African American Land and Property

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United States  > African American Research  > Land and Property

Deeds. Slaves were treated as chattel and their sale may be listed as a deed in land and property records of the county or state. Sometimes slaves were bequeathed or sold as part of the probate of an estate and this transfer or sale may be listed as a deed mixed in with probate records.

Registers of Slaves, Registers of Freedmen, and Manumission Papers. By the time of start of the Civil War in 1861 about ten percent of African Americans were free. Most free African Americans carried their own papers, but these could be stolen. In order to distinguish between slaves, runaways, and free African Americans, many counties or states in the upper South, and border states kept one or more sets of registers or papers. Some had registers of slaves. Some kept registers of freedmen, "free men of color," or "free negroes." Some kept copies of manumission papers of people freed from enslavement. To find these kinds of registers or papers look in county courthouse records. They are most likely found in the court papers, or among the land and property deeds, or occasionally in probate records, or even with taxation records. Sometimes these kinds of records are found at state libraries, archives, or historical societies.

Slave Trade Registers. The Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves to the United States after 1808. Between then and the Civil War the internal slave trade became an important business in the Southern United States. Most states regulated the slave trade. A few kept records of slave traders and their business. Look for such business registers at state libraries, archives, historical societies, or county courthouses.

Freedmen's Bureau Land. After the Civil War former slaves were promised free land and a mule. They rarely received the land and were lucky to receive a mule. For more information about records of this type of land see the Freedman's Bureau Wiki page.

Homestead land. After the Civil War many African Americans took advantage of the Homestead Act to obtain almost free federal land in return for occupying and improving it. The application papers for this federal farm, mining, or timber land contain genealogical information and clues. Only about 40 percent of people who applied for homestead land finished the process and received the land patent. Those that finished have been indexed. The homestead index is available on the Internet. For more details see the Wiki article Land Patent Search.

Homestead applications for the 60 percent who never finished are available at the National Archives, but a researcher will need to find the legal description of the land they started to homestead in order to find the application papers. There is no index to homestead applications that were not completed.