Finding Free African-Americans

Finding Free African-Americans

Expert tips for finding African-Americans who were free before the Civil War.

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 (Genealogical Publishing Co.). 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. Also check out these African-American genealogy websites:

Professional genealogist Angela Walton-Raji shares the top online resources for tracing African-American ancestors in our Best African-American Genealogy Websites Video Course, a download available from Family Tree Shop.

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