Contraband Slaves

Contraband Slaves

I’ve been conducting slave research on my family and teaching others how to do it for about 18 years now. There are a few points I tend to mention repeatedly on Reclaiming Kin, but thought it would be a good idea to list them all in one place.

Especially for beginners, there are some things that will benefit you to know as you progress into the era of slavery.


1. Slave research is extraordinarily complicated.

Most people want simple solutions and one-size- fits-all methodologies, but it just doesn’t work that way. It is complex, and requires a commitment that everyone might not have.

There are plenty of examples of researchers finding the slaveholder in what might appear to be a simple fashion. Heaven knows all the genealogy TV shows make it look easy.

What wouldn’t be, with a team of paid researchers behind the scenes? Those “simple” techniques won’t work for many people, and won’t work on all the lines of your family. The surnames alone are enough to keep you endlessly confused.

Don’t be opposed to hiring a trained researcher (experienced in researching enslaved people) if you don’t have to time or the desire to run uphill. I hire other genealogists all the time when I can’t get to where the records are myself.


2. You should have researched all the generations of your family from the present day back to at least 1870 before you even think about researching slavery.

I do mean researching all the siblings in each  generation (not just your direct line).

You should have researched broadly in LOTS of different records. This will take a lot of time—years for most people. has given people the false hope that the information they find there is enough when it is not.

You’ll need to go out to other repositories in person to truly find the records you will need.

If you are just beginning, focus on taking the time to learn how to do genealogical research. Read one of the many good books on the topic. Why? First, you’ll need the skills you develop during this phase to utilize during your slave research.

I know it’s not exciting, but in the end you will waste less time. Secondly, you might just uncover the name of the slaveowner if you research deeply and broadly enough before you get back to that time period.

Rushing to get back to the period of enslavement is one of the top mistakes I see beginning researchers make. Take it slow and you will see the payoff.

Learn Local History

3. You have to read about the history of the area of your research before you start researching slavery in that place. You. Have. To.

You need to know what happened in your research county during the Civil War. Was it an area of large or small slaveowners? Was there a large free black community? Were abolitionists, or other groups advocating abolition, like Quakers, active in the area? What was the cash crop?

Which states did people migrate from? Where was the nearest slave market? What were the laws in that state relating to enslaved people?

You might get lucky and find a full length book treatment of the subject. Or, you might find that information provided in a chapter or two of a general history of the county or state.

Don’t forget to check theses and dissertations—slavery is a popular topic for local universities. I can’t stress this enough.

You should be able to answer something as simple as Which armies came through [your area of research] and when? Who were the prominent slaveholding families? If you can’t, you are not ready to research the period of slavery.

That information will be critical to your research.  Other resources for this information are the blue books that some states have online about their history like this one for Tennessee.

State Archives may have published information like this pamphlet on Slavery in Maryland.You may find a reputable website on the topic like this one for North Carolina.

This information might be found in the types of books below:

Historical Books

Historical Books

Read More About Slavery

4. You must learn more about the institution of slavery.

Most of us (myself included) know little when we start researching slavery other than what we saw on Roots and tidbits from popular culture. There has been groundbreaking new research in the last 50 years by outstanding historians that has completely changed our understanding about slavery.

I suggest you read one or two books about slavery in general. Unless you are already an African-American History Studies major, there will be many things you learn that will be new information.

You need to know those things to be successful in interpreting the experience of enslaved people. We forget that for *most* of our country’s history, we were a slave society. The remnants of that history are alive and and well, however unfortunate that may be.

Here’s a point by historian Ira Berlin I like to use to convey this message (paraphrased):

Most of us think about cotton, big plantations, the Deep South and Christianity when we think about slavery, but for most of the period of slavery, these things did not define the slave experience in this country.

Those experiences came in the last few decades of the roughly 230 years of slavery in the U.S., in the 9th inning so to speak.

Another important point: the domestic slave trade uprooted more slaves (more than one million) than were originally brought into this country by the African Slave Trade (about 400,000).

Think about that. That’s powerful. Yet no one talks about that.

Closing Thoughts

There are many valuable video lectures and panel sessions online about these topics, and I especially enjoyed Ira Berlin’s Slavery in American Life. If you’re interested, email me and I can suggest more.

Finally, the two books below are specific to researching slaves and should be in the library of anyone researching former slaves:

African-American/Slave Research

African-American/Slave Research

I hope this post will help prepare those on their quest to uncover their enslaved ancestors. Although it is complex and difficult work, it is also some of the most rewarding work I have ever done.

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