The period of slavery remains the one of the most difficult  to research. Maybe this is why that period is a particular point of interest to me, and why it is a subject I devote alot of space to.

Recently Family Tree Magazine did a good article on a research tool I use often: online books (August 2010 issue).

I have found this to be very useful in researching slaveowners. The article points out six major sources of online books:

  1. (Stories, Memories and Histories)
  2. BYU Family History Archives (free) [Update: now moved to Family Search]
  3. Google Books (free)
  4. HeritageQuest Online (only through subscribing libraries)
  5. Internet Archives (free)
  6. World Vital Records (paid subscription site)

Here are a few examples of how this source can be utilized:

Ben Sherrod

I was researching the Sherrod family in Lawrence County, Alabama. I went to Ancestry’s Stories, Memories and Histories Collection.

In a search for ‘Ben Sherrod,’ the interface returned “Recollections of the Early Settlers of North Alabama,” published in 1899.(image left)

Starting on page 233 was a fairly lengthy biographical sketch of the family. The text doesn’t reproduce well here, but here is a page:

This gave me valuable clues and starting points. It provided dates I could use to search for probate records. I was also able to understand the connections between the Sherrods and Watkins families.

Other names of family members were also revealed which need to be checked as possible sources for slaves.

Hyman Family

In the second example below, I used Google Books. I searched for the terms “Hyman” and “North Carolina” as that was the family of interest. This turned up the excellent book, “The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1778-1864.

This book contained a petition from one of the slaves who was owned by the Hyman family. His petition provided important details about the slaveowning family. He described who he was owned by and sold to, when the owner died, who the administrator was, etc. Those details helped me reconstruct the family:

I also searched World Vital Records (their Social, Regional and General Histories collection) about Michael Holt from North Carolina. I discovered a 700+ page book entitled, “The Descendants of Michael Holt.”


Collateral lines in a book may include information for the family you need. However, those lines may not appear in the title of the book. Do full-text searches when possible.

The title of the book may be “The Potters and Allied Families.” The reference to ‘Allied Families’ may hide the surnames you are interested in.

Also beware of publications that do not include source citations for the information they provide (you will find many books like this.) We can’t take the information at face value without verifying and validating the facts ourselves.

Ancestry has a good search function. Both BYU and the Internet Archives websites do not have very good search functions, and will take considerably longer to search. Internet Archive has a beautiful interface for actually reading books online.

HeritageQuest, although only accessible through some libraries, has an excellent search function and downloadable PDF files of the books. Google Books does not always provide views of the entire book, and doesn’t always allow easy download (I basically do screen captures when this is the case).

The books may primarily represent the larger and more prominent slaveowners. But that doesn’t mean there is no useful information on smaller slaveowners. There is.

In the difficult quest for the slaveowning family, we’ve got to make diligent use of all resources at our disposal. I rarely find the search in online books discussed or mentioned. I hope to encourage you to add this to your arsenal.


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