Expert Advice: African American Family History

African American family history has its challenges – but, fortunately, those challenges don’t become big hurdles until before 1870. And even then you may be able to discover more about your African American family line by getting creative with whom and how you research.

Start in the 20th century. Census records contain details including names, ages, occupations, relationships and addresses. Keep working back through time and generations and save family members and the documents you find to your family tree.

In her free webinar, genealogist, Marjorie Sholes, advises, “Talk to the people in your own family who may have known something about the family’s history. Then you verify those stories through research,” says Shoals. Use the same sources that you would for any American family history – city directories, obituaries, marriage records, birth records, etc.

But if the family line you’re following has slave ancestors, expect a census roadblock before 1870 – the first census following emancipation. “Before then, African American slaves were part of someone’s personal property,” says Sholes. “You can often only go back as far as the 1870 census before you have to start researching the slave-owning family.”

To find the slave-owning family, look for clues in 1870. Slaves often stayed in the same area where they were emancipated. White land-owning families living near your ancestor in 1870 may have been slave-owners. Take careful note of white families in the area with the same surname as your slave ancestor – it was common for emancipated slaves to take the surname of their owner, although the practice wasn’t universal.

Piece together a trail with more recent records. If in 1870 your ancestor was living in Mississippi but his birthplace was Maryland, try to determine how that ancestor got look to Mississippi. “And,” says Sholes, “if you find white families with the same birth location living near your ancestor in 1870, explore them as a possibility. Slave owning families took their slaves with them when they moved.” On it’s possible to search censuses without names, using only the residence (“Lived in” option), and birthplace fields to see possible matches. Specify exact on both options for best results.

Follow the potential slave-owning family back to the 1860 census and the 1860 slave schedules at Slaves aren’t listed by name in either document. On slave schedules, you will find age and gender listed for each slave, which you can compare with information you already have about your slave ancestor.

Search property and probate records associated with slave owning families at the county. Sholes notes that you’ll have your best luck if the slave owner died before the end of the Civil War – estate inventories will list slaves by name, age, and family group.

Search for other revealing records. If a slave ancestor was transported across state lines, he or she may be listed on a slave registry. City directories will list slave traders, who would have filed paperwork upon the sale of a slave. Check newspapers, too – they would often list runaway slaves along with their slave owner.

Don’t stop at 1870. If you find your African American ancestor in the 1860 census, he or she may have been a free person of color. Trace your ancestor and family back through census records. When their trail stops, contact the state archives for possible manumission records.

Learn more about Slave Schedules.