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:
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.
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.
As an exercise, find Michael’s entry in the 1860 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?
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.)
Family Tree Magazine
s by Robert B. Shaw or Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860A Legal History of Slavery in the United State