Researching African American Families that Came out of Slavery

SpringBoard is pleased to present the first in an occasional series of posts about diverse communities. Aimed at intermediate to advanced researchers, the posts will offer tips to those who are new to researching various racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Here LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, CG, offers guidelines on African American research.

Diverse Communities: Researching African American Families that Came out of Slavery

Researchers of African American families with slave ancestry face a significant challenge because antebellum records reflect the status of those ancestors as human chattel. Records rarely identified slaves by surnames and in some cases failed to record given names. The force of law also guaranteed that few slaves had the ability to record their own histories. Nevertheless, before and after slavery, sources were created that document the lives of the enslaved. What follows are descriptions of these sources, brief discussions of their value to researchers, and tips on how to access them.

First Steps

Family lore is always a good starting point and often provides the most important clues about the origins of slave ancestors. Most slave states did not fully implement statewide registration of births and deaths until the first two decades of the twentieth century. The 1870 U.S. census, the first to enumerate all former slaves by name, is a principal resource for locating a formerly enslaved ancestor in the postbellum era.

A Name for the Research Subject

The surname used by an ancestor in the 1870 census may point to the identity of former slave owners. Documents created by or about them often provide genealogical information about enslaved African American families. For example, names and relationships among slaves might appear in deeds of gift or sale, mortgages, or probate files.

Not all slaves used the name of the last slave owner. A small child who was separated from his extended slave family might use the last owner’s surname after slavery, but if he was old enough to remember his origins, he might reclaim the surname of an earlier owner. Other freedmen took the surnames of slave owners who held their remote ancestors. The surname used by a family in the 1870 U.S. census may differ from the name used by the same family in the 1880 U.S. census. Comparing first names may identify the same family in a household a decade later.

Free Persons of Color: Local and State Records

The majority of African Americans who lived during the antebellum period were enslaved, but some of these ancestors became free persons of color (FPCs) who obtained their freedom during slavery. Records relating to an ancestor’s status as a FPC might be located at the local or state level, depending on how emancipation was effected. A former owner’s “deed of manumission” might have been recorded in county record books with real property deeds. Where a slave was freed by the terms of a testator’s will, such evidence would be included in a probate file. The legal requirements for emancipating slaves differed from state to state and in different eras. In South Carolina, for example, legislative action was required to free a slave after 1820 and so would have been noted in legislative papers.[1]

After emancipation, FPCs may have generated the same types of records as everyone else, such as tax lists and city directories. In addition, certain states and counties maintained registers of free Negros, some of which are online.[2] A FPC should also appear in pre-1870 census records, as FPCs were enumerated in the U.S. census beginning in 1790.[3]

Federal Records

Many Federal records relating to formerly enslaved African Americans not only predate the 1870 census but also include more biographical information.

The War Department’s General Order 143 established the U.S. Bureau of Colored Troops in 1863, pursuant to which African Americans were recruited without regard to their status as free men or former slaves. Compiled military service records, pension applications, and Civil War service payments also provide information about the lives of former slaves.[4]  Widows’ pension records are being digitized slowly, and a small percentage can be accessed online.[5] Most are textual records, so the file must be ordered from or viewed at the NARA in Washington, D.C.

The Field Office records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (“Freedmen’s Bureau”) cover the period 1865–1872 and contain extensive documentation of African American lives immediately after the Civil War era. This collection includes labor contracts—overseen by the Freedmen’s Bureau—between former owners and freedmen and women and other records containing names and personal information about former slaves. The original records, part of NARA Record Group (RG) 105, are not indexed, but an ongoing project is making them searchable online.[6] At present, eighteen of twenty-two record sets can be accessed online free of charge.[7]

The Freedman’s Bank, which operated from 1865–1874, was separate from the Freedmen’s Bureau and created records that are rich in biographical detail. The questions asked when accounts were opened include the names of former owners, parents, and siblings and the last known whereabouts of family members. Thirty-seven branch offices were opened in seventeen states and the District of Columbia. Records of twenty-nine branches of the Freedman’s Bank are available through NARA and online.[8]

An interactive website assists researchers in locating the sites of Freedmen Bureau offices and other institutions such as Freedman’s Bank branches. The website includes sample documents and links to the NARA descriptive pamphlets for the states where the Freedmen’s Bureau operated.[9]

Marriage

It is difficult but not impossible to prove “marital” relationships in slave populations. Slaves could not enter into the legal contract implied by “marriage”;[10] however there may be evidence that a slave couple entered into a committed relationship that predated emancipation. On 30 May 1865, the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau issued orders regarding the conditions for solemnizing marriages of former slaves and the maintenance of records.[11] State legislatures enacted legislation to validate pre-existing unions.[12] Files of the Freedmen’s Bureau contain hundreds of marriages recorded by field offices in southern states, accessible at NARA and online.[13]

Even during the antebellum period slave owners sometimes recognized relationships by describing a couple as man and wife in a will or other legal document. Evidence of antebellum relationships might appear in Freedmen’s Bureau labor contracts that recorded freedmen and women in family groups.

