African and African-American Slave Research

  • It is very difficult to trace slave ancestors. Here are a few tips:
    • Speak with your elderly ancestors. They may be able to tell you family lore, history and legends.
    • Gather information on all family members, not just direct ancestors.
    • If you can't find your ancestor in the vital records, you may need to look for a separate "colored" register.
    • Old newspapers may sketch out the lives of the formerly enslaved and mention relatives from whom they were separated.
    • If a relative applied for social security benefits, the SS-5 (application) will contain their birth dates and places and parent's full names. To find their social security number, check the Social Security Death Index (available on family search and ancestry).
  • Freedmen's Bureau
    • Discover Freedmen
    • Recorded marriages for couples emerging from slavery,
    • Processed requests for food, transportation and medical care,
    • Documented abuses against African-Americans,
    • Drew up labor contracts for freed slaves,
    • Provided legal aid to enforce contracts and prosecute crimes.
  • Freedman's Bank - different from Freedmen's Bureau
    • Signature registers contained a great deal of genealogical information,
    • Indexed and digitized on Ancestry and Family Search
  • Tip for Census - it is common to see a person's race appear different over time. Census takers often guessed a person's race based on skin tone
  • 1870 census - first to enumerate former slaves by name
    • If you find your relative, look for nearby white families, particularly those listed as farmers, they may be the slaveholder.
    • Look for the potential slaveholder's family in the 1860 census.
    • Check if the potential slaveholder's personal property was significantly higher in 1860 than 1870. This could indicate a loss of "human property."
    • Look up the head of household in the 1860 Census Slave Schedule. If you find an entry for the possible slaveholder, look for a slave that fits your ancestor's gender and approximate age.
  • If a relative was listed in the 1860 or 1850 census by name, they were free at the time the census was taken.
  • If you find a slaveholder, check:
    • Bills of sale or deeds of gifts,
    • Hiring contracts,
    • Mortgages - a slaveholder could use his slave as collateral for another purchase, and
    • Manumissions - search for these in deed books.