I was positively encouraged that so many of you read my last blog post, and shared your feelings about being the descendants of slaveholders. That post had over 7,000 views! At a time when so much ugliness is on display daily in our country, it heartens me that there are many, many others who are indeed enlightened, learning, and actively trying to combat and challenge outdated and false notions about race, history and identity. I thank you for that.
It was important to me to follow-up with the objective of providing more helpful information. Many of you expressed the desire to share the information you’ve discovered about your family’s enslaved people and to understand more about their lives. I’ll expand upon those two topics in this post, and I’m going to include a ton of hotlinks for further exploration.
Here’s another idea for sharing: since so many researchers eventually find their way to Ancestry.com, how about adding any images of inventories/wills/deeds or other documents that mention slaves into the image galleries of the slaveholder in your Ancestry tree? Transcriptions are nice, but the original images are even better (with the source citations). Can you imagine the resource that Ancestry.com could become for those researching enslaved people if everyone started to do that? Powerful. Think about it.
I have written previously about how African-Americans can track slaveholders in family tree software (I use Rootsmagic) and it dawned on me to also recommend it to slaveholder descendants. You can create a fact, for example called “Enslaved People” and that information can now be tracked and printed in your reports. You can add notes from the 1870/1880 census or other documents, if you find African-Americans that may be potential matches.
Next, I want to provide an overview of some general concepts of slave research that you may find helpful.
Descendants of enslaved people must find the identity of the last slaveholder or we can’t get past 1870, period. That is the sine qua non of slave research. 1870 is the first year every African-American is enumerated in the U.S. Census. They are only included before 1870 only if they were freed before 1865, which almost 1/2 million were. I should also note here that it was not uncommon for enslaved people to be married to free blacks, especially in areas like the Upper South where free blacks were more numerous.
Sometimes the name of the last slaveholder is passed down in African-American families through oral history. Notice I say “last slaveholder.” There was the “last slaveholder” (or some say “most recent”–meaning the one before emancipation) and there were “previous slaveholders.” Many enslaved people were owned by numerous people over their lifetimes. Know also that enslaved people often formed families with others on nearby plantations; you’ll see these called “adjoining” or “joining” plantations in records. In fact, enslaved people lived within their own communities, created with slaves from from other “joining” plantations. While your ancestor may have owned the wife and children, the husband may be a slave owned by a neighbor. Enslaved people can be found in the 1870 census finally living together as a family unit. Indeed, one of the very first things freedpeople did was try to find their children, spouses and parents who had been sold away. These documents are heartbreaking. This Civil War pension testimony of Bettie Bradley, of Memphis, TN, illustrates some of the above concepts:
“..I had a husband in slave time in South Carolina. I belonged to Mr. Lewis M. Ayre near Sumpterville, SC and Elias Phoenix a neighbor’s servant was my husband according to slave custiom. We had been married only about a year when I was sold to a n***** trader and brought to West Tennessee and bought by Mr Thomas Kilpatrick, now dead of Tipton County, Tenn. I was then given by him to his daughter Mrs. Cornelia Nelson and went to live with her at Bartlett Station, this county.”
The majority of enslaved people had nothing except a vague idea of how old they were. We see this in the many telltale rounded ages of former slaves in 1870 and 1880 in the census, often rounded to the nearest 5 or 10. Combined with no legal marriages, proving their claims in Civil War claims was often a difficult task. Frederick Douglass discussed this in his famous narrative:
“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.”
As personal property, enslaved people were named in many records genealogists use. However, there is really nothing technically called a “slave record.” Information about them is mostly found in estate records, but they were documented in church records, tax records, court records, deed records and many other kinds of records. Some have been fortunate to find the records of (usually) larger slaveholders that list slave births and deaths and I simply loved Mariann Regan’s sharing of the journal that documented enslaved people owned by her family. There are also many states and counties that have unique records with regard to slaves, for example, Virginia’s slave birth register and the slave statistics available in some Maryland counties, which tie former slaves to their owners and include their surnames. Many of the New England states that gradually abolished slavery had to have records of the births of enslaved people. The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer database contains a nice visual showing the varied types of documents that mentioned enslaved people.
The problem with all of this is that you have to know the name of the slaveholder FIRST before you can use the records. How do African-American researchers work backwards—tracing their families back through the census to 1870, and then finding that person’s last owner? That is the challenge.
The single most important document for researchers of enslaved people is the estate inventory. But that’s if—and only if—the slaveholder died before 1865. If the slaveholder
lived through the Civil War, the inventory won’t help because slaves were no longer property. In that case, often researching the suspected slaveholder’s parents estate papers –and importantly his wife’s parents—may yield the required connecting documents. Men very often came into slave property through their marriages, like George Washington did. I am discussing inventories mainly because while wills often name slaves, they don’t often name all slaves a person owned. Like in all of genealogical research, in many cases direct evidence will not be found, and researchers will have a build a case for slaveownership, which of course is entirely possible.
