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 FamilySearch.org. 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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Comments

  1. My relative was called Thomas Tully and won his freedom. He became a bare knuckle boxer even appeared on the bill at madison square garden then moved to the uk. I would like to know if there any way to go back further. As I’ve found out most slaves were given there owners surname.

  2. Thank you, very good advice. Great article. I too struggle to find info on my grandpa Columbus Grier. Especially info of his childhood, who his parents were. 1850 and back is my brick wall. I will use some of your advice to dig deeper.

  3. I am helping produce a 2021 Venice, California Community Calendar. It is a nonprofit gift to the residents. The theme for 2021is BLACK CONTRIBUTIONS IN VENICE. IRWIN (Irving) TABOR was an essential part of our early history,
    Irving was born in Morgan City, Louisiana in 1893. He passed in Venice on January 9, 1987. His cousin, who first
    came to Venice, CA was Arthur Reese. We are trying to trace the African origins of Mr. Tabor. We did find, from family,
    that Mr. Reese was originally from Ethiopia. Any help is appreciated!

  4. Hello,
    My name is Melissa Seymore
    I went to the website slavevoyages.org. I don’t have or know our family enslaved names
    Our father family name is Seymore on the father side his father was jimmy seymore that’s as far as I can go. On his mother side last name is Turner my grandmother’s name Everlena Turner, her mother’s name was Beulah Turner my great grandmother born November 11, 1866.
    My mother’s Family name is Kelley her Madian name was Elizabeth Kelley
    Can you help me in understanding where I start with the search
    I was only able to trace our heritage on daddy side to France under The Saint Seymore’s
    My mother side of the family Kelley’s My great grandparents are from Jamica/France

    On my mother’s side I’m still trying to figure out. How did my great grandfather come to America and how did he obtain so much land without ever having the whites try to take the land from him.