If a beginning researcher walks into a library or archives and asks to see the slave records for a community, the archivist will likely be confused.
Most of the records used to study enslaved persons aren’t called that.
They are Probate Records. Land Records. Court Records. Tax Records. Even Vital Records.
If they were simply all “slave records,” when you use them, you would cite something called a slave record, right?
But you don’t. When you cite a source, you call the source what it actually is.
A newspaper article. An inventory. A petition. A tax record. An estate distribution. And so on.
I take any opportunity to lecture to other researchers as a way to help them get grounded in the principles that will lead to success.
It is a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
That means I am very deliberate about using words like source, evidence, citation, and proof; these words that have specific meaning in the field of genealogy. I try to be careful with the words I use, since it may confuse people later in their research.
Genealogy is a field with standards and guidelines for research. Those standards apply to all researchers, not just professionals. Far from being burdensome, learning these principles maximizes chances for success in your research.
So even before beginning researchers know a thing about the Genealogical Proof Standard, I want to get them leaning in that direction.
By teaching beginning researchers to look for something called slave records, we do them a disservice.
We should be teaching researchers about sources.
And that sources contain information.
That they might be able to use as evidence.
And, if they perform a couple more important steps, they might be able to eventually call their research proof.
Let me be clear: there are some collections of records that have been labelled slave records. Archivists and court clerks arranged the records in their possession and in some places, they indeed appended the term slave records. Here are a few examples.
Upon closer inspection, however, the prudent researcher will often find, aside from the name, the records are something else.
As shown above, they are often court records—that name enslaved people. Or bible records– that name enslaved people. Or birth records—that name enslaved people.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
They are all sources. And there are a wide variety of sources that include information about enslaved people.
I think if you teach researchers to make hard lines around sources, and to look for things called “slave records,” they will miss important information about their ancestors. Which means they risk reconstructing their families inaccurately.
Maybe they won’t even think to look for local maps, ledger books, legislative acts, or congressional hearings. Because they have learned that those things aren’t “slave records.”
If researchers don’t understand sources, they can’t evaluate the information they contain.
If researchers don’t understand evidence evaluation, they will have no idea what to do when information conflicts with one another, or when its just plain wrong.
If researchers don’t understand conflict resolution, they won’t know how to weave together the sources to tell the story of their family accurately.
They will eventually be stuck, and have no idea how to proceed.
Tools for Success
One of my goals with Reclaiming Kin has always been to educate others, and especially to provide information that might help beginners overcome common stumbling blocks. Time is a commodity on this journey that none of us can get back.
Let’s give beginning researchers the tools for success.
I can’t speak for others, but here at Reclaiming Kin, every stepping stone I teach will lead you to another that helps you on the road to learning how to improve in doing this research.
And I stand by my belief that it does not include ever teaching you to look for anything called slave records.
I’m going to encourage you to look at every available source relevant to your ancestors.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Wonderful information. But I am wondering how wide spread a Manumission record was used indicating freed slave my great great grand mother born March of 1865 in Mississippi. Researching if she ever had one.
Thanks for commenting. This is where any outside reading about slavery in the area where your family lives becomes very valuable. Manumissions were use din almost every state, but Mississippi would not be a place we would expect to find many freed blacks (before 1865). It depends on the law in the state, but most enslaved people in Mississippi likely had to wait until the end of the Civil War to be emancipated.
I appreciate you writing me, good luck in your research!