African Americans, Identifying the Final Slave Owner (National Institute)

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
National Institute for Genealogical StudiesNational Institute for Genealogical Studies.gif

The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Identifying the Final Slave Owner

When a research subject is enslaved, they do not create any records of their own. Furthermore, the records in which they appear most often would be indexed by the name of the slave owner—not the slave—limiting access to the records themselves.

For these reasons, it is necessary to identify the slave owner, before any further research can be conducted.

No single aspect of researching the genealogy of African American families has frustrated more genealogists than the so-called “1870 Brick Wall.” This nickname refers to the fact that many researchers are unable to locate any information previous to the 1870 federal census.

This phenomenon stems directly from an inability to identify the slave owner.

There is no methodology that works in all cases. Each case will have to be approached individually. You will have to stretch your critical thinking skills—both deductive and inductive reasoning—to the limits.

Records That Identify Slave Owners Directly

Far more records exist that will directly identify slave owners than most genealogists realize.

Newspapers. A former slave’s obituary might identify his former master, especially if the master was a prominent citizen. You may also find the names of slave owners in other news, or even in runaway slave advertisements.

Freedmen’s Bureau Records. The owner may be identified in a marriage record, a labor contract, an outrage, or any number of other record types created by the Bureau.

Freedman’s Bank Records. The registers of deposits often name the slave owner in addition to members of the immediate family.

Southern Claims Commission Records. The testimony of former slaves—whether as part of a claim of their own or the claim of their former owner—may identify the slave owner.

Compensated Emancipation Records. These include the District of Columbia petitions, the Slave Claims Commissions records (covering Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia slaves who enlisted in the U.S. Army), and the Maryland slave statistics records.

Civil War Pension Files. Both Union and Confederate pension files may identify a slave owner.

Church Records. Some religions allowed slaves to partake in the sacraments. It is not unusual to find slave baptisms and marriages in church registers.

Creating Profiles of the Slave and the Slave Owner

If you do not locate any records that explicitly identify the owner of an enslaved person, you will have to use other methods to identify him. The pool of potential owners initially contains every single slave owner in the United States on the day of emancipation. Your job is to narrow down this pool until you have only one possibility left, and then use available records to prove that you have identified the right man (or woman) as owner.

Creating a complete profile of your research subject will allow you to make inferences about his slave owner. In particular pay close attention to the ages and places of birth of the subject, their spouse, and their children. Identify any siblings, or possible siblings, and their ages and places of birth, as well as those of their spouses and children. Do not limit yourself to the federal census, but also look at all other available records.

The records should at least identify a county where the slave lived at the time of his emancipation. In many cases, this is the same county where he lived in the 1870 federal census or in an earlier census, tax list, or voter registration list. This narrows down your pool of candidates significantly.

Other clues can also help to narrow down your choices. For example:

  • One obvious clue is when a former slave lives with or near a white family with the same surname. Though relatively few slaves actually chose to use the name of their slave owner, it did occur. A landowning family bearing the same surname nearby is a clue that this was the case.
  • Even if there are no families with the same surname nearby, take a look at the places of birth. Slave families did not migrate by themselves. If you are researching a slave living in Texas but born in Alabama, take a close look at white families also living in Texas who were born in Alabama. Do not limit yourself only to the heads of household, but also look at the spouses and children—any families with a connection to the place of origin.
  • Slaves living in large towns or cities by 1870 may have come from some of the more rural neighboring counties. Look to some of the other nearby counties for land owners that fit the profile.
  • If you are researching a slave in the “Deep South”—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, etc.—who was born in the “Upper South”—Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina—consider the possibility that the slave may have been sold as part of the Second Middle Passage, the internal slave trade beginning about the 1820s. If this is the case, take a look at the inbound slave manifests at the many ports along the southern coast. The manifests for New Orleans, which had by far the largest trade, have been indexed and digitized on Records from other ports are available at the regional facilities of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Identifying a Probable Slave Owner

Once you have gone through the information available to create a profile of the slave family you are researching, and narrowed down the list of potential slave owners, you will perform some additional research on the candidates to narrow down the field further.

Look for each slave-owning family in the 1860 and 1850 federal census records, especially the slave schedule. Also look at pre-1865 tax lists and state census records. Occasionally slaves may appear in one of these records but not others. Does each candidate own a slave of the right age to be your ancestor? If other family members are known, does this same slave owner own slaves of the right ages to be those family members as well?

Remember that cross-plantation marriages were relatively common. This means that enslaved children would often be living with their mother only, not their father. To find the owner of the father, you should try to identify the father’s likely siblings.

Also remember that slave ages were rarely recorded faithfully. Ages may be estimated, or grouped together in age ranges.

This exercise will help you eliminate those candidates who did not own slaves of the appropriate ages. Once you have a shorter list, you will have to start systematically researching the slaves of these candidates, until the owner is identified.

The U.S. Census Slave Schedules

In 1850 and 1860, the Census Bureau authorized the collection of data on the possession of slaves. This information was compiled into Schedule 2, the “slave schedule.”

Each page of the 1850 slave schedule consists of two columns of entries. Only the owners of slaves appear by name. Under their name, each of their slaves is identified by age, gender, and color (“black” or “mulatto,” represented by “B” or “M”). Additional columns note if a slave was fugitive, manumitted, or disabled.

Some slave schedules have males and females separated, or have slaves listed by descending age, or both, but others may have the slaves listed in apparent family groups. You cannot use a family group record for this information, but make a list of all of the slaves, in the order in which they appear.

1850 U.S. Census - Slave Schedule

1850 Census22G.jpg

1850 U.S. Census, Colleton County, South Carolina, slave schedule, Parish of St. Johns Colleton, page 175 [top]; Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, microfilm publication M432, 1,009 rolls (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration), roll 832.

The 1860 slave schedule was nearly identical to this, with one additional column for number of slave houses each owner had. This information can be useful, in that some owners allowed slave families to live in their own houses. The number of slave houses may reflect the number of slave families, but more information will be necessary to draw any firm conclusions.

1860 U.S. Census - Slave Schedule

1860 Census22G.jpg

1860 U.S. Census, Attala County, Mississippi, slave schedule, Township 16 Range 9 E, page 36, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, microfilm publication M653, FHL Film 1,438 rolls (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration), roll 595.

After you identify the slave owner of your research subject, you should first try to locate that owner in the 1860 census population schedule. Fill out a family group record, and keep this information designated “Owner.” Also make a list of the owner’s neighbors—say five or six households before and after them on the census list. Once you have located the owner in the population schedule, you can search the slave schedule for the same name.

After you have accomplished this, repeat the process with both schedules of the 1850 federal census.

Comparing Multiple Lists of Slaves

The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules are just two of the sources for lists of slaves—even though names are not included. Other records, such as those mentioned in the previous lessons, can also provide lists of slaves, though sometimes one slave at a time.

If you put these lists of slaves side-by-side and compare them, you can often discover new facts and clues about your ancestors.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.