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. Some of the index guides can be found by simply googling the term.[Update, 2/18: the webpage below appears to be gone now. Major libraries should eb able to provide access to the guides through Lexis Nexis].
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:
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:
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!