One of the best sources on enslaved families are in the records from antebellum plantations. Often stored in research libraries, historical societies, and state archives, they can be difficult to access.
Slaveholding families donated personal papers, letters, account books, and many other records and ephemera. Historians have long relied on these sources to understand “the political, economic and cultural life of the South as a whole.” These plantation records give readers an inside look of almost every aspect of plantation life.
A Collection Worth Seeing
I want to highlight a collection known as Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations. This collection was a historic effort by historian Kenneth Stampp to compile plantation records from all over the country. One massive microfilm publication stores this collection.
Though its original purpose was more scholarly in nature, these records are a boon to genealogists. However, you’ll have to locate a major research library to find one that houses this collection.
The records included in this collection are organized in “Series” using letters A-N. Each letter represents a particular archives or library. For example, Series D covers records from the Maryland Historical Society. Series E covers records from the University of Virginia Library.
Start your research by using the detailed Series Guides available online. Some of the index guides can be found by using Google.[Update, 2/18: the UVA webpage below appears to be gone now, but major libraries should be able to provide access to the guides through Lexis Nexis].
I’ve downloaded all the indexes, Series A-N. I have scoured these indexes for information about my ancestors and the counties where they lived.
Learning about historical events in the county is a great way to add to any genealogical narrative. It doesn’t have to be specifically about your ancestors. This is an important point. I use this principle in all my genealogical research.
Many of the guides in this collection contain biographies about individuals or families. For example, the entry for the Ruffin Plantation contains a biography about Thomas Ruffin:
In the Thompson Family Papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection, there is a “Slave Birth Record, 1801-1861.”
Author Jean L. Cooper created a wonderful index to this material titled “Index to Records to Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames and Collections,” ( 2nd. ed). The index is expensive, but a quick search at Worldcat will locate the nearest library that has it.
Her book is an invaluable resource for family historians. The records in the Series Guides are primarily listed in each Table of Contents by family surname, for example, “The Robert King Carter Papers.”
The problem is that it is hard to discern what county the family was from. Ms. Cooper’s book makes that task much easier.
A Few Tips
Most historical societies, archives or research libraries have their own guides to their manuscript collections. The Virginia Historical Society has a voluminous 200+page guide specifically created for African-American-related manuscripts. The Tennessee State Archives has a similar Guide available.
The amount of information available in the Series Guides varies by institution. I often use them as pointers. I might use the Series D indexes, and then visit the Maryland Historical Society since I live nearby.
Even though the Historical Society has its own manuscript guide, it may not provide the detail about slaveowning families that I need.
These records are not exhaustive. Keep in mind that the records are often from the larger plantations and more prominent families. The Introduction indicates they are, “mostly from the larger tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice plantations.” However, some smaller estate papers are represented in the collection.
How many of you have been successful finding useful information within these records? If you haven’t used these records yet, I hope this post will encourage you to take a look.
Addendum: Please read the response to this post below by “4ourtrees.” The author’s success using these records speaks powerfully to the possibilities!
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.
Well done my fellow genealogist.
In 1998, Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, Series A: Part I: The James Henry Hammond Papers, allowed me to recover four generations of my husband’s ancestors who were enslaved on Hammond’s plantations at Silver Bluff, Cathwood, Cowden and Redcliffe in Barnwell and Edgefield Counties in South Carolina.
Preliminary research led me to believe that Hammond may have been the last slaveowner of my husband’s paternal line of ancestors. Sources listed in two books, The Hammonds of Redcliffe, ed. by Carol Bleser (Oxford Press, 1981) and James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery, by Drew Gilpin Faust (LSU Press, 1982) then led me to Hammond’s manuscript collection archived at the South Caroliniana Library in Columbia, South Carolina.
Since we reside 1200 miles away from South Carolina I called the library to inquire if the manuscript collection was on microfilm and available for interlibrary loan. The reference librarian told me the collection had been filmed and was included on a microfilm series called Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations, but it was not available via interlibrary loan. That was the first time I had ever heard of the collection. She asked me where I lived and then said, “You are in luck. It is available at the University of Minnesota Wilson Library.” She stated at that time, due to high cost and constrained budgets, fewer than one dozen major universities across the country had purchased the entire series. Fortunately for us, one of them was less than a fifteen minute drive from our home.
Because of the easy access I had to those microfilmed records, not only was I able to discover and reclaim the names and stories of 21 of our family’s direct ancestors encompassing two paternal lines and four generations, it also enabled me to embark on the remarkable journey of going about the work of recovering the family histories and genealogies of the entire slave community. My research of the Silver Bluff Slave Community of South Carolina began with those records in 1998 and continues to this day. I can say with a great deal of certainty that easy access to those microfilmed records was imperative to the successful recovery of our family’s African Ancestored enslaved history. It would have eventually happened, but it would have entailed extensive travel and come at a much greater cost; the greatest of which is time.
Ready availability of those plantation records allowed me the freedom to study them at length and in-depth and develop a methodology whereby I reconstructed the enslaved family groups and relationships within the community, determined their pre and post-emancipation surnames and identities, and then used that information to trace them and their descendants forward to the latest census records and, in many cases, to the present day. From the plantation data and post-emancipation resources I created the first comprehensive family group reports of all the individuals enslaved on Hammond’s plantations.
Through my research of these records I have been able to help “bridge the gap” and share vital information with other researchers across the country who are seeking a possible connection to the Silver Bluff community. In the case of surname changes, the information sometimes proved to be the only link that would have allowed them to clear the 1870 census hurdle and discover their enslaved ancestors.
We are all painfully aware of the challenges of trying to reconstruct bridges from the present to the past with African Ancestored research. However, the sight lines can sometimes be brought into clearer focus when there are those who are also working on the bridge from the past to the present, as well as the other way around. That is why widespread availability and easy access to slavery records is imperative. When this methodology continues to be applied to known enslavement manuscript collections and joins hands with those employing traditional approaches to African Ancestored family history research, the potential for reclaiming stories and “linking heirs to ancestors” will be dramatic.
Of course the Internet and the digitization of a wide variety of records has made research much more convenient and accessible than it was in the 1980s and 90s when I first started, but there is still much work left to do. We must continue to provide helpful guidance about the resources that are out there and advocate for even greater access and availability of any record which can help us reclaim our lost stories.
As always, a heartfelt thanks to you for your great work and for your willingness to share your extensive knowledge with your fellow researchers.
Thank you so much for your comment! It means alot to me to know my assorted ramblings are helpful to others searching for their lost roots. Stay tuned for more!
I was just sitting here making a mental list of other places to look for slave info and then clicked on your post. This is invaluable! Thanks for sharing and for reminding us to think “out of the box” so to speak. I always learn something when I visit your blog!
Very interesting and encouraging! Thanks for sharing!