Black History Month 2021: Resources for Tracing an Enslaved Ancestor

To start off Black History Month 2021, here are a few suggestions for tracing an ancestor who was enslaved. It’s a daunting task that may or may not have a successful conclusion.

Our starting point is the 1880 census, which is the first U.S. census record to give relationship to the head of household. If you have your family extended back to 1880, I would suggest creating a spreadsheet to compile information in addition to genealogy software because the FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) Club is an excellent tool that might be well be the one to help you crack a brick wall.

Note that if your family members reported a place of birth which is the same state in which they are enumerated in 1880, then the focus of your research will be that state.

However, 1880, fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, gave plenty of time for folks to move, and they did! The move might have been from one town to another to a new county or to a place far from their birthplace and other family members. Some family members might even have been forcibly removed to a state far from home before the Civil War even happened.

That is why a spreadsheet is so important. It can be the one repository for all of your facts AND clues, including people who appeared in the lives of your ancestors who have no known blood or legal relationships to your family.

I would track details in my spreadsheet to include names, year of birth, place of birth, place of residence, year of residence and relationship to family (including terms like neighbor, witness to a document, church member, etc.) and then add more categories as they are needed. The great thing about spreadsheets is that the number of columns and rows are pretty much endless.

If you haven’t done original research yourself and cast a wide net for family records created AFTER 1880, I would highly recommend that you pause at 1880, backtrack and leave no stone unturned for possible tidbits found in records.

Your research net should include everything from vital records to online trees to family stories to county histories to church membership lists. All information should be treated as clues if unproven by documents.

Once that work has been completed, you will be ready to begin your search through earlier records.

Here is the list of possible resources that may help you on your genealogical quest:

1. 1870 census – Even five years after the end of the war, there was still much turmoil in people’s lives. It is said that many people were missed in this census, so if you are able to find your family, you are lucky. I even have people who lived in the North and had no ties to the war who I haven’t been able to find. If your family was enumerated, relationships of people in the home to each other must be inferred, but you have gotten back one more decade in history.

Just a note here: Be sure to check for state census records, too. Not all states took their own censuses, but if they did, you have another source of family information. Ancestry has digital versions of some state censuses. Check the FamilySearch wiki for a list of territorial and state census records.

2. 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules – Only the names of the owners appear in these federal schedules, but if you know that detail, you can then use other records, like probates, to possibly trace your family members. You can determine the gender and age ranges of the enslaved persons, which would help figure out if this owner was the right person.

3. Freedmen’s Bureau – There are multiple links on this website, which include 12 states and the District of Columbia, plus related websites.

4. Freedmen’s Bank – and the U.S. National Archives- Visit these websites to learn more about their records.

5. Civil War Records of United States Colored Troops (USCT) – Read this entry in the FamilySearch wiki for more information.

6. Cohabitation Records – FamilySearch wiki states “Cohabitation records were created to identify and legitimize marriages and children born to those in slavery.” I was aware of these records in Virginia, but the wiki also includes links to Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, MIssissippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

7. Property Records – As offensive as it is, land deeds were the method of recording the sale of enslaved human beings. These records are kept at the county level; if the enslaved person was being sold out of state (e.g. Pittsylvania County, Virginia to Caswell County, North Carolina), it will be evident in the record as the legal residences of the grantor and grantee are noted.

8. Estate Records – Be sure to look at each and every page of an estate record, including any mentions of the estate in court minutes. Finding a will is great, because enslaved people were most often separated and became the property of the sons and daughters of the deceased. However, if a person died without a will, those records might provide even more information. Look for estate inventories and lists of sales that produced cash for an estate. Don’t forget to follow up with the next resource in my list!

8. County Court Records – Before the Civil War, enslaved persons were valuable property. When the head of household died, whether a will was recorded or he died intestate, lawsuits were initiated if the heirs didn’t agree on their legacies. If an enslaved person was hired out or sold and the recipient felt cheated any any way, the chancery court was where these lawsuits were decided. Virginia has a fabulous website – Virginia Memory: Chancery Records Index – which is one of my favorite websites of all time.

You should look at both county court minutes and orders in addition to chancery court records to determine whether a family of interest sued over enslaved persons.

10. Local Historical Societies – Local societies hold a multitude of records back to the formation of a county or town. Some societies have a building of their own to house records, while other records might be found in the county clerk’s office or local public library. These societies may or may not have genealogical files of family information, but they are a hidden gems of information.

11. County Archives – Not all counties have their own archives, but if they do, they hold a variety of records, similar to historical societies. There might be a finding aid to their holdings on their website. If not, contact the archives to learn what kind of records are housed in the collection.

12. Private Family Records – These can be the most difficult to locate. The owner of a large plantation with enslaved workers was essentially running a big self-owned business. He would keep detailed records about costs incurred and profits/losses – not only about crops, but about enslaved workers and their children.

Many, but not all, plantation owners were bankrupted by the end of the war. Plantation records may or may not exist. If there is no current family member who is the keeper of the plantation history, then surviving records might be found in the local historical society or library.

13. Church Records – In the 1800s, many families attended church regularly; church participation is one of the few activities that enslaved persons could do off the plantation. In antebellum days, church attendance would be at the local church for white people. However, names of enslaved people can be found in those records. In the post-Civil War era, blacks were free to attend the churches of their choice.

Like privately held family records, church records may not be readily accessible, particularly online. Contact a church directly in the town of interest to learn the types of records they hold. Some may only have a general church history, but even that might glean new clues about your own family.

14. Tax Records – Last, but definitely not least, don’t overlook tax records, especially those created before 1865 in the South. There were real estate tax rolls, but there were also personal property tax rolls. Both provide valuable pieces of information not readily found elsewhere.

A few rolls only give the name of head of household and/or those of legal age as a poll tax. Others included amount of taxable land and livestock owned. Personal property lists might even include whether or not the person owned a wagon.

Given that enslaved persons were most definitely valuable, a number of lists required a report of the sex and age of each enslaved person. Many lists were anonymous in that names of the enslaved were not included. However, look at this list from Amelia County, Virginia in 1782:

Amelia County, Virginia Tax List, 1782

The names of all the enslaved persons (who were taxable) are listed with each owner.

I have seen the same list format in 1783 in Cumberland County. It is probable that in times of war, states wanted to know sources of possible manpower (or rebellion). There might be similar lists in the years approaching the Civil War.

15. Newspapers – Local newspapers not only shared family information, but legal notices were also required to be published.

16. Local and State Genealogy Societies – Don’t overlook the holdings and journals of local and state genealogical societies. Many societies have been in existence for decades and, the further back in time you go, the more likely it is that information from locally held records might have been published in one of those journals.

17. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 – During the Depression, one of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects involved writers who interviewed former slaves. These narratives produced an excellent picture of what life was like for enslaved people. Finding that someone in your family was part of this project would be the icing on the cake – a first hand account of your ancestor’s life in his/her own words. This collection is housed in the National Archives.

That’s it – 17 suggested resources to help you document members of your family and their lives before the Civil War.



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