Slave research can be frustrating, but there are an endless array of records in which to uncover the lives of our ancestors. Many are little known and uncommon, but still filled with possibilities.
What Are Community Papers?
The private records of local citizens is one kind of valuable source. These are usually stored in the Special Collections or Manuscript divisions of universities, state archives, and genealogical/ historical societies.
I posted about some of these records previously, referred to as Plantation Papers. However, I want to expand on that concept.
I’ll refer to these sources generally as Community Papers: these are records such as Account Books, Ledgers, Diaries, Receipts, Scrapbooks and Letters.
These are important records for everyone, but especially for those researching enslaved ancestors. For this kind of research, it is critical that you know the community in which your ancestor lived.
I mean really study them and take to time to know them. Who were the prominent people and major families? Do you know the merchants, plantation owners, doctors, blacksmiths, lawyers, sawmill owners, etc.?
The concept is that you may find your ancestor mentioned in the records of someone who lived in his/her community.
The Maryland Genealogical Society
I have been researching the roots of my free black ancestor Louisa Simpson who in 1850 lived in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
I researched her neighborhood extensively, creating what I call my “cluster table.” We need to know the neighbors of our ancestors–not just other black families but also the slaveholders nearby. Louisa’s family was long associated with the slaveholding Warfield family.
Louisa married Perry Simpson, who was enslaved by Beale Warfield. Later, he was inherited by William Warfield.
When I visited the Maryland Genealogical Society in Baltimore some months ago, I searched through their catalog for the types of records above.
I looked specifically for records about the Warfield family. I found an Account book for Dr. Gustavus Warfield, that included records dating from 1816 to 1830.
The Warfield Account Book
Doctors, as well as merchants, had to keep records of their customers. Dr. Warfield saw whites and blacks, and made special notations in many of the entries. Look at what I uncovered about the free black community in his account book:
Joe Anderson, freed by Charles Hammon, 1823, 1824.
Isaac Baker, free negro on R. Shipley’s place, 1821
Billy Carpenter, free negro, 1823, 1824, 1826.
Caty, free negro at R. Shipley’s, 1829
Samuel Clark, free negro at Joshua Warfields, 1824, 1827.
John Cook, free negro at Allen Dorsey’s, 1821, 1824 (wife)
Frank Snowden, freed by Levin Warfield, 1825.
Dennie, freed by R. Riggs, May 31, 1824
Dick Dorsey, freedmen at H. Hobbs, 1826
James Fossett, freedman at Lisbon, 1821, 1822 (vaccination)
Frank, freed by Levin Warfield, 1820, 1821
Isaac Dorsey, free negro living by Beckley, 1823
James Waters, free negro at Lisbon, wife and delivery, Feb. 5, 1819
Charles Wells, freedman, son of Daniel, 1821.
Billy Williams, free negro, son of Caspar, 1824.
This account book provides important information about Dr. Warfield’s neighborhood. It included entries about slaves and freed blacks. It provides the critical association of surnames with some of the freedmen.
Sometimes the entries identify who a free black person was freed by or where they were living. We can also see that Dr. Warfield was called on to deliver babies as well as perform vaccinations, so it also gives us a glimpse into early 19th century life.
George Cooke and Edward Lloyd
As another example, I found the diary of George Cooke, a plantation owner who lived in the mid- 1800s. He discussed his enslaved property and the free black laborers who worked for him.
His diary also provided an important view of what life was like in the county where my ancestors lived.
Some of the papers and letters you may find will include bills of sale and lists of slaves. The image below is from a Maryland Historical Society catalog search.
It shows an entry for the huge plantation estate of Edward Lloyd, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
He owned hundreds of slaves and their collection of his records includes inventories of his slaves (Frederick Douglas was rented out to him for a time):
Have You Looked Yet?
Just when you think you’ve researched everything possible—here I go giving you something else to look at! Go back to your county level research, and find out who the “key people” in the community were.
Then find the archives and library special collections and see what they have on those families.
Many times, you can search their catalog from home, and more efficiently use your time at the facility.
I’ll be heading back the Maryland Historical Society soon to view some scrapbooks and other ledgers I found in the catalog.
It is true that many of the papers that are donated to institutions are those of wealthier or more prominent people.But you never know until you look.
You may not find something as detailed as Thomas Jefferson’s famous Farm Book (image below), but there may be something there that adds to the history of 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.