Efforts to find records of ancestors believed to have been enslaved require thorough preparation before beginning research prior to 1865. The 1870 federal population census schedules, the first on which the former slave is listed by name, must be studied carefully for other individuals of that surname who may be possible family members and potential former owners. Even if one knows that an ancestor was born during slavery, one must study all subsequent census schedules carefully and systematically from the latest available (currently 1940) backwards.
Births, deaths, and marriages should be searched for all known and suspected family members. Co-habitation records not only indicate the number of years a couple have lived together as husband and wife but also confirm the family tradition that the ancestor “was born in slavery.” The family researcher should look for other county records such as deeds, estates, and tax lists; cemetery records; Bible records; and church records. Freedmen’s Bureau, Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company records, and WPA slave narratives may also prove useful.
Slaves were enumerated on all federal census records, 1790—1860, but not by name. From the 1870 census, the researcher should proceed backwards to the 1860 and 1850 separate slave schedules which list, under the name of the owner, each slave by sex, specific age, and color only; no slave names are given. The genealogist will be looking for a male or female (and his or her family if appropriate), who is 10 and 20 years younger than the individual(s) identified on the 1870 census schedule. 1790, 1800, and 1810 census schedules indicate only the total number of slaves while 1820, 1830, and 1840 schedules list them by sex and age range. These data present possible former slave owners, for it is the records of the slave owners that must be searched and analyzed for information about slaves before 1865. The researcher will need to learn as much as possible about the owner and his family: his wife and in-laws, his children and whom each married, even the church he attended. One could acquire slaves through purchase, inheritance, marriage, and natural increase (children, grandchildren, etc., of slaves acquired earlier).
Records of ownership can be found in public records. Public records are those created by the owner as required by local, state, and national governments. Local records, i.e., the county records in North Carolina, are the most fruitful for genealogists. These are the records of marriages of owners, deeds of gift or deeds of trust of slaves, purchase or sale of slaves, transfers of land among family members, wills and/or settlements and divisions of real and personal property at the death of a person, lists of taxable property, and records of actions in the local county courts.
The miscellaneous records of some North Carolina counties include some slave records. William L. Byrd III and John H. Smith have transcribed these records for a number of counties in the series North Carolina Slaves and Free Persons of Color, published by Heritage Books. Most of this state’s county records are housed in the State Archives of North Carolina. Guide to County Records in the North Carolina State Archives (12th rev. ed., Raleigh: Office of Archives and History, 2009) lists for each county those records, original and microfilmed, which are available in the Archives Search Room. An earlier edition of this guide is downloadable at http://archives.ncdcr.gov/FindingAids/co_guide.pdf.
Preliminary Guide to Records Relating to African Americans in the North Carolina State Archives (Archives Information Circular No. 17) is available as a PDF file on the Archives website at
These records are those kept by the owner or owners (family Bibles recording births and deaths, business ledgers, contracts, leases, and other records relating to the health and work of their slaves). Since these are personal records kept by the owner for his own use, they may be difficult to find. Those that have survived may still be in the possession of the family, in a manuscript collection, or in an archives. Guide to Private Manuscript Collections in the North Carolina State Archives, edited by Barbara T. Cain, Ellen Z. McGrew, and Charles E. Morris (3rd ed., Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1981) is a guide to collections of private papers deposited there. The Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill and Perkins Library at Duke University also have outstanding manuscript collections. Records of white churches, generally held in their respective church repositories, are another category of private record which should be sought, as slaves were often members of the local white churches or were permitted to worship at their owner’s churches.