United States, Slave Transactions (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 ($).

Using Chattel and Probate Records to Follow Slave Transactions

Probate Records

When an individual dies, his property must be distributed. The records created during this process are called probate records.

The most common probate record, created before the individual dies, is the last will and testament, known simply as a will. In the will, a testator specifies how he would like his estate distributed, and designates a person to be his executor. The executor oversees the distribution of the testator’s estate, and ensures that the testator’s will is properly followed.

In most cases, however, a person died without creating a will. These estates are called intestate. If a will was not created, the probate court would appoint an administrator to oversee the estate proceedings.

In addition to wills, several additional probate records will aid your research:

  • Administration bond. Also called a testamentary bond, letters of administration, or letters testamentary. With this document, the court approves the service of the requested executor or administrator, and he promises to act faithfully in this capacity.
  • Estate inventory. The estate inventory consists of an appraised list of each item in the deceased’s personal estate.
  • Estate sales. If necessary to pay debts due from the estate, sometimes portions of the personal estate will be sold. A list of sales will name the property, the buyer, and the price paid.
  • Administration account. An account records the debts paid to the estate and the debts paid by the estate. An estate could have one or several accounts recorded. Occasionally, an administration account will also record the distribution of the estate to the heirs.
  • Estate distribution. This document records the names of the heirs and the property distributed to each. It does not always exist as a separate record, as the distribution is sometimes recorded in an account or among the court records.

In most states, probate records are governed at the county level. You will need to research your state of interest to determine the specific court or agency that has jurisdiction over these matters, and locate surviving records. Remember it may have changed over the years, so find out if the same agency had jurisdiction prior to the Civil War.

Once you have identified the owner of your enslaved ancestor, or a potential owner, you will locate relevant probate records created during your ancestor’s lifetime. To accomplish this, it is necessary to trace the slave owner’s ancestry in the same way that you would trace your own.

If your slave was last owned by a widow, you may have already identified her husband using the 1850 and 1860 federal censuses. Otherwise, you will have to use the techniques and records detailed in the previous lessons to try to identify the parents of the last slave owner, and his spouse and her parents. Slaves, like other property, were transferred to the owner’s heirs upon his decease. You can find much information about your ancestors if they were transferred within the family in this manner. You should also research the laws of intestate succession in effect during the period you are researching. Many historic law books can be found online on various websites. You can usually find them with a search engine.

Though you will occasionally locate a bare-bones will that provides very little information of use, most of them will at least contain the names of some or all of the testator’s heirs, including his spouse and children, and sometimes grandchildren.

Many wills detail the distribution of specific property, such as land parcels, furniture, cash, and (most relevant to your research) slaves. The will itself does not constitute direct evidence of the distribution; you should try to find an actual record of the distribution itself or a receipt.

Estate inventories can be one of the most important, and rewarding, documents you locate with regard to your slave ancestors. The inventory is a list of an estate’s personal property, including slaves during the period prior to emancipation. Slaves are usually listed by first name and age in an inventory. They are sometimes also listed in family groups, sometimes with relationships provided. This can help you to determine who the parents of your slave ancestor may have been.

In addition to the inventory, you will also often find lists of sales by the estate. These sales are also usually recorded in the inventory books, but may be recorded separately in the deed books. When a person dies indebted, parts of his personal property, including slaves, may be sold. At other times, the heirs may elect to sell the personal property to receive their legacies in cash. These can be very informative documents, and they also provide direct evidence of the transfer of a slave from one owner to another.

The list of sales appears in form very similar to the estate inventory, with additional columns naming the person who purchased each item, as well as the purchase price. There are sometimes also notes as to whether the property was purchased with cash or on credit.

You can learn additional information about the slaves by looking at the stated appraised value in the estate inventory. For example, children and elderly slaves were generally appraised at a lower value than those at the prime of their life. Women were generally appraised at a lower value than men. Physically disabled or sickly slaves were appraised at a lower value than healthy ones. The actual values of slaves themselves varied between locations and time periods, but you can look at the values relative to others, either in the same inventory or in one recorded at the same time period and location.

