders suffered collective amnesia. Former slaves rarely spoke of their lives in bondage — most just wanted to forget. Today, however, African-Americans embrace this heritage. African-American family reunions have become annual events, bringing together far-flung relatives, renewing interest in often forgotten ancestors and leading many to actively research their family history. Even the millions of Americans with mixed-racial ancestry — estimates of the white population with some black ancestry range from 10 to 24 percent — are digging into their heritage, exploring this lost part of their past.

Because of your African ancestors’ unique history in this country, your search for them will pose special challenges. You can use standard genealogical techniques, as presented in every issue of Family Tree Magazine, to trace back to 1870, the year of the first post-Civil War census. But when you hit the pre-Civil War years, the records are no longer in the name of your ancestors but in the names of those who owned them. Even those African-Americans freed prior to the Civil War were at some point slaves or the descendants of slaves. Identifying the slaveholding families and locating their records will be the keys to your quest.

These seven steps can help you get started:

1. Start on the home front.

First, do your homework. Read a good African-American genealogy guidebook, such as Dee Parmer Woodtor’s Finding A Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity (Random House). And find a guide that covers basic techniques of research in American genealogy, such as First Steps in Genealogy by Desmond Walls Allen (Betterway Books) or Un-puzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide to Genealogy 3rd edition by Emily Croom (Betterway Books). Woodtor’s interactive guide for beginners on the AfriGeneas site <> provides tips on how and where to get started, along with suggested books and links.

Once you’ve collected copies of family papers and photos like this one, start interviewing older family members first.

Try filling out as much as you can on a pedigree chart. This will help determine just how much or how little you know about your ancestors. (For free downloads of all the blank family charts and record forms you’ll need, see <>.) Collect copies of all family papers, funeral programs, photographs and other memorabilia. Visit the family cemetery, if possible, to check ancestors’ names and dates. Use the information you find in all these sources to fill in gaps on your chart.

Now decide which ancestral line to search. Consider starting with the ancestors you have the most information about or whose history is easiest to access. When you’ve done as much as you can on paper, find and interview the family, beginning with older family members. Failing memories and death claimed much of our history, especially from the slavery years — capture this living heritage while you can.

2. Find post-Civil War records.

As for most Americans, government records are the primary source of genealogical information for African-Americans — especially federal census records. Start with the most recently released census, 1920, and search back to 1870, the first census to name the recently freed slaves and show their family groups. Make sure to check the 1870 and 1880 agricultural censuses, too. And don’t stop at 1870: Perhaps your ancestors were freed before the Civil War.

The US Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, aka the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created after the Civil War to deal with the needs of the emancipated slave population. In Freedmen’s Bureau records, kept from 1865 to 1872, you may find:

• hospital records or registers

• labor contracts between freedmen and planters

• enrollments for local freedmen schools

• marriage registers

• lists of food rations

• reports of outrages, disputes and court cases brought by freedmen against whites

• lists of freedmen and their families

• correspondence of local field agents describing the conditions in a particular area.

You may discover other information as well. To learn more about these records, see the overview at <>.

Civil War veterans’ pension records may also hold clues. (To see if your ancestor was among the more than 250,000 slaves and free blacks who fought for the Union, search the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System site <>; this site is in progress, so keep checking.) As part of the pension process, applicants were required to prove their identity. In most instances, you will find their date and place of birth — which may tell you the city, county or plantation where they were born — as well as marriage records and names and ages of parents and children. Relatives, neighbors and friends submitted affidavits that may contain information about their relationships to the applicant, perhaps naming a plantation, owner or family connection. Widows had to provide proof of marriage in the form of affidavits or marriage certificates, as well as previous names they may have used. Applicants had to name where they enlisted and their service history, as well as residences and occupations following the war. While some records are more helpful than others, you’re sure to find some new or confirming facts here.

In the years before 1900, some go percent of African- Americans lived in the South. Top: slaves on a plantation on Cockspur Island, Ca. Above: children in New Bern, NC, circa 1862-1863.

State agencies are the primary repository for birth, death and marriage-related records. Most states, however, didn’t start officially recording births and deaths until after 1900. (For more information on vital records, see the April 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine and check the Vital Records Information site at <>.) A rarely utilized but important document that may help determine your ancestor’s whereabouts from 1865 to 1867 is the 1867 voter registration list. Check the state archives for your area of research to see if these records exist for your county.

At the local level (county, parish, township or city), you’ll find records of wills, probate, marriages, divorces, deeds and schools. Pay special attention to the marriage records for the years immediately following the war. Many couples who were united during slavery legalized their relationships after the Civil War. The marriage bonds and certificates also may confirm the identity of other family members.

3. Zero in on 1870.

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.

4. Determine the slaveholder’s surname.

Unlike other ethnic groups arriving in America, enslaved Africans were systematically stripped of their cultural traditions and social customs when brought to this country. As part of this process, recently arrived Africans were routinely renamed soon after being removed from the slave ship. Until the end of the Civil War, most slaves were identified by first name only. Slaves on the same plantation with the same given names were distinguished by their size, age or color. After the Civil War, newly freed slaves had to choose surnames for official identification. Their reasons for choosing a surname varied and many would change surnames a number of times before settling on a final choice.

