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.