Slave Ancestral Research: Unearthing Your Family’s Past Before the 1870 Census

The Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) published this in their newsletter, BCALA News, Summer 2015, Volume 42 Issue 3, pp 41-46. I am reposting it here on my blog with some modifications.

Davis, Hector & Lucy

You have thoroughly researched your African-American roots all the way back to the 1870 U.S. census. You have even read an article, book, or two about the institution of chattel slavery here in America. Now you are wondering what to do? How can you trace your family history back into the slavery era? How do you find and document your enslaved ancestors? Part two of this genealogy series answers these questions.

First and foremost, you must determine if your African-American ancestors were enslaved. Elderly relatives may be able to shed some light. You can also determine if your ancestors were free or enslaved by researching the 1860 U.S. census. If you find your ancestors in the 1860 U.S. census, residing in a slave state, then your ancestors were “Free People of Color” (FPOC).  Only a small percentage of African-American families, especially in the South, were actually free before the Civil War. Historians have estimated that more than 200,000 FPOC were in the South and in the North before the Civil War. However, most people of African descent here in America were enslaved, especially in the South. More than 4,000,000 were enslaved in the South when the Civil War began in 1861.

If you have successfully located your ancestors in the U.S. census records, all the way back to the 1870 U.S. census, then you have successfully reached the point known in the genealogy world as the “1870 Brick Wall.” If your ancestors were enslaved during and before the Civil War, there is only one way to knock down this infamous brick wall. You must find the name of the last slave-owner to research for information about your enslaved ancestors. This is imperative. Slave ancestral research cannot be conducted without knowing the name of the last slave-owner.

During the early years of my genealogical journey that began in 1993, I presumed that the surnames of nearly all African Americans came from the last slave-owner. While researching my family roots, I found that to not be true.  Some took the last slave-owner’s surname, but a lot of them did not.  Many emancipated people not only chose different surnames after slavery, but many people had surnames on farms and plantations that were concealed from most slave-owners.

In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, historian Herbert Gutman quoted the following from the 1865 diary of Eliza Frances Andrews, a slave-owner’s daughter in Georgia, “I notice that the negroes seldom or never take the names of the present owners in adopting their ‘entitles’ as they call their own surnames, but always that of some former master, and they go back as far as possible.” (pg. 256), the genealogy website maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reports that only 15 percent of former slaves retained the last slave-owner’s surname. The statistics vary on this subject. However, the general consensus, based on a number of sources, indicates that the number of people who did not take the last slave-owner’s surname is greater than the number of people who did.

Here are seven other important facts to remember when starting your quest to document your enslaved ancestors:

  • Slavery ended in 1865, in most areas of the South.
  • Husbands and wives were not always enslaved on the same farm or plantation.
  • A number of African Americans and their families were enslaved by the same family for several generations.
  • Many enslaved people had multiple owners.
  • Some African Americans chose surnames not affiliated with any slave-owner.
  • If one of your enslaved ancestors was “mulatto,” and you have no oral history about this ancestor’s parentage, don’t immediately conclude that the slave-owner was the father.
  • Slave-owners acquired slaves through the following sources:
    • Estate sales
    • Public Auction, Slave markets, or independent sellers
    • Sheriff sales
    • Inheritance from family members (fathers, fathers-in-law, uncles, grandfathers, etc.)

With genealogy, especially slave ancestral research, one is often faced with direct evidence vs. indirect evidence. Evidence only arises when the researcher asks a specific question and then considers whether the information found in a particular record answers that question. Direct evidence is information that directly answers a question, such as ‘what year was Prince born,’ without a need for other evidence to explain or interpret it. Conversely, indirect evidence is circumstantial information that requires additional evidence to devise a reliable conclusion. Of course, direct evidence usually carries more weight than indirect evidence. However, with slave ancestral research, many forms of direct evidence that emphatically proves family relationships, birthplaces, and other happenings are often non-existent because enslaved people were merely considered “property” and not human beings. Indeed, a number of researchers have been very fortunate to find pieces of direct evidence, in the form of old family letters, diaries, ledgers, Bibles, etc.

