Before my post, I want to acknowledge the passing of my dear and treasured friend, Andrea Ramsey on October 8, 2019. Its been a very sad summer for me, with her illness. She was an outstanding genealogist, specializing in Caribbean research, and a proud member of the Jean Sampson Scott AAHGS chapter in New York City.

My heart misses her every single day and genealogy brings back wonderful memories with her. She was such a generous, kind, brilliant woman and she leaves behind a long path of heart and souls forever touched by her.

I miss you, Andi. Send me some of my lost ancestors since you know who they are!

With Andi

Understanding the Slave Community

I talk on this blog all the time about the importance of cluster research. This concept is critical for those researching enslaved ancestors.

Understanding the 1870 community is the first step in this process. Most former slaves (though not all) were still living near the place where they were enslaved.

Knowing this can help us find the identity of their former owner. Moreover, it can also uncover spouses, and the web of people they interacted with after emancipation.

I discussed this in my lecture a few weeks ago at the Maryland Genealogical Society’s Fall Seminar.

Levi Prather’s Community

Let’s start by using the “cluster” table I make for every ancestor I find in 1870. I often make charts and tables to help analyze my research. This one is for my ancestor Levi Prather, of Montgomery County, Maryland.

I created this by viewing each census image about 15 pages on either side of Levi’s 1870 household. I was focused on documenting every African American head of household and their white neighbors who owned over $1000 of land.

Landed whites are likely to have been slaveholders in 1860. If people lived in a household with a different surname, I recorded them as well.

This is just one page out of eight.The first column is for the dwelling number in the census image.(The little +f after their name means is my code for “plus family”):
Highlighted in yellow is my ancestor Levi, and any other African-Americans surnamed Prather. (Two lived in neighboring districts: Tobias and Nelson Prather). Wesley, unsurprisingly, turned out to be his brother.


The point of the cluster table is to familiarize yourself with the community. We need to analyze this information thoroughly, searching for clues and connections. These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself:

-What local whites own large amounts of land? (look at the column for value of real estate)
-Which African-Americans are literate?
-Which African-Americans own land? (then go and find the deed records)
-Which African-Americans are skilled laborers (carpenters, blacksmiths, etc.)?
-Is the community older or younger?
-Who was born out of state?
-Which African-Americans are former soldiers?
-Which white landholders are female (suggests a probate search for a deceased husband)?

African-Americans in this timeframe who are literate, own land or are skilled laborers are often the “key” individuals in the community.

The “key” African-Americans are typically those who play a central role in starting churches, building schools, forming benevolent societies and contributing land for cemeteries after emancipation. This is important to add to our understanding of the social history.

Once I make this kind of table, I know the surnames of local African-American families. When I see them named in deed, court, military or other records, I am able to connect them to community.

If the first name is uncommon, you might be able to make some informed guesses about which family a spouse may have come from, especially if the couple married during slavery.

Slaveholders in the Neighborhood

I can adjust my cluster table to just show the white landholders:
I placed Levi Prather in the table as a marker, so I can make a rough judgement of proximity.

I’ve discussed how important it is to find a local map of the community, especially a landholder map. Shown below is a snippet from an 1865 map of Montgomery County, Maryland.

The Library of Congress Maps Division, your state archives and the local historical society are great sources to find these maps. In this map, I placed a star on the name of every  slaveholder I could find from my cluster.

I can even get an idea of how the enumerator traveled while taking the census:

The Slave Community Emerges

What I now have, in my chart and in the map, is a picture of the slave community.

What is that? Our ancestors formed relationships and bonds of affection with those who lived in the neighborhood.

They often married neighboring slaves (or free blacks), and they socialized with other laborers on the one day a week they might have to themselves.

We know this because they told us these things in the sources they left. It was their community.

And runaway ads remind us that the slaveholders were aware of these communities as well.

Out of the sheer brutality of slavery, enslaved people found a way to form relationships that brought them some modicum of joy. This is one of the reasons I remain in awe of their strength and endless ingenuity.

They created moments of beauty within the small confines of their lives. That’s in addition to the rich culture they created, much of which survives today as American culture.

In other words, slaveholders did not succeed in destroying their humanity.

The slave community did not end at emancipation. The bonds of affection, both biological and kinship, continued. Look at the graphic below I created out of the surnames of the African-American community that were in my cluster table:

AA Surnames

My Prather ancestors, even after emancipation, married people with 8 of these surnames!

Additionally, with this 1870 cluster table, you have a tool to help  identify the slaveholder.

If I had not already found Levi’s owner, I would look at each star on the 1865 map and research whether that person owned a male slave in the approximate age range of Levi in 1860 or 1850. Then I would continue to research that person’s family for more evidence.

Not only was Levi’s owner in this map (James Williams), but so was his father’s owner(Nathan Cooke). This is why, especially in the Upper South of Maryland, being sold to the Deep South was so dreaded.

Enslaved people often had generational ties to the communities where they lived. To them, it was a death.

Franklin Smith, a co-author of A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors, also reminds us to use another important source in our assessment of the community:

“The 1880 Agricultural census, if available for your state, is so important and and many times over looked, not only does it indicate whether your ancestor owned, rented or share cropped but also identified white landowners who paid wages to black and white laborers in 1880. If your ancestor was not listed as a land owner, renter or share cropper and were listed as farm laborers in 1880, they may have worked for hire for one of the nearest landowners that paid wages in 1880. This section is only on the 1880 Agricultural census for rebellion states.”

Closing Thoughts

Even if you are unable to locate a landholder map, you can still map the slave community. Create a chart as I did above, which will suggest “nearby” slaveholders, and begin to methodically research each one. It’s time consuming, YES! But worth every bit of time.

Of course, this process can’t guarantee success on every line. If your ancestor left with the Army or otherwise never came back to where he or she was enslaved, this won’t work to find the slaveholder.

If the slaveholder moved before the war, you might not find them in the community in 1870. They may also have died between 1865 and 1870.

The constant migration during slavery and the upheaval and chaos of war means there are endless possible scenarios for every one of our ancestors.

Yet and still–the vast majority of enslaved people were essentially stuck in the community where they were enslaved. At least they knew the people in that community, both white and black.

In these scenarios, the above mentioned process can prove valuable. I am working through this process now for my ancestor in the very difficult terrain of Florida, so wish me luck!

l-t-r, James Morgan, Aaron Dorsey, Robyn Smith, Thom Reed and Melvin Collier

I will end with a picture of me and some of my “genealogy buddies” at the AAGHS annual conference which was in College Park a few weeks ago. I presented a well-received session on Using Land Records to Find Your Ancestors.


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