Trace Your African-American Slave Ancestors

By Deborah A. Abbott and Sunny Jane Morton Premium

Have you ever searched for ancestors who seemed to leave no paper trail? You know the ones: The nomads who elude the census. The relatives who didn’t own property. The women (darn those surname changes!). The quiet folks who never made a ripple—let alone a splash—across the page of a newspaper.

Now imagine searching for ancestors who were not only poor and landless, but weren’t even considered people by their government. They came in ships without passenger lists. They would never become naturalized or vote. They weren’t named in censuses. They appear in tax records, but only as objects being taxed.

This is the documentary darkness of American slavery. To find an ancestor’s name in that darkness can be a long and difficult task. You start by researching more recent kin, but all the while you’re looking over their shoulders for evidence of slaveowners who held past generations in bondage. Once you’ve crossed over into the slave era, you reverse your focus. Now you search for the slaveholders—and look over their shoulders for glimpses of your ancestors.

Of course, not every ancestor of African origin was enslaved. But about 90 percent were. If you have at least one African-American branch on your family tree, chances are you’ll eventually be doing slave research. Let’s get started.

Follow the trail to emancipation

The trail to your enslaved ancestors begins with present and recent generations. Don’t skip them. Details about their lives lead you to the generations that preceded them. Especially important are three resources: living memory; records of births, marriages and deaths; and censuses:

• Reach out to relatives. Start by chatting with elderly relatives, along with kin who are family “storykeepers” or who have old pictures or mementos. But don’t view these lives as mere stepping stones to the past. Ask folks about their own experiences, families, friendships and accomplishments. Ask what life was like during the Civil Rights and Jim Crow eras. Record the conversation if you can, so you can return to clues in it that may only later seem important.

When the memories are flowing freely, ask what your relative knows about slavery in the family’s past. Were any stories passed down? What about slaveholders connected to your family? Don’t be discouraged if the person doesn’t offer answers or doesn’t want to talk about it. Instead, ask questions that will guide your research in the right direction.

• Births, marriages and deaths. Gather vital records for all family members (not just direct ancestors) as you work your way back in time. These will help you reconstruct the timelines of relatives’ lives and their family relationships. They also may contain clues to the more distant past. Don’t settle for indexed versions of a record unless you can’t legally access the original. Indexes often contain mistakes and may not include everything in the actual record.

Search first for government vital records kept at the city, county and state levels. Note that recent records might be subject to privacy restrictions. Old marriage records, unless they were lost, are generally available back to the date a county was formed. Many counties and cities began recording deaths and later, births in the decades following the Civil War. State governments eventually took over birth and death registration, generally by the early 20th century.

Our Vital Records chart tells you when statewide registration began for each state. If you don’t find your ancestor in vital records, ask local experts whether a separate “colored” register was kept and where to find it. Similarly, be aware that older indexes may be “whites-only.”

Other sources of information on births, marriages and deaths can fill in gaps where vital records are missing. They also may give you new or different information. For example, obituaries often include birth information, relatives’ names, residences and more. Old newspapers may sketch out the lives of the formerly enslaved and mention relatives from whom they were separated.

Tips for African American newspaper research.

Those who applied for Social Security benefits beginning in the mid 1930s filled out SS-5 forms with their birth dates and places, and parents’ full names. The fee for requests starts at $27. First, search the Social Security Death Index (SSDI, free at to locate a Social Security number, which confirms that an SS-5 should exist. Note that records for people born less than 100 years ago may be subject to privacy restrictions. Learn more about requesting records here.

Agents of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau), created to serve black and white indigent families after the Civil War, recorded marriages for couples emerging from slavery. Some states did as well; recognition of “slave marriages” in practice, if not by law, varied from state to state. You can search US Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records free on; the collection contains marriage legalizations for 11 states plus Washington, DC. Field office records also contain marriage legalizations.

• Search the census. Federal censuses can take you back in 10-year intervals to the Civil War era. The most recent available census, 1940, is only 75 years removed from slavery. So with each census moving backward from there, you’ll find increasing numbers of former slaves and their families. The clues will help you reconstruct families: relationships (1880 on); birthplaces (1860 on) and age (1850 on); the number of children a woman had borne (1900 and 1910); how many years a couple was married (1900 and 1910) and more.

Race identifiers in the census can be helpful if, for example, a relative is consistently identified as “mulatto” (of mixed black and white ancestry) versus “colored.” But remember that it’s quite common to see a person’s race appear different ways over time. Census-takers often guessed based on skin tone, and people may have self-identified their race differently, especially after moving to a new place.

Be especially alert when you reach the 1870 census, the first taken after slavery ended and the first to enumerate former slaves by name. Every household member is named, but relationships aren’t specified. You may be looking at “families” who banded together after emancipation left them stranded in hostile environments far from blood relatives. A couple or single parent may have taken in—not necessarily given birth to—the children listed in the household.

Finally, look for your relatives in the 1860 and 1850 censuses. If you find them named, it means they were free at the time. If they’re absent, they were likely enslaved.

• Freedman’s Bank: Entirely separate from the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Freedman’s Bank was organized after the war to help African-American wage-earners manage their money. Bank branches opened in 37 cities, mostly in the South. Signature registers of depositors survive for 29 bank branches. These requested a great deal of genealogical information, such as names of parents, siblings and children; place of birth; age; marital status; and residence. Search these registers for ancestors, other relatives, in-laws, and your known relatives’ black neighbors in the 1870 census (you may later discover they had the same slaveowner as your family). You’ll find this collection indexed and digitized on and

The Freedmen’s Bureau Online has information about related records. You also can use these records on microfilm at the National Archives and RecordsAdministration and major research libraries. Learn more at

This index card for Didamia Doram’s listing in Freedman’s Bank depositor registers bears a day and month, but not a year; adjacent records are dated in 1879. It gives her birthplace and age; the place she was “brought up”; her current residence; and the names of family members.

• Land records: If your ancestor was identified as a landowner in the 1870 census, look for the deed(s) to their property. A former slave who owned land soon after the end of slavery may have gotten it from a slaveholder or someone connected with the slaveholder’s family. Deeds are usually among county court records; find a guide in the September 2012 Family Tree Magazine.

Follow the slaveholder

Once you’ve got a strong lead on a potential slaveholder, it’s time to switch the focus of your research to that person and his or her family. Slaves are unlikely to have left records in their own names; any mention of them will most likely appear among the records and stories of the slaveholders.

Several records at the county courthouse may mention a slaveholding family’s enslaved “assets.” These aren’t consistently available on microfilm or online, nor are they always indexed. The records may have been kept in different ways from place to place. So chances are you’ll need to go dig for the following types of records in person:

• Probate records: When a slaveholder died, his or her slaves were inventoried and disposed of along with the rest of the estate through the probate process. Owners often willed slaves to children or other family. Enslaved individuals are often identified in wills, estate inventories and other probate records by a first name, gender, approximate age and sometimes market value. Search probate files for members of the slaveholding family (including in-laws) before 1865 to trace ownership back in time and perhaps link to other relatives.

Also look for the will of the last known or suspected slaveholder even if it was long after the Civil War, because former slaves occasionally appear as heirs.

Bills of sale or Deeds of gift:Slaves were substantial pieces of property. When a slaveholder transferred them to someone else, a transfer was usually recorded at the county courthouse. Bills of sale included the names of the buyer and seller, their counties of residence, the date of sale and the purchase price. You’ll also usually find the first name, gender and approximate age of the slave. Sometimes, especially for deeds of gifts, the deed states relationship between buyer and seller.

Hiring out:Sometimes slaveholders hired out their slaves to work for others, often when a slaveholder needed the money, had no work for that person or couldn’t adequately supervise the slave. The two contracting parties were the slaveholder and the person hiring the work; the slave often was described by first name, gender and age. The contract also details the length of the work term, financial terms and often, the nature of the work to be done. Look for contracts like these in deed books or Freedmen’s Bureau records. If you don’t see them, ask a local expert where they’re filed.