With this background information, here are seven basic steps to begin your slave ancestral research journey.

Step 1 – Talk with your kin again.

To begin the journey of finding and documenting enslaved ancestors, you should talk to elderly family members again. I say “again” because you should have already conversed with family elders during the beginning stages of your genealogy research. Record their memories of past family members, especially the ones who lived during slavery. Inquire if the family’s surname has always been used by the family, or if at one time, the surname was said to have been different. If so, record that surname because it will likely serve as a great clue in your quest to find and document your enslaved ancestors. Record any special stories that were passed down in the family, especially if the events happened during slavery. Verify where the family resided during and after slavery. Chances are good that your ancestors remained close to the farm or plantation where they had been enslaved. Note the names of other family members or kinship with other families with other surnames. Those surnames may also serve as great clues.

Step 2 – Study the Neighborhood.

Once you have found your ancestors in the 1870 U.S. census, study the neighborhood. Look at the white families who lived near your ancestors for suspects. I often advise people to scroll at least the first ten pages before and after your family in that census. As mentioned in the first article, many African Americans on the same 1870 U.S. census pages had likely lived together earlier as a family group on their former enslavers’ farms and plantations. As late as 1870 and further, they continued to depend upon these relationships, even though some people were not blood-related. In 1870, you may often run across other families in the area with the same last names as your ancestors. Some of them may have been blood relatives, and some were not. Elder family members may know which families were blood-related.

More importantly, the goal is to also find any white persons who may have been the last slave-owner. Your examination of the neighborhood for clues is a methodology called cluster genealogy. Becoming familiar with the 1870 neighborhood, i.e., family, friends, and associates, just five years after slavery, often reveals great clues to determining who the last slave-owner may have been. Additionally, increase your knowledge about the area and county where they resided through published sources.

Step 3 – Research the 1850 and 1850 Censuses/Slave Schedules.

Armed with clues gained from conducting cluster genealogy, research the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules for the county where your ancestors were living in 1870, to see if any suspected persons owned slaves. However, there is one problem with slave schedules. Outside of identifying the names of potential slave-owners, many researchers feel that the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules are fundamentally useless. Why? When slave schedules were added to the U.S. federal census in 1850 and 1860, census enumerators were not required to list each enslaved person by name.  The name of the slave-owner was reported, with only a scanty description of each slave – age, sex, and color. Enslaved people, age 100 and over, were supposed to be named in the 1860 slave schedules, but only some of them had their names recorded. Despite this inhumane act of not reporting our enslaved ancestors’ names, the slave schedules can provide a plethora of clues. Compare the age, sex, and color of the slaves to that of your ancestors, but do not draw any conclusions from the slave schedules alone. Also, research the 1850 and 1860 census records to see if there were any white families with the same last names. Some people were omitted in the slave schedules.

Step 4 – Research the Suspected Slave-owner’s Family.

You may have to do as much (or more) research on the suspected last slave-owner and his family in order to find your enslaved ancestors. Note the following key facts about the suspected slave-owning family.

Pay attention to migration patterns. Note the birthplaces of the possible slave-owners to see if they match the birthplaces of your ancestors.

Gather the following information on the slave-owner.

  1. Year and place of death
  2. Maiden name of wife
  3. Birthplace
  4. Children’s names and the names of sons-in-law
  5. Parents’ names and their dates and places of death.

Scour the Internet for others who are researching the same family, i.e. genealogy message boards and family trees on

Read county history books to see if there are any written histories on the slave-owning families.

If a possible female slave-owner was found in the censuses and slave schedules, she was likely a widow and her husband may have been the previous slave-owner. Research to determine the name of her deceased husband and his date and place of death.

Check the historical society in the county where your ancestors were enslaved or the State Archives to see if any plantation records may exist for that suspected slave-holding family.

Step 5 – Research County Court Records.

Enslaved African Americans were considered “property,” like horses, cattle, furniture, etc. Many of the enslaved were recorded in court records by their first names for any transactions that affected their ownership.  Wills, probate and estate records are the most valuable resources in tracing enslaved ancestors. They often contain the names of enslaved people frequently listed in the wills and estate inventories. Once you have found the name of a suspected slave-owner, check to see if he left a will. Also, search for his probate and estate records.  When a person died leaving a will, he died testate; his estate was distributed according to his will. These distributions were recorded in the estate records. When a person died without leaving a will, he died intestate. However, his property was distributed according to the inheritance laws of the State. A court-appointed administrator was responsible for taking a complete inventory of the estate. If the person died testate or intestate before 1865, and he was the owner of slaves, his court records should include the names of his slaves, as well their ages and/or value.

Other rich resources in county court records include the following:

  1. Probate/Estate Records, Slave Inventories and Appraisements — when slave-owners died, their estates had to be settled. Slaves were often named in inventories and appraisements of the estate.
  2. Deed Records — Bills of sale, deeds of gifts, and deeds of trust show the transference of slaves.
  3. Civil Court Cases — Research these records to see if the slave-owner was involved in any lawsuits that may have involved the slaves.
  4. Tax Records – some counties’ tax records may list slaves and their monetary value.

These records can be found at the courthouse in the county where the person died. Most state archive departments have these records on microfilm. Also, microfilms containing wills and estate records can be ordered through your local or nearest Family History Center. Many county court records may also be found online, on sites like,,,, and others. Specifically, and are continuously digitizing more of these records and adding them to their online accessible databases.

Step 6 – Research Other Sources to Determine or Verify the Last Slave-owner.

  1. Civil War Pension Records – see
  2. Freedman’s Bank Applications – see or
  3. Freedmen’s Bureau Records – see
  4. Southern Claims Commission Records – see or
  5. Slave Narratives
  6. Church Records
  7. Inquire about unique records for your state at your State Archives.
  8. Donated family papers – check your local archives, your state archives, and your local historical society.

Step 7 – Read slave ancestral research case studies and genealogy blogs, books, articles, etc.

Although I have placed this as the last step, it can actually be one of the first steps. Slave ancestral research is not an exact science or does not entail a straightforward methodology, even though I list seven methodical steps in this article. Many people have found and documented their enslaved ancestors in a number of ways, utilizing a lot of records. You can garner much insight by reading cases on how enslaved ancestors were found. My two books, Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery and 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended, offer two extensive case studies on how my families were traced back well into the slavery-era. One of the purposes for writing these books was to provide readers with solid examples of slave ancestral research. Genealogist Robyn Smith’s new book, The Best of Reclaiming Kin: A Genealogy Blog, offer great cases as well.

Additionally, several instructional books are available that outline methodologies for slave ancestral research. Those books include the following:

  1. Finding a Place Called Home by Dee Palmer Woodtor
  2. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors by Franklin Smith and Emily Croom

Slave ancestral research is not easy. It requires time, money, patience, and knowing what resources are available. Understanding how others tackled their genealogical puzzles can provide researchers with “road maps” to their own enslaved ancestors, who are waiting to be found. Last but not least, never give up. If you become too easily frustrated and give up, your ancestors will remain buried.

4 thoughts on “Slave Ancestral Research: Unearthing Your Family’s Past Before the 1870 Census

  1. Ms H

    Thank you for this helpful post! I have hit the 1870 wall and started to slowly wade into the records of the possible enslavers. You have given some ideas that I haven’t done yet. Mainly I’ve looked at the slave schedules. Which is enough to make one’s blood boil. They couldn’t bother themselves to put down even a first name?!! How disgusting. The indignation and anger sometimes comes up and makes me feel pessimistic about relying on the records of the enslavers, in addition to angry that this is my only remaining option. I’d probably get further in my research if I could better manage these feelings. Any tips?

    Liked by 1 person

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