Once you have located an estate inventory that names all of the slaves of a given slave owner, you can compare these to the federal census slave schedules, if they were living in 1850 or 1860. This will provide you with tentative identifications for the slaves in those slave schedules, and it may provide you with information on additional slaves as well!

Chattel Records

In general terminology, a chattel record is a transfer of property from one owner to another. Just as you would today record the transfer of an automobile, our forebears would record transfers of livestock and other high-value property, including slaves.

The two most common chattel records are bills of sale and deeds of gift.

Chattel records appear very similar to land deeds. In fact, it is not unusual to find chattel records recorded in the deed books, though some counties do have separate registers for chattel records.

A bill of sale always names both the seller and buyer of the property, and the purchase price. Beyond that, the amount of information can vary. Some may only describe the property as “one male slave” or “a female Negro,” while others might provide names (even surnames), ages, family relationships, physical descriptions, etc.

Sales of slaves may have transferred individual slaves or several slaves at a time from one owner to another. Though not all owners respected slave families, others would not separate families, and sold them all at once.

Maryland Deed Book - Athey and Lanham to Jenkins
Deed Book26G.jpg

Prince George’s County, Maryland, Deed Book FF 2, ff. 162-163, Athey and Lanham to Jenkins (1784); digital images, Maryland State Archives, MDLandRec.NET.

Occasionally you will find even more interesting information. For example, the following bill of sale records a free man purchasing his enslaved wife and child from their owner. It is unknown what became of this family, but they certainly appreciated their freedom.

Maryland Deed Book - Beall to Henny

Prince George’s County, Maryland, Deed Book JRM 5, fol. 402, Beall to Henny (1796); digital images, Maryland State Archives, MDLandRec.NET.


Deeds of gift are very similar to bills of sale, the key difference being the absence of a purchase price. Gifts are, after all, freely given. Deeds of gift are most often provided by a parent to a child, either upon some milestone as reaching adulthood or getting married, or as a way for the parent to distribute his estate while still living.

Deeds of gift are even more likely to be recorded in the county deed books than are bills of sale. Otherwise, the above notes apply equally to deeds of gift as to bills of sale.

Like probate records, chattel records are generally created at the county level of government, usually by the clerk of the county court. However, the court system varies from state to state, and has changed over time. You will want to conduct research into your state of interest, to determine which specific agency had jurisdiction over land and property records before the Civil War.

The first step, as always in research, is to investigate the laws of the area in which you are researching, and determine how and where chattel records were created during the antebellum period. You will also, obviously, need to determine where these records are today.

Most deed books around the country have been microfilmed and indexed, and are widely available through state archives or the county courthouse, or through the Family History Library and its affiliated FamilySearch Centers. You will want to check the deed indexes for the name of the last owner of your slave ancestor. Some indexes provide details on the type of instrument recorded, specifying Bill of Sale or Deed of Gift. Even when this is so, however, it would be wise to note every instrument the subject recorded and follow up on them.

As with most records concerning slaves, surnames are rarely provided. In lieu of having a surname, you will have to use other information to identify your ancestor with any certainty. For example, some sales note the first name and age of the slave being conveyed. This should closely match the information that you already know of your ancestor—though ages may not be exact.

Once again, cluster genealogy can help here as well. If you have identified the possible parents or siblings of your enslaved ancestor, or even if you have a list of other slaves owned by the owner, you may be able to identify groups of slaves identified in a sale. Be wary of overly common names, however, so that you do not inadvertently claim the wrong ancestors!

When you are able to locate a potential transaction of one of your ancestors, you now have one more link in the chain to your ancestry, for you have identified a previous owner. You will want to complete research on this previous owner in the same manner as you did with the most recent identified ancestor. This will allow you to possibly locate estate records or other transactions that may lead you to identify this slave’s parents.

The process provided in this lesson can be repeated as many times as possible to track your slave ancestry. At some point, however, you will not be able to go further. The Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, though for many years the trade continued illegally. Slave cargo lists prior to 1807 do not identify slaves by name, so there is no practical way to trace a slave “back to Africa.”


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.