The challenge to find the last slaveowner for those researching African-American ancestry can be daunting. We need to trace our lines back as close to emancipation as possible and the 1870 population census becomes a critical document. If you can’t locate your ancestors in 1870, you can use other documents to record their presence in a particular time and place. Voter registration records are a widely untapped source, and although in most cases they are incomplete, they should always be searched.
For my friend Carole Hyman, we traced her ancestor Arden Hyman to the 1880 census in Edgecombe County, NC, but could not find him in 1870. However, searching the 1867 voter registration record for Edgecombe County showed us that our Arden was in fact there:
It also showed another Hyman—Zion Hyman—noted as living in the same district. Finding those names together uncovered an important link to Arden’s enslaved roots. That “Zion” was likely Arden’s father Zion who was named in one of Arden’s marriage records. That connection helped us identify his likely slaveowner:
By the end of 1866, Radical Republicans were in control of Congress and wanted to ensure some civil rights for blacks in the defeated south, but the now- President Andrew Johnson (who came to power after Lincoln’s assassination) wanted to deal with the South more leniently, and firmly believed in white supremacist notions of black people’s inferiority. He also wanted little to no retribution for former Confederates, and this clash set the scenes for what would be very familiar to most of us watching Congress today.
Important bills were constantly vetoed by Johnson (like the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill); but the strength of the numbers of Radical Republicans enabled them to override those vetoes. Finally, the Congress decided to impeach Johnson and just get him out of the picture altogether. The House voted to impeach Johnson, but impeachment lost in the Senate by one vote. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (and later 1875) and 4 Military Reconstruction Acts. This divided the South into 5 Military districts each run by a Union General (see map below-click to enlarge). Notice that Tennessee did not go through Congressional Reconstruction and had rejoined the Union prior to enactment of these laws:
As a condition of re-joining the Union, the Southern States were required to ratify the 14th amendment, conferring citizenship to former slaves, and after 1870, also the 15th amendment. Reconstruction, the name given to the period between the end of the war in 1865 and about 1877 (although the opinion varies) was a volatile time period that I’ve discussed here before.
Take a walk around the web and read about the battles between the Congress and President Johnson. There’s much more to the story that deserves a post of its own.
The brief taste of voting rights for blacks, which beginning in 1870 ushered in the first wave of blacks to serve in the U.S. Congress would not last. Violence and intimidation increased against blacks who dared to vote. The Ku Klux Klan was born. After 1877, Democrats start to take back state legislatures and later re-wrote their constitutions with laws designed to circumvent the 15th amendment, but designed to strip blacks of the right to vote using grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests and other tactics. Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the 1883 cases that overturned the Civil Rights Acts of 1875 all closed the door to black voting and led to the resurgence of white dominance over black lives. By 1900, southern blacks were almost completely wiped out of the electorate.
Some of the voting records created during Reconstruction survive. Here are some of the voting records that I am aware of for the various states (not available for all counties):
Tennessee, 1891 Voter’s List. Available on Ancestry, gives election district, name, sometimes race, and age.
Alabama: 1867 Voter Registration. searchable online at the AL archives. Some of these include length of time in county. (also check Alabama’s 1866 state census)
South Carolina: 1867-68 Voter Registrations available for some counties, Clarendon County is online (also check South Carolina’s 1869 state census and militia enrollment)
Georgia: 1867-69 Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books. Available on Ancestry.
Texas: 1867-1869 Voter Registration Lists. One of the best resources of its kind, these list how long the person has been in that county, in the state and what state they migrated from. Available on Ancestry. Someone posted a PDF of these records for Tyler County.
North Carolina: A book entitled “North Carolina Extant Voter Registrations of 1867,” by Frances Wynne lists records from 17 counties. This book is what led me to the Hyman discovery. Originals should be at the State Archives in Raleigh.
Louisiana: I find references to records available for New Orleans, but no info for other counties in Louisiana.
Mississippi: their records are strangely missing (?).
Virginia: Search by county in the Library of Virginia’s catalog, and search under the heading “Election records.” Some records exist, although many seem to be from the 1880s, 1890s.
Arkansas: The Arkansas Genealogical Society offers a “1867 Voter’s List” on CD for 25 counties.
Related to these records are the Poll Taxes that many southern states created to try to disenfranchise blacks. If they are available, they are also an excellent source to locate your ancestor between censuses. In one of my research counties, Hardin County, Tennessee, the tax collector wrote valuable notes beside each name like “dead,” too old,” or “gone.” These were found in county court minutes.
Some of these counties have voter registers through the 1880s and 1890s—be sure to check those as well. In various state archives, voting records are often “hiding” under Secretary of State Records. Also, check the online Family History Catalog for your state and county. They have a category called “Voting Registers.”
Please post a comment if you can add to the list above or have a story about how a voting record helped your research.
Note: Some of the richest records relating to the violence during Reconstruction, other than those found in Freedmens Bureau records, are the Congressional hearings that took place on the Ku Klux Klan the violence in places like Mississippi. You can read an excerpt here.