Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations

I remain convinced that there are still hundreds of thousands of documents that contain information on our enslaved ancestors that aren’t being widely used. Sometimes it’s because we can’t easily get access to the information, and sometimes it’s because the information itself is difficult to peruse and understand (court records and freedmen’s bureau records come to mind).

One of the best sources on enslaved families can be found within the manuscripts that are stored in research libraries, historical societies, state archives and local libraries. Families in many cases donated personal papers, letters, business papers, receipts, diaries, account books, reports and many other types of documentation and ephemera. Many of these families owned slaves, and historians have long relied on these sources to understand “the political, economic and cultural life of the South as a whole.” These Plantation Records (as they are collectively called) give readers an inside view of almost every aspect of plantation life.

In this post I want to highlight the collection known as Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations. In the many years of my own research,  although they are often highlighted in lectures and books on African-American genealogy, I have yet to run across someone who has used them for slave research. This historic effort to compile a selection of plantation records from all over the country in one microfilm publication was undertaken by Kenneth Stampp, one of our foremost slavery historians. Though the original purpose was more scholarly in nature, this microfilm series is a boon to genealogists. Still, you’ll have to locate a major research library in your area to find one that houses this enormous microfilm collection.

The records included in this collection were created in “Series” from A-N, with each letter mostly representing a particular archives or library, for example, Series D covers the Maryland Historical Society while Series E covers the University of Virginia Library. Start your research in these records by utilizing the detailed Series Guides that are available online. A convenient webpage hosted by the University of Virginia Library website includes links to each one:

UVA Website

I’ve downloaded them all, Series A-N, and yes, they are pretty large PDF files. I have scoured each and every one for data not just about my specific family, but also any in the county where they lived. Finding information about what was happening in the county, whether it concerned your family specifically or not, is a great way to add more detail to any narrative about your genealogical research.  Also, most of the guides contain biographies about the particular individual or family that is covered in that set of papers. For the Ruffin Plantation in Marengo County, Alabama (which is covered in Series J, Part 7) a brief biography is included about Thomas Ruffin:

Alabama Records

Ruffin

As another example, there is a “Slave Birth Record, 1801-1861” contained within the Thompson Family Papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The detail in Series J, Part 7 covers the State of Alabama, and it says that this Slave Birth Record covers Russell (now Lee) County, Alabama. Because that is one of my research areas, you can believe I want to see this record:

Slave Births

Author Jean L. Cooper, created a wonderful printed index to this material titled “Index to Records to Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames and Collections,” ( 2nd. ed). The printed index is expensive, but a quick search at Worldcat (add your zip code) will tell you what nearby library has it. Nearest to me is Georgetown University’s Law Library and the Library of Congress.

This book is an invaluable resource because Ms. Cooper created it specifically for family historians and the way that we research. The records themselves in the Series Guides for the collection are primarily listed in each Table of Contents by family surname, for example, “The Robert King Carter Papers.” It is not always obvious what county that family lived in until you go down to the Reel Index sections. Ms. Cooper’s book makes it easier to find records by county. The westward migration of families, as Ms. Cooper explains, also allows connection of papers from the same family, which are dispersed across more than one state and archives.

It goes without saying that most historical societies, archives or research libraries have their own guides to their manuscript collections. The Virginia Historical Society has a voluminous 200+-page guide specifically created for African-American-related manuscripts and the Tennessee State Archives has a similar Guide available. But, the amount of information available in these types of guides varies by institution. So another way to use these Series Guides is as pointers. I can use Series D, and run right up the road to the Maryland Historical Society. Even though they have their own manuscripts guides, it may or may not provide the detail about slaves and slaveowning families that I need.

Certainly, these records are not exhaustive, and the records chosen for compilation are often the larger, more prominent citizens and families—as the Introduction indicates, “mostly from the larger tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice plantations.” However, some smaller estate papers are represented in the collection.

My readers, how many of you have been successful finding information about your ancestors within these records? Please tell us where you viewed your collection and how you were able to find it. If you haven’t used these records yet, I hope this post will encourage you to peruse the Series Guides for information that may be useful.

Addendum: Please read the response to this post below by “4ourtrees.” The author’s success using these records speaks powerfully to the possibilities!

