African American Slavery and Bondage

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United States  > African American Research  > Slavery and Bondage

Brief History of Slavery in America

Slave market, built in 1762, in Newport, Rhode Island, now home to the Museum of Newport History.
Nearly 75 percent of people who arrived in America from Europe and Africa before 1776 were immigrants in bondage. Those from Africa almost always arrived enslaved. Those from Europe were often convicts, indentured servant apprentices, or became indentured servants to pay for the cost of their ocean crossing. In colonial times indentured servitude as an apprentice was considered the normal way to learn a trade (part of growing up), or a normal option for paying a large debt.[1]

In 1619 a Dutch ship blown off course came looking for fresh water near Jamestown, Virginia. At Jamestown the Dutch sold 20 of the African slaves they had captured from a Spanish ship originally bound for Mexico. These were the earliest known African immigrants to arrive in what is now the United States. It was the custom of that time to free servant-slaves after seven years.[2][3]

Caribbean and Brazilian plantations (95 percent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade) usually grew sugar and few slaves survived there for seven years. In America (five percent of the slave trade) slaves lived longer and had children. In the thirteen British-American colonies a milder climate and better working conditions growing tobacco, cotton, hemp, and indigo allowed slaves to live long enough to be freed. But the institution of lifetime chattel slavery applied to people of African descent was slowly accepted and developed when owners were reluctant to free such valuable labor to compete with their former owners. This form of slavery was formally legalized first in British-America in 1654.[4]

All 13 British-American colonies participated in the slave trade before 1780. In the 1750s a slavery abolitionist movement began and grew stronger. Vermont was the first to abolish slavery in 1777 and by 1804 all individual states north of the Mason-Dixon line had gradually ended slavery. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was a federal law that prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River. Slave labor works best when the assigned task is relatively simple, such as large scale agriculture. Slavery in increasingly industrialized America was becoming too expensive until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. A healthy young adult male slave was worth about two years wages, so most owners considered freeing slaves an economic hardship. The Constitution of the United States permitted the outlawing of the importation of slaves starting in 1808, but the internal slave trade continued until the end of the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited chattel slavery in 1865.[5]

American slavery was particularly hard on African American families. Owners were frequently forced by economics to sell off members of a slave's family. A few slave owners freed some or all of their slaves in the owner's will, but more often ownership of slaves was transferred to the owner's wife or children. In some cases, rather than free a slave as instructed in the owner's will, the slave was sold to help pay debts. A few slave owners allowed their slaves to earn money and purchase their family members or their own freedom. Slave marriages were usually not recorded by civil authorities until after the Civil War in Freedmen's Bureau records. However, occasionally slave marriages are in the plantation, or owner family Bible records.

Slave Records

Slave receipt.jpg
Finding an African American ancestor who was enslaved almost always means finding the records of the family that owned him or her.

Study the life and records of the slave owner and his family. Your ancestor’s life was inseparably connected with the slave owner. Your ancestor may be listed in records of the slave owner’s property:

  • Tax records. These list slaves and their monetary value.
  • Land and property records. Search for information about deeds, sales, mortgages, or rental transactions of slaves.
  • Probate, estate, and chancery court records These show the distribution of slaves at the death of a slave owner.
  • Plantation records. Account log books give the names of slaves, family relationships, and their assigned tasks. Some records give the slaves’ birth and death dates. They also record when a slave was bought, from whom, and for how much. Most plantation records would be in the hands of the plantation family descendants, or at county or state archives or libraries.

A few plantation records are listed in a set of booklets starting with the title Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War (Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1966). The records described in these booklets are a microfilm collection of manuscripts held in several major research libraries throughout the South. Parts of the papers from some plantations were once scattered by their donation to many libraries, and this collection now helps gather some of them in a single set. It offers access to selected material from Maryland to Texas in one source.[6]

Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations From the Revolution Through the Civil War.

University Publications of America. UPA. Lexis-Nexis.CIS Universe . www.lexisnexis.cem/academic


Collection / Repository

Family History  


  First Film

Series A, Selections from the South Carolina Library. University of South Carolina
  • Part 1: The Papers of James Henry Hammond, 1795-1865
  • Part 2: Miscellaneous Collections

Series B, Selections from the South Carolina Historical Society

Series C, Selections from the Library of Congress

  • Part 1: Virginia
  • Part 2: Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina

Series D, Selections from the Maryland Historical Society

Series E, Selections from the University of Virginia Library

  • Part 1: Virginia Plantations
  • Part 2: Virginia Plantations
  • Part 3: Virginia Plantations
  • Part 4: Cooke Family Papers
  • Part 5: Ambler Family Papers
  • Part 6: Virginia Plantations

Series F, Selections from the Duke University Library

  • Part 1: The Deep South
  • Part 2: South Carolina and Georgia
  • Part 3: North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia
  • Part 4: North Carolina and Virginia Plantations
  • Part 5: William Patterson Smith Collections

Series G, Selections from the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

