Enslaved ancestors are notoriously difficult to find. Though not enumerated alongside their masters, slaves were sometimes mentioned in separate tallies. Here’s how you can find enslaved individuals in these slave schedules—and what to do if you learn from them that your ancestor owned slaves.
How to Research Slave Schedules
In 1850 and 1860, Southern states and Washington, D.C., submitted schedules of slaves; New Jersey did in 1850 as well. These schedules list slaveholders and information about each enslaved person. Though slaves aren’t named, they may be able to help you identify a family’s slaveholder.
Slaveholders are listed in the same order as on the population schedule. While population schedules don’t indicate who owns slaves, the 1860 census lists a person’s personal property value, which included slaves. A white person with a relatively high personal property value in 1860 may appear as a slaveholder in the slave schedule. The slave schedule may indicate whether multiple slaveholders or a trust was involved in “ownership.”
Unfortunately, nearly all the enslaved are described only by age, gender and color (black or “mulatto”) under the slaveholder’s name. Only rarely will you find more data about the enslaved, such as a name, occupation or physical or mental disability. Without additional research, it’s usually impossible to know whether a slave listed is really your ancestor.
Under each slaveholder’s name also appears a tally for the preceding year of manumitted (freed) slaves and fugitive slaves not yet recaptured. Again, you won’t know for sure if these figures include your enslaved ancestor without more research.
Where to find slave schedules
Ancestry.com has the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, as does FamilySearch (1850, 1860). Microfilmed slave schedules are at NARA, and the Family History Library has books with slave schedules and/or indexes from various states. Check the FamilySearch catalog or search the digital books collection for more information.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2015 issue of Family Tree Magazine.
Sharing Information with Descendants of Slaves
The following is a Q&A presented by expert genealogist David A. Fryxell:
Q. Recently, to my dismay, I found that my ancestors owned slaves. I’ve come across data about those enslaved that might be useful to their descendants. Is there an appropriate way to share this?
A. In a Q&A with The Root, “Finding Your Roots” host Henry Louis Gates Jr. offers some suggestions. Start with Ancestry.com, which has several relevant message boards, and the forums at AfriGeneas. Next, explore historical and genealogical societies in the area where your ancestor lived. These organizations may have projects that compile this sort of data. FamilySearch is also reportedly exploring ways to incorporate such information in its family trees.
For now, the closest thing we’ve found to a site that is specific to what you describe is the Slave Name Roll Project. It includes user-submitted documents, such as wills, with information on those enslaved.
The Bittersweet Blog shares stories of “linked descendants,” people who have a joint history in slavery—a pairing of a descendant of an enslaved person with a descendant of his or her slaveholder, who have found each other and who are in communication.”
The blog is associated with Coming to the Table, an organization that aims to promote racial healing through national gatherings and training workshops. Among the group’s efforts is the book, Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation (Rutgers University Press).
You can also search the web for state-specific projects such as the Texas Slavery Project, which is compiling a database of Texan slaves and slaveholders during the Republic era (1837–45), and Low Country Africana, which is compiling a database of slaveholders in South Carolina. The Virginia Historical Society has an ongoing project, Unknown No Longer, compiling the names of slaves.
The site Reclaiming Kin echoes Gates’ advice to share your finds with “the library, state archives and genealogical society of the location where the farm/plantation was located.” The site also offers these words of wisdom for descendants of slaveholders: “We are very clear that you did not own any slaves. We do not hold you personally responsible for holding slaves, any more than we hold ourselves responsible for the reprehensible things any of our ancestors did. The past comes with the baggage of both good and bad. It shows us all how human we are.”
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.