Fleshing out the Stories

Another source worth consulting is the online collection of “Slave Narratives” compiled by the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression and accessible on the website of the Library of Congress.[14] This collection includes 2,300 typewritten narratives with searchable text and links to 500 photographs of former slaves. The narratives are first-person accounts of life as a slave and often include locations, names of former owners, and information about a former slave’s ancestors and other relatives.

Conclusion

Researching slave ancestors requires both the use of unique record collections and a slightly different focus when using common sources such as probate records and county deed books. The reference books listed below provide additional background and detailed information about these resources.

Recommended Reading

Abrams, Alan. Black and Free, The Free Negro in America, 1830: A Commentary on Carter Woodson’s “Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830.” Sylvania, Ohio: Doubting Thomas Publishing, 2001.

Burroughs, Tony. “Finding African Americans on the 1870 Census.” Heritage Quest (January/February 2001): 50–56. Online edition. http://www.tonyburroughs.com/uploads/1/3/2/8/13281200/finding_african_americans_on_the_1870_census.pdf : 2015. Guidelines for making an effective search, including ways to tackle the issue of different surnames on different census records for the same family.

Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. New York: Vintage Books, 1976. A seminal study of African American families touching on slave kin networks, domestic arrangements, surnames, and other social and cultural practices.

Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. In the Matter of Color, Race, and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. An overview of the legal development of the use of race as a badge of servitude.

Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. A useful summary of laws that governed various aspects of slavery, such as inheritance of slaves, the status of children born to slave mothers, and emancipations.

Rose, James M., and Alice Eichholz. Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003. In addition to important dates in African American History, this is a state-by-state guide to resources relevant to slaves and free persons in the antebellum period.

Smith, Franklin Carter, and Emily Anne Croom. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008.
Washington, Reginald. “The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research.” Prologue Magazine (Summer 1997). Online edition. http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/freedmans-savings-and-trust.html : 2015.

Woodtor, Dee Palmer. Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity. New York: Random House, 1999. For guidance focusing on the Reconstruction Era.


[1] John Belton O’Neall, The Negro Law of South Carolina, (Columbia: John G. Bowman, 1848), 11: “Sec. 37. The Act of 1820, [declared] that no slave should hereafter be emancipated, but by Act of the Legislature.” (https://books.google.com/books?id=r9lBAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover).

[2] See, for example, Virginia and Louisiana registers. Library of Virginia (http://www.lva.virginia.gov), search for “Free Negro register.” Also, a digitization project announced in “Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past,” LSU Libraries (http://www.louisianadigitallibrary.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16313coll51).

[4] See, for the compiled military service records, “Soldiers and Sailors Database,” National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm). Also, for pensions, U.S. National Archives, “General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934,” Microfilm Publication T288, online edition (http://www.archives.gov). The pension index is also online at FamilySearch, Ancestry, and Fold3.

[5] “Civil War ‘Widows’ Pension’ Applications,” Fold3.com (https://www.fold3.com/page/3496_civil_war_widows_pension_applications/#story_2684).

[6] The Freedmen’s Bureau Project (http://www.discoverfreedmen.org).

[7] “Historical Record Collections,” FamilySearch (http://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/list); from NARA microfilm publications M1900–1913. A search for “Freedmen’s Bureau” will generate an alphabetical list by state.

[8] “United States, Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1417695); from NARA microfilm M816.

[9] Toni Carrier and Angela Walton-Raji, Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau (http://mappingthefreedmensbureau.com).

[10] O’Neall, The Negro Law of South Carolina, 23: “Sec. 37. A slave cannot even legally contract marriage.” The SC statute is typical of the law that applied in the historical slave states.

[11] Reginald Washington, “Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony: Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records,” Prologue Magazine (Spring 2005), (http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/spring/freedman-marriage-recs.html): 37, para. 13.

[12]  For example, see “North Carolina General Statutes,” database, North Carolina General Assembly, NCGA (http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/Statutes/StatutesTOC.pl?Chapter=0051), Article 1, § 51–5, “Marriages between slaves validated.” Couples were required to register their marriages.

[13] These are in NARA microfilm publication 1865, part of RG 105. See “The Freedmen’s Bureau, 1865–1872,” National Archives (www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/#marriages). Also, “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Marriages, 1815-1869,” database and images, FamilySearch (http://familysearch.org).

[14] “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936–1938,” digital images, Library of Congress, American Memory (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html).

3 thoughts on “Researching African American Families that Came out of Slavery

  1. Pingback: Friday Finds January 2 – 8 | Copper Leaf Genealogy

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