I’ve been conducting slave research on my family and teaching others how to do it for about 18 years now. There are a few points I tend to mention repeatedly on Reclaiming Kin, but thought it would be a good idea to list some of those ideas for other researchers all in one place. Especially for beginners, there are some things that will benefit you to know as you progress back into the era of slavery.
1. Slave research is extraordinarily complicated. Most people want simple solutions and one-size- fits-all methodologies, but it just doesn’t work that way. It is complex, and requires a commitment that everyone might not have. Yes, there are plenty of examples of researchers finding the slaveowner in what might appear to be a simple fashion, and heaven knows all the genealogy TV shows make it look easy (what wouldn’t be, with a team of paid researchers behind the scenes?). Those “simple” techniques won’t work for many people, and won’t work on all the lines of your family. Don’t be above hiring a trained researcher (trained in slave research) to do this for you don’t have to time or the desire to run uphill.
2. You should have researched all the generations of your family from the present day back to at least 1870 before you even think about researching slavery. I do mean researching all the siblings in each and every generation (not just your direct line) and I do mean having proper source information. I do mean researching in LOTS of different records. That will take a lot of time—years for most people. If you are just beginning, focus on taking the time to do this properly. Why? First, you’ll need the skills you develop during this phase to utilize during your slave research. Secondly, you might just discover the name of the slaveowner if you research deeply and broadly enough before you get back to that time period.
3. You have to read about the history of the area before you start slave research. You. Have. To. You need to know what happened in your research county during the Civil War. Was it an area of large or small slaveowners? Were there many freed blacks or abolitionists there? What was the cash crop? What states did folks migrate from? You might luck up and find a full length book treatment of the subject, or you might find it given a chapter or two in a general history of the county or state. Don’t forget to check thesis and dissertations—it’s a popular topic for local universities. I can’t stress this enough. If you can’t answer something as simple as Which armies came through that area and when? Then you are not ready to research the period of slavery. That information will be critical to your research. Other resources are states that have Blue Books online about their history like this one for Tennessee and cover the topic, or the state archives may have published information like this pamphlet on Slavery in Maryland. You may find a reputable a webpage on the topic like this one for North Carolina. Shown below are three types of books that information might be found in:
4. You must learn more about the institution of slavery. Most of us (myself included) know little when we start other than what we saw on Roots. There has been new research and tremendous strides made in the past several decades by outstanding historians that have increased our understanding about slavery. I am suggesting you read one or two books about slavery in general. Unless you are already an African-American History Studies major, there will be many things you learn about slavery and many myths that will be dispelled. You need to know those things to be successful. Here’s a point by historian Ira Berlin I like to use to convey this message—(I am paraphrasing). Most of us think about cotton, big plantations, the Deep South and religion when we think about slavery, but for most of the period of slavery, those things did not define the slave experience in this country. All of those came about in the last few decades of the roughly 230 years of slavery in the U.S., in the 9th inning so to speak. Another point: the domestic slave trade uprooted more slaves (about one million) than were originally brought into this country by the African Slave Trade (about 500,000). There are many websites with free video lectures and panel sessions on the topic, and I especially enjoyed Ira Berlin’s Slavery in American Life. Finally, the two books below specific to researching slaves will be useful:
I hope this post will help prepare those on their quest to uncover their enslaved ancestors. Although it is complex and difficult work, it is also some of the most rewarding work I have ever done.