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Researching African American Ancestors: Records of Enslaved People

A beginner's guide to starting your African American family history research.

Background

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 enslaved person is listed by name, must be studied carefully for other individuals of that surname who may be possible family members and potential former enslavers. 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.

Search the Library Catalog

Did you know you can not only search the library catalog for resources about African American family history research, but you can also search for your family name? Searching for your family name in our catalog can help you find out if there are published family histories to find in our collection, or if there are donated files of others' family history research that could help you! Simply search for <Your Last Name> family in the search box above.

Additional Resources

Census Records

Enslaved people 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 enslaver, each enslaved person by sex, specific age, and color only; no names of enslaved people 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 enslaved people while 1820, 1830, and 1840 schedules list them by sex and age range. These data present possible former enslavers, for it is the records of the enslavers that must be searched and analyzed for information about enslaved ancestors before 1865. The researcher will need to learn as much as possible about the enslaver and his family: his wife and in-laws, his children and whom each married, even the church he attended. One could acquire the enslaved through purchase, inheritance, marriage, and natural increase (children, grandchildren, etc., of enslaved people acquired earlier).

Public Records

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 enslavers, deeds of gift or deeds of trust of enslaved people, purchase or sale of enslaved people, 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 records of enslaved people. 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 http://archives.ncdcr.gov/FindingAids/Circulars/AIC17.pdf.

Private Records

These records are those kept by the enslaver or enslavers (family Bibles recording births and deaths, business ledgers, contracts, leases, and other records relating to the health and work of the people they enslaved). 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 enslaved people were often members of the local white churches or were permitted to worship at their enslaver’s churches.

Cohabitation Records

Cohabitation records are often overlooked resources in African American genealogical research. You might ask what is a cohabitation record? Simply put, it was not legal for enslaved people to be married until after emancipation. In order to recognize their unions during enslavement as legal, former enslaved people in North Carolina were required to register their “cohabitation” in the county in which they lived.

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