6 Comments

  1. August 8, 2012    

    Very interesting and encouraging! Thanks for sharing!

  2. August 9, 2012    

    I was just sitting here making a mental list of other places to look for slave info and then clicked on your post. This is invaluable! Thanks for sharing and for reminding us to think “out of the box” so to speak. I always learn something when I visit your blog!

  3. zenobiajo's Gravatar zenobiajo
    August 16, 2012    

    As always, a heartfelt thanks to you for your great work and for your willingness to share your extensive knowledge with your fellow researchers.

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      August 21, 2012    

      Thank you so much for your comment! It means alot to me to know my assorted ramblings are helpful to others searching for their lost roots. Stay tuned for more!

      Robyn

  4. November 18, 2013    

    Hello Robyn,

    In 1998, Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, Series A: Part I: The James Henry Hammond Papers, allowed me to recover four generations of my husband’s ancestors who were enslaved on Hammond’s plantations at Silver Bluff, Cathwood, Cowden and Redcliffe in Barnwell and Edgefield Counties in South Carolina.

    Preliminary research led me to believe that Hammond may have been the last slaveowner of my husband’s paternal line of ancestors. Sources listed in two books, The Hammonds of Redcliffe, ed. by Carol Bleser (Oxford Press, 1981) and James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery, by Drew Gilpin Faust (LSU Press, 1982) then led me to Hammond’s manuscript collection archived at the South Caroliniana Library in Columbia, South Carolina.

    Since we reside 1200 miles away from South Carolina I called the library to inquire if the manuscript collection was on microfilm and available for interlibrary loan. The reference librarian told me the collection had been filmed and was included on a microfilm series called Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations, but it was not available via interlibrary loan. That was the first time I had ever heard of the collection. She asked me where I lived and then said, “You are in luck. It is available at the University of Minnesota Wilson Library.” She stated at that time, due to high cost and constrained budgets, fewer than one dozen major universities across the country had purchased the entire series. Fortunately for us, one of them was less than a fifteen minute drive from our home.

    Because of the easy access I had to those microfilmed records, not only was I able to discover and reclaim the names and stories of 21 of our family’s direct ancestors encompassing two paternal lines and four generations, it also enabled me to embark on the remarkable journey of going about the work of recovering the family histories and genealogies of the entire slave community. My research of the Silver Bluff Slave Community of South Carolina began with those records in 1998 and continues to this day. I can say with a great deal of certainty that easy access to those microfilmed records was imperative to the successful recovery of our family’s African Ancestored enslaved history. It would have eventually happened, but it would have entailed extensive travel and come at a much greater cost; the greatest of which is time.

    Ready availability of those plantation records allowed me the freedom to study them at length and in-depth and develop a methodology whereby I reconstructed the enslaved family groups and relationships within the community, determined their pre and post-emancipation surnames and identities, and then used that information to trace them and their descendants forward to the latest census records and, in many cases, to the present day. From the plantation data and post-emancipation resources I created the first comprehensive family group reports of all the individuals enslaved on Hammond’s plantations.

    Through my research of these records I have been able to help “bridge the gap” and share vital information with other researchers across the country who are seeking a possible connection to the Silver Bluff community. In the case of surname changes, the information sometimes proved to be the only link that would have allowed them to clear the 1870 census hurdle and discover their enslaved ancestors.

    We are all painfully aware of the challenges of trying to reconstruct bridges from the present to the past with African Ancestored research. However, the sight lines can sometimes be brought into clearer focus when there are those who are also working on the bridge from the past to the present, as well as the other way around. That is why widespread availability and easy access to slavery records is imperative. When this methodology continues to be applied to known enslavement manuscript collections and joins hands with those employing traditional approaches to African Ancestored family history research, the potential for reclaiming stories and “linking heirs to ancestors” will be dramatic.

    Of course the Internet and the digitization of a wide variety of records has made research much more convenient and accessible than it was in the 1980s and 90s when I first started, but there is still much work left to do. We must continue to provide helpful guidance about the resources that are out there and advocate for even greater access and availability of any record which can help us reclaim our lost stories.

    Alane Roundtree

  5. October 25, 2014    

    Well done my fellow genealogist.

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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.  

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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

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