Tracing Your African-American Genealogy

July 26, 2019  - by 

Researching African American genealogy can be challenging, particularly as you work through records from before the Civil War. The good news is that wonderful resources are becoming more accessible all the time.

Post-1870 Research

If you are tracing African American ancestors in records after 1870, your research path looks like the research path of any United States-based family line. Begin with yourself and your immediate family. Work back using standard records, such as censuses and vital and land records. FamilySearch’s online United States Genealogy guide in the FamilySearch wiki is a good place to start.

The Transitional Period

For many people tracing African American genealogy, the period during and right after the Civil War is key. In 1860, nearly 4 million enslaved individuals lived in the United States, representing just under 13 percent of the population.

an african american family

Here are some records to look for in this important period that can help you understand your ancestors’ lives and possibly help you locate the names of the slave owners so you can push their lines back further:

  • 1870 United States census. This census is the first census to include the names of formerly enslaved individuals. It lists all members of each household, which provides a foundation of knowledge to build on.
  • 1867 voter registration. As part of reentering the United States, Southern states had to meet certain requirements, including registering all African American men over the age of 21 to vote. Some of these records haven’t survived, and some weren’t very thorough. However, with the mandate to include useful information such as the “place of nativity,” they can be of great help if your ancestor was included.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records. These records are probably the most important for tracing African American ancestors in this period. They cover the years 1865–1872, and they are now indexed and searchable at Records from the Freedmen’s Saving and Trust Company, often referred to as the Freedmen’s Bank, date from the years 1865–1874 and are included with the Freedmen’s Bureau records.
  • Records of United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. Over 186,000 African Americans served as part of the United States Colored Troops. Some of the records are available online. You can read more about the collection in the FamilySearch wiki and as well as how to access them.

African American Genealogy Before the Civil War

Tracing enslaved ancestors prior to the Civil War often requires you to explore new types of records. Enslaved people were considered property and so were not included by name in most records before emancipation in 1863.

enslaved persons in front of their homes.

Census records, which theoretically moved from only including heads of the households in 1840 to including every name starting in 1850, did not record the names of slaves. Even the slave schedules kept with the 1850 and 1860 censuses typically only include information on enslaved individuals by sex and age—although there are a few exceptions.

Often a key to finding your ancestors in records before the Civil War is locating the names of those who owned your enslaved ancestors. This discovery can focus your search on specific records of that family, which may also include information about your family. Records from this time that are likely to list information about slaves include the following:

  • Will and probate records of slave owners. Since slaves were considered property, they were often included with other possessions bequeathed to family members and others. Enslaved ancestors may be listed by name in wills and probate records.
  • Deed records. Although we generally think of deed records as relating to land, since enslaved people were unfortunately classified as property, records of buying and selling them can be included in these kinds of records. Slaves were even sometimes used as collateral in loans.
  • Plantation records. Many enslaved individuals worked on plantations. Personal papers from plantation owners often contain information about them—but they can be difficult to locate and sift through. Indexes for some records are available.
  • Other local records. In some areas, names of enslaved individuals were included in other records, such as tax records or vital records. These records varied by time and place.

For more details on finding and using these records, see FamilySearch’s African American Slavery and Bondage wiki page.

For Further Information

If you are ready to jump in but would like a little more guidance, some great resources online can help you. Here are just a few to get you started:

African American Genealogy

a father hugs his young daughter.

Leslie Albrecht Huber

Leslie Albrecht Huber has written for dozens of magazines and journals on genealogy and other topics. She currently does communications consulting and contract work for nonprofit organizations. Leslie received a bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a professional genealogist, helpingothers trace their families, and has spoken on genealogy and history topics to groups across the United States.

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  1. Thanks for the needed information to guide me on where and how to start my research. Is this how links me to ancestral heritage. I just wonder what type of thorough research they do.

  2. This is a nice, quick overview. But what about if your ancestors were free people of color? While many people of African heritage were enslaved, there was a significant population of people with these roots who were already free by the time the Civil War broke out , notably in Southern cities such as New Orleans, but also in the North. How many free people of color existed in the country before the Civil War, and what special records exist for them? These are more challenging questions.

    1. Nicole, My African American family line were Free People of Color. It has been fairly easy to find where they were via the censuses, but I was interested in learning more about how they became free, etc. Court records, probate records, but most importantly the Negro registers have been very helpful. Prior to emancipation, all free people of color had to register with their county. If they moved, they would need to again register and provide “freedom papers”. Sometimes, the person registering would tell how they gained their freedom and list all members of family by name and age. To find out if your ancestors registered, Google “Negro registers” for a specific county and state. Then, follow up with a FamilySearch catalog list and maybe a call to the local library or genealogical society in your targeted area. Best of luck!

  3. Chattel mortgages can also be a good, and often overlooked, source of information.

    Additionally, estate inventories can be as valuable as wills when searching for enslaved people. Where a will may say “I leave my slaves to my three daughters”, an inventory may list the enslaved people by name (and sometimes in family groups) and may even indicate which inheritor ended up owning which enslaved people.

  4. need help in tracing my family on both sides beyond the great grand parents. do not know where they lived or were born. the states in question are Georgia and Virginia.

    1. great great great grand father was ezekial patton in tenn and left there for haynes arkansa where he died 1909 his wife was jane patton

  5. Search for any information regarding two salve women named in 1850 will of Martha Patsy Dickenson (Dickinson) 1. Adaline, slave living with Mr. Mitchell K. Miller Washington City DC about 1850 2. Matilda, possibly living with Julia Ann wife of R.T.P. Allen. Others named as ‘owners’: Araminta & John Nourse, Elizabeth G. Dickinson.