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).

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.
Freedmen’s Bureau

Note: Freedman’s Bank and Freedmen’s Bureau are two different organizations

The Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, was established in 1865 by Congress to help millions of former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The Freedmen’s Bureau provided a number of services, and collected a number of records including:

  • Hospital and Medical Records – great resource for death records
  • Marriages (only has records for 12 states, does not include Georgia)
  • Census Returns of Colored Population – often recorded former slave owners name
  • Labor contracts for freed slaves – often recorded former slaveholders name
  • Apprenticeship records
    • Note – the phrase “orphan” sometimes means that the parent was unable to support the child rather than the parents were deceased
  • Requests for food, transportation and medical care,
  • Court records
  • School Records – children and adults often attended school after emancipation
  • Home Registers (homeless camps)

Discover Freedmen

  • Note: Only about half of the datasets are indexed, and some of location data is incorrect (if part of the microfilm roll said New Orleans, the entire roll was labeled as New Orleans)
  • Use the Family Search Wiki coverage table for an overview of what areas and dates are govered

Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau

  • Helpful to find nearest field office to a family’ location
  • Some field offices have pre-Bureau records

NARA microfilm guides can be found here

Signature registers contained a great deal of genealogical information. They are indexed and digitized on Ancestry and Family Search

Useful Websites


Translate »