Researching Slavery

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African American Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of African American Research
Compiled Sources in African American Research
Census Records in African American Research
Military Records in African American Research
Freedman's Savings and Trust Company
Freedman's Bureau
Researching Free Blacks
Researching Slavery
List of Useful Resources for African American Research
Topics

This article originally appeared in "African American Research" by Tony Burroughs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Contents

The Transition from Slavery to Freedom

At the eve of the Civil War, the vast majority of African Americans were, of course, enslaved. As such, they had no legal rights and could not even claim a legally recognized state of matrimony. Enslaved Africans were considered property. As distasteful as we find it today, this unfortunate fact is the all-encompassing reality that directs the researching of slave genealogy. For this reason, the focus of antebellum research must be on the slave owner, after he (or she) is identified.

Although records generated about blacks after emancipation can be found, genealogically useful records that were contemporary to slavery are usually concerned primarily with the owners of slaves. But learning about the migrations, births, deaths, and marital alliances of the slave-owning family is often the key to achieving success in tracing the lives of their slaves.

Identifying the Last Slave Owner

A common supposition is that emancipated slaves assumed the surnames of their last owners. Were this always true, this critical stage of slave genealogy would be far easier than it is. However, the truth is more complex, which makes research more problematic. Although there are instances when the common assumption holds true, there is ample evidence for slaves maintaining their own surname traditions, regardless of who their owners might have been.42

Following emancipation, a slave did not necessarily assume a surname belonging to someone else. Instead, the slave may have used a name legally for the first time which had been in his or her family for several generations. A surname different than that of his last owner could, for example, be that of the owner of a grandparent, so such a name might be a valuable clue for future research.

It is also possible that there were regional naming patterns. For example, a study of a West Virginia county found no instances of ex-slaves with the surnames of their final owners, while studies of Texas and South Carolina freed people indicate approximately a quarter to one third had the surnames of their last owners.25

The complex nature of the “surname problem” must be kept in mind as the sources for African American genealogy are considered. If a researcher, without good evidence, assumes the name is the same as the former slave, time might be wasted in the pursuit of the wrong family. The best available evidence is when the former slave reveals the name of his former owner.43

There are many sources for identifying the name of the former slave owner. The early Signature Registers of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company sometimes provide evidence of the often confusing and unpredictable reality behind the surnames of ex-slaves. For example, one record from the Vicksburg, Mississippi, branch names the parents of one Jesse Taylor as Robert and Nancy Page. A brother is listed as Simpson Roberts.44

Other sources that reveal the name of the last slave owner include records from the Freedmen’s Bureau; Compiled Military Service Records and General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934 (see figure 14-8, General Affidavit of John Viel/Veal); and ex-slave narratives (see Burroughs’s “Records Specific to African Americans” in African American Genealogical Sourcebook and Rawick’s The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography).45

Slave owner names may also appear in the records of the Southern Claims Commission. This inquiry board was established by an act of Congress in 1871 to review and make recommendations regarding the claims of Southerners who had remained loyal to the Northern cause and had supplied Union troops with provisions without compensation (see chapter 7, “Court Records”). African Americans (former slaves and free blacks) were among those who either submitted claims or were witnesses who testified on behalf of claimants. The information within these records may link a slave and an owner.46

Researching Slavery

To research slave genealogy, it is critical that a researcher understand the history of slavery and of the times and region in which an ancestor lived. To that end, read a general history, such as John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans.47 Follow this with a study of a work that centers on the time period and region you are researching, for example, Alan D. Watson African Americans in Early North Carolina: A Documentary History.48 A sampling of titles appears under Historical Sources in the reference section.

One key historical concept is change. The institution of slavery differed by time period, as situations and conditions were constantly changing (see Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone).49 Slavery also differed regionally and variations were in part determined by the type of agriculture. Tobacco farms were dominant in Kentucky, Maryland, and Virginia, while sugar ruled in Louisiana. In Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, cotton was king. Cotton also reigned in up-country Georgia and South Carolina while in low-country Georgia and South Carolina, the main crop was rice.

The size of individual farms or plantations often determined the cultivation methods for these different types of crops. Many researchers assume all slaves lived on plantations. But in 1860 only 53 percent of slaves lived on plantations. The remainder lived on small family farms, where a farmer only owned five to ten slaves, or less. He and his family often worked in fields alongside his slaves. Other farmers were too poor to own slaves and hired (rented) them during planting or harvest season. Other slaves acquired skills such as carpentry, shoe making, and blacksmithing and were often hired out to work for others, or on their own. Professionals and tradesmen, such as doctors, lawyers, and blacksmiths, often hired one or two slaves as helpers or servants. Their income was given to their owner and hired slaves were sometimes able to keep a portion of the income they generated. Hired-out slaves lived lives similar to free blacks.

