It is very difficult to trace slave ancestors. Here are a few tips:

  • Speak with your elderly ancestors. They may be able to tell you family lore, history and legends.
  • Gather information on all family members, not just direct ancestors.
  • If you can’t find your ancestor in the vital records, you may need to look for a separate “colored” register.
  • Old newspapers may sketch out the lives of the formerly enslaved and mention relatives from whom they were separated.
  • If a relative applied for social security benefits, the SS-5 (application) will contain their birth dates and places and parent’s full names. To find their social security number, check the Social Security Death Index (available on family search and ancestry).

Freedmen’s Bureau

Discover Freedmen
  • Recorded marriages for couples emerging from slavery,
  • Processed requests for food, transportation and medical care,
  • Documented abuses against African-Americans,
  • Drew up labor contracts for freed slaves,
  • Provides legal aid to enforce contracts and prosecute crimes.
Freedman’s Bank (different from Freedmen’s Bureau)
  • Signature registers contained a great deal of genealogical information, indexed and digitized on Ancestry and Family Search

Tip for Census

  • It is common to see a person’s race appear different over time. Census takers often guessed a person’s race based on skin tone.
1870 census – first to enumerate former slaves by name
  • If you find your relative, look for nearby white families, particularly those listed as farmers, they may be the slaveholder.
  • Look for the potential slaveholder’s family in the 1860 census.
  • Check if the potential slaveholder’s personal property was significantly higher in 1860 than 1870. This could indicate a loss of “human property.”
  • Look up the head of household in the 1860 Census Slave Schedule. If you find an entry for the possible slaveholder, look for a slave that fits your ancestor’s gender and approximate age.

If a relative was listed in the 1860 or 1850 census by name, they were free at the time the census was taken.

If you find a slaveholder, check:
  • Bills of sale or deeds of gifts,
  • Hiring contracts,
  • Mortgages – a slaveholder could use his slave as collateral for another purchase, and
  • Manumissions – search for these in deed books.


  • Offers historical overlays and geographical data tracking the slave trade.
African American Genealogy Group
African Heritage Project

  • Contains a slave record collection, death and marriage records, census schedule, and a surname database.


Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy
  • Contains a searchable database of more than 100,000 slaves who were brought to Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Allen Public Library – African American Gateway
Black Genealogy Search Group
Black Loyalist Heritage Society
Charles F. Heartman Manuscripts of Slavery Collection
Digital Library on American Slavery
  • Focuses on slave records between 1775 – 1867
  • Database consists of two projects:
  • The Race and Slavery Petition Project – 18th and 19th century legislative actions involving slaves and their owners, and
  • The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisement – these newspaper ads are descriptive and sometimes reveal slave family information.
International African-American Museum Center for Family History
Lowcountry Africana
  • Focuses on African American Genealogy in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
  • Contains more than 35,000 slave voyages, with the names of over 90,000 individuals taken from captured slave ships or from African trading sites.
  • An African American History Searchable Database.
Unknown No Longer
  • Allows you to search or browse for slaves who lived in Virginia.
University of North Carolina Documenting the American South
University of Virginia Slave Narratives
Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database
  • Contains ship names, arrival dates, timelines, maps and much more.
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