Even when you find the identity of the slaveholder, another major hurdle awaits. Slaveholder practice was to use given names only in documents about enslaved property, even though many knew the surnames of their slaves. Most estate inventories of slaveholders will provide a list (usually by age or sex) of slave names with dollar values attached to each name. Luckier researchers will find ages attached to those names, very helpful information. A much smaller group of only the luckiest researchers will find family groupings of those enslaved individuals. I found an inventory once with surnames attached to the given names which was just downright astonishing. But even inventories that list family groupings almost never include the name of the father-it is often only a woman and her children.
The lack of indication of family structures is one of the hardest things to deal with as an African-American researcher. One of the cultural clues researchers often use is the practice enslaved people had of naming their children after their parents or siblings. It is believed this came about as a way to remember loved ones inside the reality of a life of constant sales. Many researchers, myself included, have found this practice to be in important factor in reconstructing enslaved families. Also, this is a point where the actual will, if it exists, can be helpful. As enslaved people were bequeathed to others, their relationships were sometimes given.
Here are some ways that African-American researchers find the name of the last slaveholder:
- The records of Civil War soldiers. As these men and their families applied for pensions, many of whom were runaways, they often mentioned their owners. Sometimes, former owners are named in the Civil War service records. Border states (Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri) have unique records related to the Civil War service of enslaved people. These states paid loyal owners for slaves that signed up to fight and many of those compensation records exist.
- The 1870 census. Many enslaved people are living in the household of their former owners or in close proximity to them. Using this as a clue, the researcher can then research that family for verification.
- Same-surnamed whites living nearby that have large property holdings in 1870. Those people were most often slaveholders before the War. It’s no wonder that in many locales of the South, you find whites and blacks with the same surname. My Holt ancestor was owned by Giles Holt. My ancestor Sophronia Sugg was owned by Thomas Sugg. Keep in mind, that this does not hold true for all enslaved people. Some created new names and some had the surnames of previous owners. Most used the surname of one of their parents.
- Researching whites living nearby in 1870 who do not share the same surname, but have large landholdings.
- Some former slaves bought land from former owners post-emancipation, so researching grantees can sometimes lead to the slaveholder.
- Southern Claims Commission records included many enslave dpeople serving as witnesses for their master’s claim.
- Some Freedman’s Bank cards included the name of a former owner
- Freedmen’s Bureau Records (recently indexed) often included labor contracts between enslaved people and their former owners in the years right after the war. The link is tricky to find, so I’m providing it here. There are also other Freedmen’s Bureau records that can uncover links between slaves and their former owners.
For those looking for background reading, I recommend the book Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity by Dee Parmer Woodtor. This is an excellent book with a nice balance of African-American history and genealogy. See if your local library has it. NGS Quarterly and other genealogy journals have published many case studies involving enslaved people, which I recommend studying to learn more about methodology and sources. Slavery Historian Ira Berlin (University of Maryland) does a fantastic job of tying together this history in his talk, Slavery In American Life (can be viewed free at this link). The work he and his team have done at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project have taught me so much.
I have done numerous posts on slave and slaveowner research, and you can use the drop down box in the right column of this blog (where it says “What I Talk About”) and select those subjects to see the associated post. Some that I would recommend to add to this general overview are:
What you Didn’t Know About Slavery
How Were Slaves Sold?
The Terror of Reconstruction
A Slave’s Letter too His Former Master
Slave Research: Four Things You Need to Know
Mind of the Slaveowner
My friend and fellow genealogist Melvin has also done numerous posts on his research on enslaved ancestors and I highly recommend his blog Roots Revealed. I also recommend my friend and genealogist Renate’s blog Into the Light and her explorations of her enslaved ancestors and free black ancestors. Melvin’s background is in primarily Mississippi and Renate’s specialty is North Carolina. I find very helpful to have a network of people who are experienced in specific states who I can turn to for advice about sources and state laws. I am experienced in researching in Maryland and Tennessee.
Some of you may have noticed that I tend to go to great lengths to try to use the phrase “enslaved people” as opposed to “slaves.” The battle between use of these terms continues in academic circles, but this shows you where I fall in that debate. Slavery was a condition imposed on human beings, and using that terminology makes that concept clear. Words have power. But in the end it’s personal preference and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone’s use of the word.
Let me end this lengthy post by also stating that researching the enslaved people of your family could also reveal information about your own family. If you think about it, I believe enslaved people surely count as within the famous FAN club or cluster of people. They lived in close daily proximity to your family and both groups knew a lot about each other. Though the vast majority of former slaves were illiterate, I have come across much interesting information about the slaveholding family while researching their slaves. Look at Cupid Hamilton’s testimony in his Southern Claims Commission application:
“My master Mr. William Heyward gave me two horses and a wagon to make a living for myself and family as he could not afford us any longer. He said I could keep them my lifetime as he did not intend to carry on planting any longer. He is dead now. He died in Charleston of yellow fever in 1872. His grandson Mr. William Hankel was not present when he gave me the horses and the wagon, but he lives on the plantation now and I believe knows all about it”
I’m guessing that death date and place might be pretty valuable information for the family of slaveholder William Heyward;)
Thanks again for taking to the time to read this blog post (short novel?) and please continue to send me any specific questions you may have about your research and let me know your thoughts.