United States, Introduction to Slave Research (National Institute)

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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 ($).

Introduction to Researching Slaves

Though there were many social differences between free African Americans and their white counterparts prior to the Civil War, ultimately the same genealogical process can be applied to both equally. The same difficulties will arise, and they can be overcome using the same methods. With enslaved ancestors, however, an entirely different methodology must be applied, for they were not citizens, and did not exercise the same rights as even free African Americans.

In order to shine light into the dark and terrible cloud of slavery, you must first attempt to discover the identity of your ancestor’s last owner. Slaves were not considered men and women under the law, but property. Most of the records you will find concerning slaves will be those concerning property, such as tax lists, bills of sale, wills, and estate inventories and sales. You will find all of these records under the names of their owners.

Once you have identified the most recent owner of your enslaved ancestor, you will have to change focus, and learn everything you can about the slave owner and his family, as if they were your own family. Hidden among the records of the slave owner lie the records of his slaves, and the information you will need to continue your research into previous generations.

African American Families Under Slavery

Beginning with their capture by the African slave-traders, the disintegration and disruption of the African American family was nearly universal. Even when entire families were captured, often slaves were separated before the Middle Passage based on the needs of the European customers. Upon their arrival in the Americas, and being sold at auction, slaves were almost inevitably separated from any family with which they were still connected.

On the plantations, however, slaves often formed new families. The unique circumstances and structure of these families create difficulties for the genealogist, which will be explored here.

First and foremost, slaves were not legally recognized as people, and the very existence of slave families was generally ignored. While some slave owners would take great care not to separate families through sale, separation was indeed much more common. Though families may have remained nearby on neighboring plantations, at times they were separated by even greater distances when the owner decided to move to another part of the country, particularly during the western migrations. Separation of families, whether husbands from wives or children from parents, was the primary motivation of runaway slaves, who would just as often “escape” to the plantation of a family member as attempt to move north.

Though not legally recognized or legally binding, slave marriages did occur. Contrary to some preconceptions, though, these unofficial marriages did not always occur between slaves of the same owner or on the same plantation. Many slave marriages were formed between slaves on neighboring plantations. Children resulting from one of these marriages generally belonged to the owner of the mother, and could be sold at any age. In fact, some southerners earned a living through slave speculation, by which they would purchase a baby or small child slave, with the intent of selling them years later, when they would carry a higher value and bring a higher sale price. Genealogists should remember that the father of slave children did not always belong to the same owner as the mother, and, unless other evidence intervenes, should not presume to identify the father.

Another aspect of slave life that affects family history is that they were not usually recognized by whites as bearing surnames. This does not mean that they did not bear surnames among themselves, as they often did this very thing. But in records of the slave owners, such as estate inventories or bills of sale, it is extremely rare to find slaves’ surnames. One common misconception among genealogists is that slaves always adopted the surname of their master. However, this was actually less so than not. It has been estimated that slaves took the surname of their master less than 15% of the time.

By the time of the Civil War, many slaves had been in the United States for several generations. A surname may have been adopted by their family at any point during this time, and passed down to the descendants. Though unofficial and unrecognized by whites, a slave family might bear the surname of the current master, a former master, or a prominent, admired local or national citizen. A family may have even simply taken any surname they chose, without any connection to that surname through blood or bondage.

Also occurring relatively often was the “marriage” of a free African American to a slave. There were several common results of such a union. In many cases, a free man would be able to purchase the freedom of his wife and/or children. In some other cases, though not as common, a slave owner may simply free his slave woman or her children when he learned of the marriage. However, such positive results were not the only results. Some places had laws that relegated a free man who married a slave to the status of slave himself. In all such marriages, the children were considered slaves, the property of the mother’s owner, as described above.

Without a doubt, the institution of slavery had dire effects on the African American family structure. Every action taken by slave traders and slave owners to separate black families deeply pained the victims, and yet a greater sense of community grew from this oppression. When “blood” family was removed, slaves would form family bonds with others. This private rebellion led to the unique sense of brotherhood unknown to other cultures.


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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.