Mortgages:A slaveholder could use his slave as collateral for another purchase. The mortgage recording the transaction should include the slaveholder’s name, terms of the mortgage, description of the enslaved (first name, gender, age, market value). Look for follow-up paperwork showing the mortgage was paid, or for evidence the slave was sold. In many places, that would appear in deed books and whatever court handled foreclosures.

• Manumissions: A slaveholder filed a manumission (emancipation) with the court when freeing a slave. Search for them in deed books. Oct. 4, 1841, Benjamin Prall filed manumission papers in Mercer County, Ky., “in consideration of the faithful service of my yellow woman Gabriella about twenty seven years old do hereby emancipate and set free said woman and her two children one by the name of James Walls about six years old and the other by the name of Harriett about two years old.” The person being freed was identified by name, gender and age. You also may find stipulations on that person’s freedom and the motives of the slaveholder. Note that manumissions don’t exist for those freed as a natural result of the Civil War.

• Court orders: A manumission wasn’t always the final document required for freedom: a court order also may have been necessary. A bondsman—often the slaveholder, former slaveholder, relative or friend—may have posted a bond certifying the freed person’s good future behavior.

Straddle the Civil War gap

When you reach the Civil War era, where you look for records depends on whether an ancestor was free. If it appears he or she was, check the usual sources for free people, including censuses, tax records and the like. Then try to find manumission papers freeing the slave. Check a resource such as State Slavery Statutes by Paul Finkelman to learn whether the state required free blacks to register and look for them in those documents.

If, like most African-Americans at the time, your ancestor was enslaved, it’s time to start looking for a slaveholder. Go first to censuses. Many former slaves, lacking the resources to start free life in a new place, stayed close to their previous homes. In 1870, did your relatives live next to a white family of means—especially (but not always) one with the same surname? Look at that family’s columns for real estate and personal property. Now find the same family in the 1860 census.Was their personal property significantly higher in 1860

Finally, look for your relatives in the 1860 and 1850 censuses. If you find them named, it means they were free at the time. If they’re absent, they were likely enslaved.

The 1870 census for Hart County, Ga., shows a cluster of African-American Johnson families living near the white couple Michael and Malinda Johnson (rows 36 and 37). The African-Americans are absent in the 1860 census, in which Michael andMalinda have significant personal property.

As an exercise, find Michael’s entry in the1860 slave schedule. How well do his 1860 slaveholdings match up with the ages and genders of the African-American Johnsons in this 1870 census listing?

Dig deeper into records

Of course, there are other ways to research slaveholding families, especially as you reach further back in time. Consult early censuses, which count slaves by gender and age group in the right-hand columns. Look for the family’s tax records, family histories, church records (slaves may have attended with owners), oral histories, family Bibles, cemetery records and business records. County, regional, state and university archives all may house these records. Newspapers printed runaway notices: Search for the slaveholder’s name in digitized online collections or browse microfilmed copies. Several online databases host digitized and/or indexed notices, including North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements and the Texas Runaway Slave Project. (Cornell University plans to build a database covering all of North America.)

When you read these old records, you’ll likely notice how slaveholders referred to the enslaved. A slaveholder’s reference to “my colored girl” or “my mulatto woman” is generally a statement of ownership. Occasionally you may come across more personal references, as in marriage records or wills: “I give permission for my colored son to marry,” or “I leave to my colored children….”

Are you wondering who fathered an enslaved ancestor? Without birth records, paternity is often impossible to prove. Oral histories and hints in records may hold some evidence, but generally not enough to be conclusive. A Y-DNA match with a male descendant can help you confirm a relationship to a family, but not usually an individual.

For more: Published social histories can tell you how slavery played out in the economies and cultures of various states and counties. Every state had different laws and customs regarding slaves. Learn about them in by Thomas D. Morris (University of North Carolina Press).
s by Robert B. Shaw or Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 A Legal History of Slavery in the United States.

Researching enslaved ancestors is a demanding endeavor. What you learn may be difficult to cope with. While you can’t change your slave ancestors’ history, you can honor them by making that history visible.

From the January/February 2015 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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