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).
- 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.
- Contains a slave record collection, death and marriage records, census schedule, and a surname database.
- Contains a searchable database of more than 100,000 slaves who were brought to Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- 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.
- Focuses on African American Genealogy in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
- 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.
- 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
- Contains ship names, arrival dates, timelines, maps and much more.