Researching Formerly Enslaved African Americans

September 6, 2019  - by 

With methodical research, you can often find slave records to fill out the story of ancestors. FamilySearch holds many such online records and provides links to African American Genealogy pages for each state and to records on their own website and other sites as well. Though this research may seem daunting, breaking it into simple steps can help you get started.

Step 1: Starting Your African American Research

an enslaved woman.

Begin with the FamilySearch Research Wiki’s Quick Guide to African American Records. Wiki articles contain step-by-step guides to African American research and historical details of records and places. The articles also list some available records and describe how to use them.

The first goal should be to verify the ancestor’s enslavement. Before searching slave census records, check 1860 and 1850 census records to see if the ancestor was listed as a “free person of color” to eliminate the possibility that he or she was free at the time.

Verify known information with reliable sources. Keep detailed notes of what you find, where the information was found, and what the records mean.

New information builds on earlier discoveries. For many people tracing African American genealogy, key documents are records made during and just after the Civil War.

Step 2: Create a Tentative Timeline

Renate Sanders, who spoke on African American Research at the BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy, suggested creating a tentative timeline of the ancestor being examined. Fill in what you know or suspect, such as the following:

  • When and where the person was born, married, and died.
  • Where he or she lived
  • Whether the person was enslaved before 1865.
  • Who enslaved the person.

Step 3: Look for Other Family Members

Not all of the formerly enslaved took their last owner’s surname, not everyone in the same family may have taken the same surname, and surnames sometimes changed. Additionally, people tended to settle near other family members, so study three or four census pages before and after the family to look for other family members.

Cohabitation records exist for Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Slave marriages were not recognized legally, but cohabitation records contain information about these kinds of unions.

a group of enslaved people on a plantation.


Step 4: Search the Right Records

Owners of large plantations kept detailed records of all business and property. These records might include information about slaves being hired out, clothing purchased, doctor visits, and births, deaths, and marriages. Family papers and family bibles might also include records of enslaved family members.

Although they were not designed as slave records, estate and probate records of owners may have listed the names of slaves and their ages. Sometimes names of family groups were recorded.

Deaths were recorded in the 1850 United States Mortality Schedules 20 years before formerly enslaved people were first recorded in the population schedules of the 1870 census. The 1850 mortality schedules contain a variety of useful information about individuals, such as the following:

  • Name of every person who died during the year ending on June 1, 1850
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Color
  • Free or slave
  • Married or widowed
  • Place of birth
  • The month in which the person died
  • Profession, occupation, or trade

A sample of the schedules is available on the National Archives website.

Information about searching the collection can be found in the supporting wiki article “United States Mortality Schedules, 1850.” This article contains useful hints about searching the collection and tips for using the information you find.

Step 5: Search beyond the Civil War

Post-Civil War records originated from programs set up by the federal government to help the newly-freed population. Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedmen’s Bank records list names with other information about land, jobs, welfare, relief, education, and fair treatment.

Also check the 1870 United States federal census, the first taken after emancipation and the first in which all people of color were enumerated by name. This census can help you establish the family’s makeup, ages, and location.  

an african american battalion during the civil war.

As you begin to search the stories of your ancestors, visit FamilySearch.org to find some excellent historical record collections. These collections include the following:

Other excellent records include census records; birth, marriage, and death records; probate records; family trees; and more.

Step 6: Find Support with Classes and Community Groups

FamilySearch.org also includes several online classes on African American research. You will discover historical documents and photographs that will shed light on the lives of early African Americans. You will also find links to dozens of online websites that provide a wide variety of historical and genealogical resources for genealogists and family historians.

For advice, consider joining the Facebook African American group and the African American Genealogy Research Community that is hosted by FamilySearch.org, where like-minded users help one another with their searches.

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