Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Researching the Slaveowner in Online Books

The slavery period remains the one of the most difficult for African-Americans to research. Maybe this is why that period is a particular point of interest to me, and why I spend lots of time on this blog on that subject. Recently Family Tree Magazine did a very good article on another research tool I use often: Online Books (August 2010 issue).

I have found this to be very useful in researching slaveowners. The article points out 6 major sources:

  1. Ancestry.com (Stories, Memories and Histories)
  2. BYU Family History Archives (free)
  3. Google Books (free)
  4. HeritageQuest Online (only through subscribing libraries)
  5. Internet Archives (free)
  6. World Vital Records (paid subscription site)

I’ll show you a few examples.

I was researching possible slaveowners in Lawrence County, Alabama, specifically the Sherrod family. I went to Ancestry, their Stories, Memories and Histories Collection which I have marked as a Quick Link. Using their search template and searching on the name ‘Ben Sherrod’, I quickly pulled up the following book: “Recollections of the Early Settlers of North Alabama,” which was originally published in 1899:

Starting on page 233 was a fairly lengthy biographical sketch of the exact family of which I am interested in. The text doesn’t reproduce well here, but here is a page:

This gave me valuable clues and starting points; now I knew what dates to search for probate records. I was also able to understand the connections between the Sherrods and the other names I had seen on the 1870 census, especially the wive’s maiden names and father’s names which we all know also need to be checked as possible sources for slaves.

In the second example here, I used Google Books. I searched for the terms “Hyman” and “North Carolina” as that was the family of interest. This turned up the excellent book, “The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1778-1864.” This book contained a petition from one of the slaves of the slaveowning family I was researching. He had a fascinating tale of his own, but he also provided details ( such as who he was owned by and sold to, when the person died, who the administrator was,  his master’s wishes for his freedom, etc.)that helped me reconstruct the family:

I searched World Vital Records (their Social, Regional and General Histories collection) on Michael Holt from North Carolina, voila, I found a 700+ page book entitled, “The Descendants of Michael Holt.” Keep in mind, however, that information for the family you need may be included in collateral lines covered in a book that is NOT in the title of the book, so be sure to do full-text searches when you can. The title of the book may just say “The Potters and Allied Families” and the surname focus of your search may be hidden in that ‘Allied Families’ referred to in the title.

Ancestry has a pretty good search function. I have to say both BYU and the Internet Archives websites do not have very good search functions, and will take considerably longer to search, although Internet Archive has a beautiful interface for actually reading books online. HeritageQuest, although only accessible through some libraries, has an excellent search function and downloadable PDF files of the books. Google Books, as we all should know by now, does not always provide views of the entire book, and doesn’t always allow easy download (I basically do screen captures when this is the case.)

It is true that the larger and more prominent slaveowners will be the best represented when searching, but that doesn’t mean there is no useful information on smaller slaveowners. There is. In the difficult quest for the slaveowning family, we’ve got to make diligent use of all resources at our disposal, and I rarely find the search in online books discussed or mentioned. I hope to encourage you to add this to your arsenal when researching locations and possible slaveowners.


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About Me

I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

Post History

What I Talk About

Locations and Surnames

Hardin, Chester and Lawrence Counties, TN
Holt, Barnes, Harbour, Bradley Springer and Fendricks
Lawrence County, AL
Springer and Fendricks
Montgomery County, MD
Prather, Simpson
Somerset County, MD
Waters, Fountain, Curtis
Duval and Madison County, FL
Smith, Harris, Garner

Favorite Family History Quotes

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
-William Faulkner

"Call it a clan, call it a network, all it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one"
- Jane Howard

"Friends are God's apologies for relations."
-Hugh Kingsmill

"No matter what you've done for yourself or for humanity, if you can't look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?"
-Elbert Hubbard

"Families are like fudge; mostly sweet with a few nuts."
-Unknown

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you might as well make it dance!"
-Unknown

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city;)"
-George Burns

"Where does the family start? It starts with a young man falling in love with a girl. No superior alternative has yet been found."
-Winston Churchill

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never ever introduce yourself to had life not done it for you."
-Kendall Hailey

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
-Thich Nhat Hanh

Geneabloggers