One way of determining if a slave lived on a plantation, or with a small family farmer or professional, is to locate the slave owner on the census slave schedule. The schedule indicates how many slaves were residing on the owner’s property. If the number of slaves owned was greater than twenty-five, it was more likely a plantation.

Plantation Records

Plantations were large commercial operations. They employed twenty-five or more slaves, with the number on some climbing into the hundreds. Plantation managers organized the labor using either the task system or the gang system. The task system assigned a quota of work for the day or week to individual slaves. After the quota was reached, the person was free to work for himself or pursue leisure activities. In the gang system, slaves were divided into groups, where everyone worked on the same job with a supervisor, called a “driver,” who was often another slave. The drivers were supervised by an “overseer.”

Rice tended to be produced by the task system whereas tobacco was usually cultivated with the gang system. In early years, the gang system was used for cotton and sugar but in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some planters switched to task system.

The personal papers of a planter will likely contain information on slaves, particularly in cases where the majority of records have survived. Such papers may be in the possession of the family or may have been deposited with a local or state historical society, archives, university, or research library.

As a genre of personal records, so-called “plantation records” are often voluminous and unpredictable. Those parts having genealogical value will make up only a small portion of the whole and may be difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, we can gain some sense of the possibilities of these records for slave genealogy if we consider their context.

Plantation records are business records that were usually kept with personal and family papers since the plantation was essentially a family business. This complex and often extensive enterprise could become even more complicated and far-ranging with new holdings being added from dowries and inheritances. Accounts were kept for any number of reasons, whether it was to monitor the price of cotton or to track the yield of a given acreage. Both were considered in the context of the weather conditions from day to day and week to week. Loans and mortgages were a frequent concern as were the affairs of tenants.

Intertwined with these matters was the presence of slave labor on the plantation. Records of slaves may exist in several contexts. Careful records were kept of the distribution of clothes, blankets, or simply lengths of cloth to the slaves; these items were often issued on a regular basis. Field hands were issued tools and implements and presumably held accountable for them.

A plantation owner’s “day book” may contain a variety of entries recording observations on the weather, livestock, and crops. It might also note the daily tasks undertaken on the plantation and identify which slaves were dispatched to fix a fence or deepen an irrigation channel. As property, slaves could also be mortgaged or rented; sometimes they were insured, and the owner was normally taxed for each slave he owned, based on their capacity to work. Careful records obviously had to be kept regarding such matters.50

A child born of a slave mother became the property of the mother’s owner, so it was in the owner’s best interest to maintain a record of that birth in the absence of an official vital record. In most cases the slave owner’s records may be the only place where slave birth records will be found. Deaths may also be recorded, and could be important to reduce tax liability. Many plantation owners maintained records outlining slave family groups, although, in some instances, one may find only a mother listed with her children. In such cases the identification of a slave father on a large plantation may be difficult. Sometimes the father lived on a neighboring farm.

These manuscript collections may also contain diaries and letters. While the chance that important information concerning slaves would be contained in such items is admittedly slim, it is not impossible. In letters and diaries, often written in faded and difficult-to-read handwriting, the mention of slaves by name may occur infrequently, if at all. And if they are mentioned, their mention will not stand out in any appreciable fashion from the rest of the letter or diary. The whole letter or diary must be read with only a limited expectation of finding any information of genealogical value.

The researcher should also bear in mind that a collection of papers will not necessarily be limited to one person, one generation, or even to a family of the same surname. As the plantation, or parts of it, were sold or transferred or willed to relations and in-laws, the records could also be transferred with the property. Thus, accumulations of plantation records could have a wide familial and geographical scope.

Finding and examining plantation records can be a challenge. Some planters’ records have been microfilmed as part of the extensive microfilm series, Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War (edited by Kenneth Stampp).51 This set of 1,500 reels of microfilm is available at many research libraries.

Before 2003 these records were not easy to research, although they are accompanied by very thorough descriptions and reel guides for each series. The reel guides reveal the likelihood of there being any records of interest, as well as their exact location in the microfilm. However, the collection contains no comprehensive list of planters to easily search for a name. The names are listed in the reel guides to each series, but there are fourteen series. The best way to quickly and easily find a planter’s name is use a privately published index, such as A Genealogical Index to the Guides of the Microfilm Edition of Records of Ante‑Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War by Jean L. Cooper.52

A Genealogical Index to . . . Records of Ante‑Bellum Southern Plantations is a comprehensive index to names of all planters in the collection, across the fourteen series. But even more useful, it indexes information six different ways—alphabetically by surname; surname within each state; by city or county; by state; by name of plantation; and name of plantation within each state.

The six indexes make this an outstanding guide. A listing of plantations by state is extremely hard to come by, let alone one that covers the entire country. Now if you have the name of a plantation, you can determine the owner and location as well. Of course, not all plantation records are microfilmed, but possibly 90 percent have been microfilmed in this Stampp collection.

A Genealogical Index to . . . Records of Ante‑Bellum Southern Plantations is very thorough and of high quality. It is an extremely useful guide for doing historical and genealogical research, and is indispensable for doing slave genealogy.

If a planter’s records were not microfilmed but have been deposited in a library or historical society (and many have been), there is a good chance that they are listed in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). The NUCMC is a serial reference work that first appeared in 1959 and is published by the Library of Congress. The NUCMC contains descriptions of manuscript collections held by hundreds of libraries throughout the country. It became more user friendly with the publication of Index to Personal Names, 1959–1984.53 Some of the NUCMC is available online at the Library of Congress website.

The researcher of slave genealogy who has focused on a particular slaveholding family should consult the NUCMC to see if there are any listings for the papers of members of that family. Such a listing will indicate the repository at which they are held. (See also chapter 3, “General References and Guides.”)

Property and Other Records

As stated previously, not all slaves resided on plantations. A single family group or one or two non-related individuals might be found working smaller farms or businesses. In these situations, check local and county records, such as church, newspapers, land and property, court, and vital records, under the name of the slave owner. This process should also be used if the owner is in possession of a large plantation.

Probate Records

As valued assets in an estate, slaves were sometimes mentioned by name when bequeathed to a family member, purchased from someone else, or sold to liquidate the estate. David C. Moore of Duplin County, North Carolina, died in late 1863 or early 1864, leaving to his son Thomas “one half of that portion of my negroes known as Megee Negroes including Martha & her three children excepting those that I purchased from Thomas H. Megee namely Aaron, Mary & three children.”54

Note that slaves were specifically identified only insofar as the identification served the purposes of the testator. Therefore, slaves may be identified in a will by name and by family—or else grouped anonymously (such as “I will all my slaves to my spouse”).

It is sometimes possible to trace a particular slave through two or more wills. The will of Thomas Byrd of Somerset County, Maryland, was probated on 16 March 1757, leaving “a negro girl called Nice” to his daughter Mary Byrd, later wife of Paul Dulany, whose will was probated on 6 March 1773, leaving “one negro woman named Nice” to his son Henry.55 Interestingly, the reference to Nice in the two wills also provides evidence for relationship between the slave owners.

The location of wills in the slave states has been considerably aided by the indexing of some wills on a statewide basis. Many such indexes have been published.56 The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed early extant wills for many of the counties in the Southern slave states, while at least one state, North Carolina, has instituted its own microfilming program. Thus, the consultation of these important documents will not necessarily be confined to viewing the originals in a county courthouse, although the researcher should do so whenever possible.

Abstracts or transcriptions of county wills are increasingly finding their way into print. In many of the more recent publications in this genre, references to slaves are retained and special slave indexes are included. However, the researcher of slave genealogy should approach such published will abstracts carefully. If the compiler of such a book has omitted slave data, that fact should be readily apparent after a few minutes of examination. The researcher should then attempt to access microfilm of the records or else plan a genealogical research trip to view the originals.

Unfortunately slave names are not always provided in a will. Their names tend to be listed when there is a small number of slaves in an estate, or the named person was a favored house slave in a large estate. Fortunately the will is only one document in the probate process. Names are more often listed in inventories and appraisals of large estates. Bills of sale may also be found among probate documents if, for example, slaves had to be sold in order to pay an estate’s debts.

Deeds and Other Local Records

As with any genealogical research, the quest for African American ancestry requires researchers to become familiar with the records and record-keeping practices of the state and county where their ancestors lived. References to slaves exist in a variety of local record groups. County deed books may contain, in addition to real estate transactions, documentation of slave sales. For example, in Deed Book F-6 of Warren County, Kentucky, one finds certification of a bill of sale, dated 15 July 1813, of $1,500 from Upshaw R. Massey to Jesse Kerby for four slaves: a man named Moses, a woman named Milly, and two boys named Aaron and Robert. Massey and his wife are to “reserve use of said slaves until their own deaths.”57

But caution should be exercised in interpreting some deed records, particularly deeds in, or of, trust. If a slave is named in a deed of trust, it does not necessarily mean that there was a change in ownership; the slave was probably used as collateral. If the debt for which the slave acted as collateral was eventually discharged, then the slave would remain the property of the original owner.

Court records in the antebellum slave states could document any number of situations involving slaves and their owners, some mundane, others revealing, even tragic. The circuit court records of Estill County, Kentucky, contain the following examples: the record of an inquisition on the body of Stephen, a slave who had died as a result of mistreatment described in great detail by his owner, William P. Noland; a suit by the same William Noland in 1837 against one Joseph Cox over the purchase of “a negro boy named Henry” for $200, in which Noland asserts that the slave had rheumatism and was subject to fits; and testimony in 1846 of a married white woman giving birth to a child fathered by a slave named Mark.58

Tax records can also contain references to slaves. In the 1787 “census” of Virginia (actually tax records viewed by genealogists as a “replacement” for the lost 1790 census of that state), slaves are identified by name together with their owners in Mecklenburg and Surry counties.59 The books of tithables for Norfolk County, Virginia, provide other examples, naming slaves with owners for much of the eighteenth century.60 Documentation for the buying and selling of slaves can be found in a variety of official sources on the local level. Such evidence is also found in private papers. A pilot project attempting to bring together this information from an array of sources was the Slave Bills of Sale Project of the African-American Family History Association in Atlanta, Georgia. This project transcribed, indexed, and published two volumes of slave bills of sale.61 The genealogical community can hope that similar efforts will be undertaken throughout the South.

Other Records of Slave Births and Deaths

During the antebellum period, keeping vital records had not yet been mandated by many state governments. For that simple reason, official vital records do not exist for slaves, or for anyone else, in many of the states prior to the Civil War. Yet, as always, there are exceptions. For example, Kentucky enacted legislation in 1852 (repealed in 1862) requiring birth and death registrations in all counties. The birth records were to include children born to slave mothers, indicating date and place of birth, sex, and name of owner. A year later similar legislation was passed in Virginia. It has been noted that slave owners may have been more intent on registering slave births than the births of their own children, a motivation likely arising from the need to protect their property by an act of official registration.62

Similar motivations may have spurred the baptism of slaves by their owners. Such baptism records are often just as detailed as those for whites. The majority of such records, at least those which are extant, appear to be from Anglican/Episcopalian churches. Unfortunately, many of these registers have probably been lost, especially those of Virginia.63 The situation is much better in South Carolina, where the records of a number of Low Country churches survive, many extending well back into the colonial era. These contain extensive slave baptismal records, some including the names of both slave parents as well as owners. The South Carolina Historical Society has microfilmed many of these records and made them available on microfiche.

It has already been noted that the personal papers of slave owners can contain records of slave births and deaths. Consider the possibility of slave births and deaths being noted in the slave owner’s Bible, together with those of his own family. To be sure, this was not a typical practice; however, when it did occur it likely reflected a small slaveholding of perhaps one or two slave families who had been in the possession of their owners for several decades.64

Runaway Slaves

Slaves sometimes attempted to escape from their owners. Some succeeded; most did not. Runaway slave advertisements, which usually contain physical descriptions and, occasionally, biographical information, can be of interest to the genealogist. However, the identity of an ancestor’s owner would have to be known for such an advertisement to be useful. Many advertisements have been transcribed and published, most notably in Lathan A. Windley’s Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730s to 1790, which covers the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia.65 Robert K. Headley’s Genealogical Abstracts from the 18th Century Virginia Newspapers, also contains runaway advertisements.66

Advertisements from eighteenth-century Pennsylvania are found in Gary T. Hawbaker’s Runaways, Rascals, and Rogues: Missing Spouses, Servants and Slaves. Abstracts from Lancaster County Pennsylvania Newspapers, and in Billy G. Smith’s and Richard Wojtowicz’s Blacks Who Stole Themselves: Advertisements for Runaways in the Pennsylvania Gazette 1728–1790.67 Also of interest is Helen Cox Tregillis’s River Roads to Freedom: Fugitive Slave Notices and Sheriff Notices Found in Illinois Sources.68

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