  • Part 1: Texas and Louisiana Collections
  • Part 2: William Massie Collection
  • Part 3: Bank of the State of Mississippi Records, 1804-1846
  • Part 4: Winchester Family Papers, 1783-1906
  • Part 5: Other Plantation Collections

Series H, Selections from the Howard-Tilton Library, Tulane University, and

the Louisiana State Museum Archives

Series I, Selections from Louisiana State University

  • Part 1: Louisiana Sugar Plantations
  • Part 2: Louisiana and Miscellaneous Southern Cotton Plantations
  • Part 3: The Natchez Area
  • Part 4: Barrow, Bisland, Bowman and Other Collections
  • Part 5: Butler Family Collections
  • Part 6: David Weeks and Family Collections

Series J, Selections from the Southern Historical Collections

  • Part 1: The Cameron Family Papers
  • Part 2: The Pettigrew Family Papers
  • Part 3: South Carolina
  • Part 4: Georgia and Florida
  • Part 5: Louisiana
  • Part 6: Mississippi and Arkansas
  • Part 7: Alabama
  • Part 8: Tennessee and Kentucky
  • Part 9: Virginia
  • Part 10: Hubard Family Papers, 1741-1865
  • Part 11: Hairston and Wilson Families
  • Part 12: Tidewater and Coastal Plains North Carolina
  • Part 13: Piedmont North Carolina
  • Part 14: Western North Carolina

Series K, Selections from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library,

The Shirley Plantation Collection, 1650-1888

Series L, Selections from the Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary

  • Part 1: Carter Papers, 1667-1882
  • Part 2: Jerdone Family Papers, 1736-1918
  • Part 3: Skipwith Family Papers, 1760-1977
  • Part 4: Austin-Twyman Papers, 1765-1865 and Charles Brown Papers, 1792-1888

Series M, Selections from the Virginia Historical Society

  • Part 1: Tayloe Family, 1650-1970
  • Part 2: Northern Neck of Virginia; also Maryland
  • Part 3: Other Tidewater Virginia
  • Part 4: Central Piedmont Virginia
  • Part 5: Southside Virginia
  • Part 6: Northern Virginia and Valley

Series N, Selections from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Slavery in Ante Bellum Southern Industries. University Publications of America.

Black Studies Research Sources - Microfilm from Major Archives and Manuscript Collections.

  • Series A: Selection from Duke University Library
  • Series B: Selection from Southern Historical Collection-University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill

Use the index by Jean L. Cooper, Genealogical Index to the Guides of the Microfilm Edition of Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War ([S.l.]: 1st Books, 2003)[FHL Ref book 973 D22cj] to identify each collection with material about a given family name (usually owner, sometimes slave) or plantation name, and locate microfilms of the papers with that family name, or plantation name. The items indexed include deeds, wills, estate papers, genealogies, personal and business correspondence, account books, and slave lists. These are indexed in six separate lists:[7]
  • Location (alphabetical by city or county)
  • Location (alphabetical by state)
  • Plantation name
  • Plantation name (alphabetical by state)
  • Surname
  • Surname (alphabetical by state)
To use the above indexes you need to know either the location (slave's home town), the name of his plantation, or the slave owner's name. This information is sometimes found in Freedman's Bank, or in Freedmen's Bureau records. Only about 15 percent of freed slaves used the family name of former owners.
For a competing index of the same ante-bellum plantation records see Marie Taylor, Family History Library Bibliography of African American Sources As of 1994 (Salt Lake City: U.S./Canada Reference, Family History Library, 2000)[FHL Ref book 973 F23tm]. This book is digitized and available on the Internet at It is alphabetical under the county or state where the plantation was located, the name of the plantation, or the name of the owner. It also cites many other sources beyond the ante-bellum plantation records.

For plantation records not found in the above set, search state and local historical societies, libraries, archives, museums, and

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 blacks, 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 allowed the outlawing of 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 businesses. Look for such business registers at state libraries, archives, historical societies, or county courthouses.

This large website contains some registers, along with many other things related to the slave trade between Africa, Europe, Brazil, the Carribean, and the United States. There are also some other records of interest there as well.


  1. Wikipedia contributors, "Slavery in the United States," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 5, 2009). Citing The First Black Americans - US News and World Report.
  2. Wikipedia contributors, "Slavery in the United States," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 5, 2009). Citing Alan Gallay, "Forgotten Story of Indian Slavery", Arab News (, August 3, 2003.
  3. Wikipedia contributors, "History of slavery," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 6, 2009).
  4. Wikipedia contributors. History of slavery [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2009 Feb 5, 08:12 UTC [cited 2009 Feb 6]. Available from:
  5. Wikipedia contributors, "Slavery in the United States," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 5, 2009).
  6. Jean L. Cooper, Genealogical Index to the Guides of the Microfilm Edition of Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War ([S.l.]: 1st Books, 2003), vii. [FHL Ref book 973 D22cj]
  7. Cooper, viii.