Tips to Help Trace Your Slave and Free Ancestors

By Franklin C. Smith Premium
Tony Thompson, born in slavery. Greene County, Georgia, 1941 (Library of Congress)

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 to Your Ancestor’s Community

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.

Research Using First Names and Nicknames

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.

Finding Free Ancestors: Q&A with the Author

Q. I’d like to know how to find where free African-American families came from. I can trace ancestors to Maryland and North Carolina, and found them listed in Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to About 1820 by Paul Heinegg. These people were landholders, too.

A. The major challenge facing anyone researching African-American ancestors is finding them during their years in slavery. This applies to those who were free before the Civil War and those freed by the Civil War. Since many African-Americans free before the Civil War were former slaves, your research strategy for finding pre-Civil War and post-Civil War free ancestors is basically the same. Different research strategies come into play when you start looking for ancestors in slave records.

Because you have information that indicates your ancestors were free before the Civil War, your search for them as free people would start from the date of the research you have, and move backward through records typically used in genealogical research. That includes federal, state and local government records such as census, marriage, land, probate, tax and any other private records that may have been recorded in your ancestors’ names.

You also may find pre-Civil War documents that apply specifically to free people of color, which may provide clues to where an ancestor came from before acquiring his freedom. Included among these are manumissions (court records created when a slave was freed), registers of free blacks, guardianship records and special tax records. Some county courthouses keep these among probate or deed records; others file them separately. These older records also may have been forwarded to a state archive.

When you can no longer trace your ancestors in free records, you’ll have to identify their slaveholder in order to search for them as slaves. For more information, look for the book A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors.