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Slave Records

If you determine that your ancestor was a slave, you sometimes might be able to find information about your ancestor through records you find relative to the slave owner.  A very important consideration is that slaves, despite a common misconception, were not always given the same surname as their owner.  Slaves were generally not allowed to have a legal surname.  But among themselves, they would often claim their own surname.  Sometimes they would identify themselves as having the same last name as their owner.  But sometimes they would take the surname of someone else, one that may have been passed down through their family, or one that they just chose on their own.  The names of slaves being transferred to heirs, occasionally with a physical description and even what their assigned duties were (i.e., cook, housekeeper, farm laborer, etc.), are sometimes found in the wills and family bibles of the owners.  You can sometimes find information or even copies of slave bills of sale in deed books and tax records that record the sale of slaves, in plantation records, and sometimes in records of land and livestock sales.  A lot of these records can be found through local courthouses.  Another possible source for finding records related to a slave ancestor could be through church repositories.  Slaves were often members of local white churches, or might have been allowed to worship at black churches.  If you know where your ancestor lived, you can check with churches that existed during that time period in that geographic region (if they’re still there) and potentially find your ancestor in their membership records.

Slave census records were kept on a federal level from 1790 to 1860. However, in these records, only the slaveholder was named.  The actual slaves weren’t named, but instead were counted and numbered, sometimes with their age, gender and color.  The 1870 federal census was the first to name people that were former slaves.  You should start with finding your known ancestors on the 1870 federal census and determining where they lived.  You can then work backward, starting with the 1860 slave census, to find slave owners in that geographic region that held slaves that match the age, gender, and color of your ancestor.  You would then continue your research to find as much information as possible about the identified slaveholder.  Again, look for wills, family bibles, deed books, tax records, etc.  In some cases then, you might find your ancestor’s name listed in these records of the slaveholder and be able to confirm that’s who they were.  You might be able to find from whom and where the slaveholder bought your ancestor and be able to then trace them back to slave census records under the name of that slaveholder in earlier years in that geographic location.  At some point, you might be able to follow your ancestor or ancestors back to when they were first brought into the United States, what port they entered through, the port they came from, even the ship they were on.


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