Researching the Period of Enslavement
By Valencia King Nelson. May 6, 1994
One of the most effective approaches to identify enslaved ancestors is to identify the plantation at which the ancestor worked and the holder of the enslaved family. Research then focuses upon the slaveholder’s family and the records it produced as slaveholders, as well as on the enslaved family itself.
SOME BASIC STEPS IN DETERMINING THE SLAVEHOLDER(S):
1. Look at the records of your family in the Federal 1870 (your State) Census or any special census conducted by the State.
2. Pay attention to the county, township, post office, and surrounding families. The composition of African American households in 1870 has closely reflected the composition of African American families prior to 1865.
3. Check the 1850 or 1860 Slave Census for the slaveholder’s name. Sometime the surnames of ex-slaves recorded in the censuses are the surnames of former slaveholders. You may have to check the Agriculture census to determine land ownership of the slaveholder.
4. Compare the 1850 or 1860 population census with your findings in the slave census.
5. Once you have established the owner(s) of an enslaved ancestor, begin to research the owning family in the public and historical records. Some of the records by which slaveholders kept an accounting of their property identified slaves. Estate records are among the most valuable of such accounts. Wills, inventories, appraisements, and annual returns named slaves, gave their ages and sex, sometimes described physical characteristics, and may have indicated occupations, and blood and marriage ties.
6. If the slaveholder died before 1865, look at the clusters of first names found in the owners/holders estate records. First names can often be linked together from the population censuses.
7. If the slave holder is still living after the Civil war (1865), begin to look at the owner’s annual returns, account books, business receipts, medical notes, birth registers, diaries, letters, and bills of sale. Many ex-enslaved became tenant farmers or sharecroppers after the War.
NOTE: If the family owned land, deed records are helpful in tracing the original owner. Any legal transactions concerning the land would be recorded.