When researching African-Americans, the criticality of the 1870 census cannot be understated. That year is called the “Brick Wall” for good reason.

Considered personal property, enslaved people were not enumerated by name before 1870 (free blacks were). Most African-Americans were enslaved prior to the Civil War.

Since most former slaves remained near where they had been enslaved, finding the family in 1870 can be the key that unlocks the door to their past.

The upheaval and violence during the civil war does not make that task easy. Reconstruction, even with its promising beginnings, also turned into a reign of terror for many African-Americans.

Formerly enslaved blacks carried a variety of surnames. After the war, there was still a fluidity about surnames, for many reasons. A family could have one surname in 1870 and an entirely different surname by 1880. Surnames are always a clue. 

Spelling, as we all quickly learn in genealogy, was subjective at best. Most former slaves had only a vague idea of their age. All of this conspires to make research during the period of slavery extremely difficult.

An Example

Still, the best tool we have to discover the identity of the last slaveowner is to find the family in 1870.

Formerly enslaved by William Blunt, Patience Prather lived in Montgomery County, Maryland. In the 1870 census, we find that Patience has reunited with her husband Tobias.

Living just two households away was the William Blunt household:

1870 Patience

It was not uncommon to see people of differing surnames living together in 1870. Always be curious about others living in the household. Researching them often leads to finding other family members.

Remember that former slaves formed kinship ties with their fellow slaves.

These ties helped them survive in a system where blood-related family members could be sold at any time, never to be seen again. These bonds of affection did not end at emancipation.

Elisha Riggs, also in Montgomery County, enslaved the following people (along with others):

Tobias Powell
Mary Powell
Candace Boone
Mahala Boone
Anne Boone
Mary Boone
Arianna Boone
Henrietta Boone

Look at the 1870 Washington, D.C. household of Tobias Powell, the first person in the list above. They are still together:

Tobias Powell


Research Tips

Of course, the 1870 census can cause us to stumble when we forget that it provides no relationships. The 1870 census only suggests relationships.

The census above suggests that Tobias and Mary were a married couple and had children Lizzie, Lavinia and Willie.

But we need to verify that relationship with other records.

There are some family lines that may not yield success for various reasons. Some families did leave the area of their enslavement. White violence may have driven them away, others left in search of work or family members who had been sold away.

Others remained where they had been enslaved, but the slavewner may have died or left the area. Some moved with slaveowners who refugeed their slaves during the war.

Some of us simply won’t find our family in 1870. If that happens, try to find the family in other records in that timeframe. Check tax, land and court records.

Several Southern states had tax and voting records that survive. I found one former slave in North Carolina 1867 voter registration. The 1870 census did not list him.

The 1870 census remains, for those researching African-Americans, the most critical census of all.

But it’s a brick wall that can, with diligent research, come crashing down.
(Update, 2020: Read the post on Understanding the Slave Community to learn to create a research tool for analyzing the 1870 census.)


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