African American Resources

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United States  > African American Research  > Resources

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The first blacks were brought to the United States in 1619 by Dutch traders. Contrary to popular belief, not all blacks labored as slaves in the fields of the large Southern plantations. Many worked for smaller land owners, some worked as servants in the cities, and some were free. By the Civil War period, the descendants of less than 400,000 transplanted Africans numbered over 4 million. Read more about slave records at

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Researching nonplantation blacks or slaves requires great patience and luck as slaves were not considered citizens of the United States and were not permitted to engage in legal transactions. Marriage contracts between blacks were legally forbidden until 1868. Since slaves were considered property of their owner, most records (such as deeds, wills, etc.) are interfiled with those of the owner's family. Sole ownership of all slave children legally resided with the owner of the child's mother, thus research is often limited to the maternal lines.

Blacks were seldom addressed by a surname; instead they were usually listed by a first name, or as a "Black Male" or "Black Female." Once slavery ended and usage of surnames became legal, exslaves were free to use either their previous name (usually known to them, but not used in records) or to choose a new one. Obstacles arose when several members of one biological family adopted different last names.


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  • African American historical research can be undertaken in both military and civilian records; however, the documentation is scattered through a variety of correspondence of government and private citizens and government reports. One's success in researching African-American ancestry in the years prior to the Civil War will depend largely on what one's status was, slave or free by going to

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