For some families, the reason behind the choice of a surname is already known, for others the reason may be discovered during their research, and for the majority the reason may never be known. If you already know the history behind your family’s choice of a surname, you can eliminate years of tedious and often frustrating research. The common — and often erroneous — presumption is that most took the surnames of their most recent slaveholder. While this was sometimes true, the surname may have belonged to a prior owner or the owners of their parents or grandparents. Some randomly chose surnames with no connection to former owners.

In my research, only twice did I discover why my ancestors took their surname, and both took the name of a slaveholder. My great-great-grandfather took the name of his slaveholder-father — my family has always known this. In fact, we have his slaveholder-father’s portrait painted in the late 1840s or early 1850s. My 3rd great-grandmother also took the name of an owner, and it was her surname that led to the identification of her owner. Though I’ve discovered the owners of a number of ancestors, I’ve still not been able to determine why they chose their surnames.

Knowing the name of the slaveholding family is essential to move your research to the next level. Those who already know this can skip ahead to step 6. If this information was lost with your ancestors, start with the presumption that they took their former slaveholder’s surname. First look at the neighborhood in which your ancestors lived in 1870, then broaden your search countywide, or even statewide if your ancestors’ surname was unique, until you’ve collected a list of candidates. Be sure to include any possible spelling variations of the surname your ancestor was using. Consider going back as far as the 1850 census.

If you don’t find the same or similar surnames in records from 1850 or later, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, you may narrow the pool of candidates by checking the slave censuses of 1850 and 1860 to determine if they owned slaves prior to the war. Cross-reference the ages of your ancestors with the ages of the slaves listed in the schedules. (Only age, gender and skin color of slaves were listed in these schedules.) This will either strengthen any possible connection or eliminate unlikely candidates. When checking the 1860 and 1870 censuses, note how much real estate each slaveholder candidate owned, and compare their places of birth with your ancestors’.

5. Study your family’s location.

If the same-surname approach fails, studying where your ancestors lived in 1870 may hold the key to identifying a former slave-holder. Neither the newly freed slaves nor their former owners ventured far from their pre-Civil War homes immediately after the war. The black population remained heavily rural. In the economic wasteland of the South after the war, former slaves and slaveholders alike faced desperate conditions. Partly out of allegiance and partly from necessity, many former slaves and slaveholders continued their relationships. So even in 1870 your ancestors were probably still living on land owned by their former masters.

Find out who owned the land on which your ancestors lived in 1870 and you’re likely to find the identity of their slaveholder as well. (If your search of Freedmen’s Bureau records turns up labor contracts for your ancestors, consider yourself fortunate. The contractor and former slave owner are usually the same. In this case, proceed to step 6 and start searching that family’s records.) The quickest way to find out who owned the property where your ancestors may have lived is searching pre-1870 county land tax records. Land plat books also may help identify local landowners. (Check the courthouse in the county you’re researching, the Family History Library <> or the state archives to see if these records exist.)

Next, cross-reference all potential slaveholder candidates with the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules to help narrow the list. If you’re unable to locate or access these records, closely examine all the white families living near your ancestors in 1870. At first, consider only those white families with property. Determine if they owned land before the war, were slave owners, and lived in the same place. Your answers will help determine which families will be the focus of your search.

6. Research “the other family.”

Now that you’ve determined which slaveholding families warrant further investigation, start researching records left by them. Focus on records that either name slaves or indicate slave ownership. The number of records available will depend on whether the family was a large or small slaveholder. The most thorough and complete records were the business records of large slaveholding families. But these families made up only a small part of the slave-owning population, and finding such private records — if they still exist — could be a challenge. Estate records, on the other hand, are a matter of public record and were required for large and small slaveholder alike. Other sources likely to name your ancestor are property records, such as deeds, mortgages and bill of sale records. Personal property tax records, state and federal census records as well as the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules can be used to help track slave ownership over time, but are not likely to name your ancestors.

Because the lives of the slaveholder and slave families are so intertwined, you need to study the owner family’s history and genealogy to fully explore your own. Slaves contributed not only to a family’s financial worth but also to their status in the community. In many instances, slaves remained in the same family for generations. As valuable “property,” they were transferred by inheritance, gift or deed to sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and grandchildren.

Once you find a slaveholder, tracking that slaveholder’s genealogy back may help lead to the identity of your ancestors’ parents or even grandparents, who may have been in that family for generations. Fortunately, many of these families’ histories and genealogies have already been published and can be found in genealogy libraries, archives and on the Internet.

7. Slave documents tell a story.

Finding a document naming a slave ancestor or ancestors can be a cause for celebration. But your greatest reward may come from the secrets that these documents reveal about your ancestors’ lives.

Estate records of slaveholding families may provide the most comprehensive picture of your ancestors’ lives. It could take as little as a few months or as long as 10 years to settle an estate. If you locate an estate document naming an ancestor, research the estate records to see if other ancestors are named. The quantity and quality of information found in these records also will depend on the person making the record. A meticulous record keeper may provide a wealth of information, such as entire family units, ages, births, deaths and skin color, whereas others may provide only generic information.

These records may also provide insight into your ancestors’ diet, the clothing they wore, how often they got clothing, their health, and any special skills or trade they may have had. Carefully study all related documents, not just the one on which your ancestor is named.

A research strategy alone is no guarantee that your search will be successful. But with good research skills, patience, persistence, good instincts and lots of luck, you can go a long way toward reconstructing the lives of these invisible souls — your forgotten African-American ancestors.

From the February 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine