Unlocking Slavery’s Legacy

By Franklin Carter Smith & Emily Anne Croom Premium

Like many researching African-American ancestry, Franklin Smith wasn’t far along in his family history search when he discovered that family information and stories of his ancestors’ lives during slavery were virtually nonexistent. When he asked his mother about this, she told him the “old folk” never spoke of slavery, and her generation (she was born in 1919) knew better than to ask. Reliving the shame and humiliation they had experienced was something her elders were unwilling to consider. For the most part, tracing your African-American ancestors back to 1870 requires traditional research. But the rules change when you begin looking for family before that date; without family oral tradition, this becomes a major challenge. To make the jump to pre-Civil War research, you’ll first need to identify your family’s slaveholder and research that family’s records. (For an overview of African-American research, see “7 Steps to Finding Slave Ancestors” from the February 2001 Family Tree Magazine.)


Let’s look at two strategies to help you assess likely slaveholder candidates for your ancestors, whether they adopted the surname of their last slaveholder or assumed a different name. The first, the same-surname approach, involves looking for white families in your ancestors’ county of residence with the same or similar surnames. The second option is to try a location-based approach, which will require you to familiarize yourself with your ancestor’s 1870 neighborhood using census records, land records and/or other courthouse records.

It’s possible that your African-American ancestors weren’t slaves in the pre-Civil War era. In 1860, about 11 percent of the black population was free. But if your free ancestors or their ancestors were ever slaves in the American Colonies or states, eventually you’ll need to use these same strategies.

You’ll need to learn all you can about your ancestral families in the 20th and late 19th centuries before you start working in pre-1865 records. Start by gathering information from your family. This step can get you information that would otherwise require extensive research, or that you could not find in records at all. You might learn full names, relationships, vital statistics, even the name of your ancestor’s slaveholding family.

As you collect this information, try to confirm it by locating records, first within the family (family Bibles, birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, labeled photographs, letters), then in public records. Once in public records, the census should be your first stop.

Seeking census answers

Always a key research tool, the census is especially important for determining the makeup of African-American ancestral families in the late 19th century. Start with the 1930 census, the most recent available, and work back to 1870. The 1870 census is a pivotal record for African-American genealogists because it’s the first to name those who had been slaves before 1865, the end of the Civil War.

The censuses will help you lay the foundation for your research in other records:

You will learn which ancestors probably were children in 1870 and perhaps the names of one or both of their parents.

You might identify the ancestral heads of household in 1870 and relatives who lived with them.

You might discover other related families living in the ancestral neighborhood in 1870.

You might identify white families of the same surname as your family in censuses from 1870 forward.

You might notice certain white families consistently enumerated near your family in censuses from 1870 forward.

All of these discoveries are important, but the last two will be particularly important in arriving at the name of your ancestor’s slaveholder — either through the same-surname approach or by location.

Federal census records are available on microfilm at many public and university libraries and at the National Archives <> and its branches. Also, the Family History Library (FHL) rents film through its nationwide Family History Centers <>.

Playing the name game

Genealogical lineages depend on linking names into family relationships. Researchers use other tools, such as dates and places, to confirm the names in each family in each generation. Successful genealogists, therefore, pay close attention to both given names and surnames within the family and the community, to variant spellings of names and to evaluation of names in documents.

Given names: Until the end of the Civil War, most slaves were identified publicly by only a given name. Slaves on the same plantation with the same given names were distinguished by age, size or color (“old Jim” or “young Jim,” “big Moses” or “little Moses”). But slaves followed their own naming practices by using nicknames, a practice still common today.

Because of the restrictions imposed by slavery and the lack of documentation on slave culture, naming practices are difficult to verify. Scholars have speculated that naming patterns existed to the extent possible to identify kinship or maintain family ties. If your research has taken you back several generations into slavery, watch for the repeated use of given names, especially if they are unique. As always, compare those names with names of post-Civil War family members.

Surnames: Family historians often assume, mistakenly, that most freed slaves took the surname of their most recent slaveholder. In reality, the surname might have belonged to a prior slaveholder — the first, the favorite or the longest — or the slaveholder of a parent or grandparent. Historian Eugene Genovese observed that former slaves had a “significant reason for going back in time to take the name of the first master they had ever had, or perhaps of the first whom they could remember as having been a decent man: by so doing, they recaptured, as best they could, their own history.”

Of course, some families chose surnames with no apparent connection to former slaveholders. Some individuals or families chose

The surname of a locally prominent family or a famous American.

A name with an occupational link to the bearer — Mason or Carpenter.

A name identifying a personal characteristic — Strong, Brown, Freeman or African.

Perhaps a given name of choice combined with a given name by which the person was known or the name of a parent — James Caesar or John Caleb.

A surname with a possible geographic connection to the family.

A name with a religious or symbolic significance.

As author Joel Williamson put it, a name “for no apparent reason other than the pleasure of the author,” including such names as Prince, Captain or Governor.

Different surnames. For example, Will Oats of Mercer County, Ky., told an interviewer that his brothers were Jim and Lige (Elijah) Coffey. Their masters had been Lewis Oats and his sister. Apparently, one brother chose the Oats name, but the other two did not.

Finding your pre-Civil War African-American ancestors often requires locating their slaveholder’s family records. First, gather photos, documents and stories from your own family to uncover clues that might not be in public records.

Opening Spread: Josephine Harold(left), Sisters Hattie Davis Boines and Mary Davis Frazier of Clairborne County, Misss,(right), Page 64: Maggie Dostson; Georgia Dotson Davis; Abe Davis, Brother of Hattie and Mary on Opening Spread, Pge 65: John L. Moore and Wife, Marha Williams Walker, Lucind Humphries Haywood.

Different surnames at different times.

The ancestor’s surname might be the clue that opens the door to your family’s pre-Civil War history. Some families already know, or might discover during research, the reason behind a surname choice. Others might never learn the reason. But knowing the history behind the surname choice could save you years of research.


African-American Genealogy: A Bibliography and Guide to Sources by Curt Bryan Witcher (Round Tower Books, $19.95)

African-Americans in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census (Heritage Quest, $24.95) — CD-ROM covering heads of household and people living in a household of a different name, but not all individuals

The American Slave — Autobiographical narratives of African-American former slaves, available at many academic and large public libraries and on CD-ROM. Created by the Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration.

“Born in Slavery” — Index to and text of The American Slave <>

Freedman’s Bank Records (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, $9.95) — CD-ROM listing more than 70,000 African-American banking customers from 1865 to 1871

The Genealogist’s Companion & Sourcebook by Emily Anne Croom (Betterway Books, $16.99) — Where to find and what’s in federal census records; information on state censuses; additional African-American sources

Links to state archives Web sites <>

The National Archives genealogy page <>

Your Guide to the Federal Census by Kathleen W. Hinckley (Betterway Books, $21.99) — Comprehensive census guide and strategies for census research

Working backward

Review a family group sheet of the post-Civil War family members you want to focus on. You’ll need a list of their given names and ages to (1) determine which family members might have been born as slaves and (2) determine the slaveholder.

If you know the slaveholding family’s name, you can start researching that family. If not, you can start with the presumption that the family kept its former or most recent slaveholder’s surname, but you should be alert for clues that imply otherwise.

Here are eight steps to get started:

1. Using your list of ancestral family members from the 1870 census, subtract 10 years from your subjects’ 1870 ages to estimate their ages in 1860, Isolate the names and ages of those who were living in 1860 for the next steps.

2. Look at the neighborhood where your ancestors lived in 1870 for white families with the same surname. Make your search countywide, or even statewide, if your ancestors’ name was unique. Create a list of same-surname candidates for the slaveholding family. Include possible spelling variations — Harget(t), Hargit(t), Horgett, Hargot, Horgatt and so on. Consider going back as far as the 1850 census, or that county’s marriage and deed records, to look for white families of that surname.

3. Determine which of the white families on your list owned slaves in 1860 by looking at that county’s 1860 slave schedule. You might be able to eliminate families whose names aren’t there, but also check the 1850 slave schedules before you do. The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules are rarely indexed and name only slaveholders. Any available indexes should appear on USGenWeb’s county pages <>, in journals of genealogical societies or in books about the county.

4. Compare the ages of your ancestor’s family group in 1860 with slaves’ ages in households in the slave schedule. Does a group of slaves in any household match the list of your family members’ sexes and ages? Remember that the slaves were grouped under the name of the slaveholder and identified by sex, color and age — rarely by name. Your ancestors might have been a family prior to the war, but the parents might have lived on neighboring farms, so search for the mother and children together.

5. Prioritize the slaveholding candidates according to what you find in the slave schedules:

Likely candidates: The ages of your ancestral family members fit within the ages listed in their 1860 slave schedules.

Less likely candidates: The ages of your ancestral family members and those listed on the 1860 schedule don’t appear to coincide.

Least likely candidates: Those candidates not listed in either the 1860 or 1850 schedules. Some slaveholders might have been omitted, but the schedules are probably the most complete resource available.

6. Repeat this for the 1850 slave schedule, especially if your ancestors’ ages indicate they were a family before 1850. Sometimes, people were accidentally omitted from both general population and slave schedules.

7. If your search produces enough evidence to suggest further investigation of a particular candidate, start researching that white family. Study the leading candidate(s) in the county records to determine if your family is included in those records.

8. Don’t try to make your ancestor fit into an obviously unlikely match. If these steps above don’t produce the name of the slaveholder, consider these factors:

Your family might have moved from its 1860 home after the war to a neighboring county or town. Although some freed men and women moved away after the war, often they remained on the same land for many years.

The slaveholding family might have moved away after the war. Prewar county records might reveal their identity.

If you don’t find candidates of the same surname as your family, consider slaveholders from the 1860 slave schedules who lived near your family in 1870. Review others who owned slaves in your focus county in 1860. Your ancestors might have lived on a plantation near the same-surname white family.

Exploring the neighborhood

Not all slaves took the name of a former slaveholder. If your search for a slaveholding family based on the same surname failed, not all is lost. You still might identify the slaveholder by looking around your ancestor’s 1870 neighborhood.

Freedman’s Savings and Trust depositor records (below left) might give the name of your ancestor’s former master.


Many newly freed slaves remained in or near their pre-Civil War homes. If your ancestors lived in a rural Southern community in 1870 and weren’t landowners, it’s possible they were living on land owned by or in the same neighborhood as a former slaveholder. These tips will help guide your search through the neighborhood and identify those factors you should consider to determine which white families might have been your ancestors’ slaveholders.

Many census pages name the township, town, district or nearest post office at the top of the page. Usually, residents enumerated with the same page heading lived in the same general area. As you read the 1870 census, copy down the names of white families living in the neighborhood for five or more pages on either side of your ancestors. Note the value of these families’ real estate. If they owned no real estate in 1870, it’s possible they didn’t own land before the war and are less likely to have had slaves.

Look for other clues to connect your family to a former slaveholder:

If your adult ancestors were middle-aged or elderly and were born in another state, look for white neighbors who were born in that state.

Look at the migration pattern of your family as shown in the birthplaces reported in the 1870 census for family members. If different birthplaces were reported for different individuals, make a timeline showing where the family was when each person was born. Does a neighboring white family mirror that migration pattern?

If your ancestors lived in a Southern town or city in 1870, they also might have been there before the war. In this case, begin with the same process described above, but realize that urban slaveholders generally had few slaves.

Next, using your list of possible slaveholder candidates from the 1870 census, look for those heads of household in the 1860 slave schedule. Look also at the names of several neighboring slaveholders on either side of a possible slaveholder candidate in the slave schedule. Since only the slaveholding population is listed in these schedules, you get a fairly detailed view of the slave community as it might have existed before the Civil War. If your ancestors and their family members weren’t with the suspected candidate(s), they might have been held by a neighboring slaveholder.

Look at the 1860 free population census to determine what the community looked like prior to the war. If your search reveals that much of the free population in 1870 was there in 1860, the community might not have changed significantly after the war.

The 1850 and 1860 free schedules asked questions similar to the 1870 census, and none showed the relationship of household members to the head of the household — wife, son, daughter. As you look for slaveholder candidates, these censuses can provide such information as:

the name, age, sex, color, birthplace and occupation of each free person in each free household

the value of real estate a person owned — helpful because most slaveholders owned land

the value of personal estate a person owned in 1860 — helpful because a high value of personal property could indicate slaves in the household

Another location-based approach in looking for a former slaveholder is to use records that identify or describe land ownership. Land plat books, land tax records and county deed records denote land ownership and help identify neighborhoods. These records might help you (1) determine where your ancestors lived before the war based on who owned the land they lived on in 1870 and (2) learn more about landowners who lived near your family in the 1870 census.

Other records might help you identify the slaveholder or discover your ancestral family in his or her household:

Family Bibles sometimes listed slave births or deaths.

Former slaveholders sometimes co-signed marriage bonds of freed men and women shortly after the Civil War.

Interviews with freed slaves and depositor records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust sometimes name former masters. (See page 65 for more on these sources.)

Probate records of slaveholding families are often the best sources for confirming the identity of their slaves and grouping slaves into families.

These and other records are located in archives or county courthouses or on microfilm at public and academic libraries or through the FHL. Use a reference such as Ancestry’s Red Book (Ancestry, $44.95) or the FHL catalog at <> to determine the availability of census, land and probate records for your county.

Once you discover the slaveholding family, you will need to research its family members, whose history can be tied to your own family. You’ll have taken a quantum leap in your research — and penetrated a culture of silence 140 years after the fact.

FRANKLIN CARTER SMITH and EMILY ANNE CROOM are the co-authors of A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors (Betterway Books, $21.99), from which this article is adapted.

From the December 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine.