Tracing Your African-American Ancestors

January 30, 2017  - by 

Since February is Black History Month, it’s a great time to look at some of the resources available to trace African-American ancestors—and, if you have African-American ancestors, it’s a great time to get started finding them! Particularly as you work through the Civil War and into earlier periods, locating African-American roots can be challenging. The good news is there are some fabulous resources that are becoming more accessible all the time.

Post-1870 Research

If you’re tracing African-American ancestors in records after 1870, your research path looks similar to the research path of any US-based family line. To begin this research, start with yourself and your immediate family, and work back using standard US records, such as censuses and vital and land records. You can use FamilySearch’s online US Research Guide, which includes a clickable map of the United States that directs you to research information for each state.

The Transitional Period

For many people tracing African-American roots, the period during and right after the Civil War is key to their research. In 1860, there were nearly 4 million enslaved individuals living in the United States, representing just under 13% of the population. They were considered property and so were not included by name in most records before emancipation in 1863. By following your ancestors closely in the records back through the Civil War and its aftermath, you can often see clues that lead finding them in earlier records.

In addition to the enslaved individuals, in 1860, there were also 476,000 “freed color persons” living in the United States. If your family fell into that category, they should be included by name in many more records.

Often a key for success to finding your ancestors in records before this transitional period is locating the names of those who owned your enslaved ancestors. Knowing owners’ names can focus your search on specific records of that family, which may also include information about your 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 their owners so you can push their lines back further:

  • 1870 US census. This is the first census to include 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 re-entering 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 “place of nativity,” they can be of great help if your ancestor is included.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, operated out of 35 field offices across the South with the goal of helping the people who were emancipated transition into society. The bureau distributed rations, ran hospitals, legalized marriages, intervened in contract disputes, assisted with land distribution, and performed other tasks. Records of these activities include nearly 2 billion individual names along with fascinating insights into people’s lives. These records are probably the most important for tracing African-American ancestors in this period. They cover the years from 1865 to 1872, and they are now indexed and searchable at FamilySearch. Records from the Freedmen’s Saving and Trust Company, often referred to as the Freedmen’s Bank, date from 1865 to 1874 and are included with the Freedmen’s Bureau records. A thorough guide to the Freedmen’s Bureau records is also available in the current issue of Family Tree Magazine.
  • Records of United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. Over 186,000 African-Americans served as part of the USCT. Some of the records have been microfilmed, and some are available online. You can read more about the collection and how to access them in the FamilySearch wiki.

Before the Civil War

Before attempting research earlier than the Civil War, make sure you’ve gleaned all the details you can from the transitional records. Tracing enslaved ancestors prior to the Civil War often requires you to explore new types of records. Census records, which theoretically moved from only including heads of the households in 1840 to including every name starting in 1850, did not record names of those enslaved. Even slave schedules, kept with the 1850 and 1860 censuses, typically only include information on enslaved individuals by gender and age—although there are a few exceptions. See How Do I Decode Slave Records? for more information.

When searching for information prior to the Civil War, your ancestors will typically be linked with information on their owners if they were enslaved. Records from this time that are likely to list information about slaves include:

  • 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 here.
  • Deed records. Although we generally think of deed records as relating to land, since these enslaved people were unfortunately classified as property, records of buying and selling them can be included here too. 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 but not all 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 Guide.

For Further Information

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


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