I was encouraged that many of you read my last blog post, and shared your feelings about being the descendants of slaveholders. That post had over 7,000 views! (Update, 12/2108: Over 25,000 views of that post).

At a time when so much ugliness is on display daily in our country, it heartens me that there are others who are enlightened and willing to learn. There are people trying to challenge outdated and false notions about race, history and identity. I thank you for that.

More Ideas for Helping Descendants of Enslaved People

Many of you expressed the desire to share the information you’ve discovered about your family’s enslaved people. Others want to understand more about their lives. I’ll expand upon those two topics in this post, and I’m going to include many links for further exploration.

Here’s another idea for sharing information you may have: how about adding images of inventories/wills/deeds or other documents that name slaves into the image galleries of the slaveholder in your Ancestry tree?

Transcriptions are nice, but the original images are even better. Can you imagine the resource that Ancestry.com could be for those researching enslaved people if everyone started to do that? Powerful.

I have written previously about how African-Americans can track slaveholders in family tree software. Slaveholder descendants can make use of this. You can create a fact, for example called “Enslaved People.” That information can now be tracked and printed in your narrative reports.

Next, I want to provide an overview of some general concepts of slave research that you may find helpful.

Finding the Last Slaveholder

Descendants of enslaved people must identify the last slaveholder or we can’t progress beyond 1870, period. That is the sine qua non of slave research. 1870 is the first year every African-American is enumerated in the U.S. Census.

African-Americans are only included before 1870 if they were freed before 1865, which almost 1/2 million were. Marriages between free blacks and enslaved people were common, especially in areas like the Upper South where free blacks were numerous.

Sometimes the name of the last slaveholder is passed down in African-American families through oral history. Notice I say “last slaveholder.” There was the “last slaveholder” (or some say “most recent”–meaning the one before emancipation) and there were “previous slaveholders.”

Many enslaved people were owned by numerous people over their lifetimes. Enslaved people often formed families with others on nearby plantations. These are often called “adjoining” or “joining” plantations in records. In fact, enslaved people lived within their own communities, created with slaves from from other “joining” plantations.


The majority of enslaved people had only a vague idea of how old they were. We see this in the telltale “rounded” ages of former slaves in the 1870 and 1880 censuses.

We also see this when former slaves tried to get pensions for their Civil War service.  Frederick Douglass discussed this in his famous narrative:

“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.

I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.

The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.”

A young Frederick Douglass

Marriage and Family

Children born during slavery were owned by their mother’s owner. If your ancestor owned a wife and her children, the husband may be an enslaved man owned by a neighbor. Enslaved people in the 1870 census were finally able to live together as a family unit.

One of the very first things freedpeople did was try to find their children, spouses and parents. These documents are heartbreaking. This Civil War pension testimony of Bettie Bradley also illustrates:

“..I had a husband in slave time in South Carolina. I belonged to Mr. Lewis M. Ayre near Sumpterville, SC and Elias Phoenix a neighbor’s servant was my husband according to slave custiom.

We had been married only about a year when I was sold to a n***** trader and brought to West Tennessee and bought by Mr Thomas Kilpatrick, now dead of Tipton County, Tenn. I was then given by him to his daughter Mrs. Cornelia Nelson and went to live with her at Bartlett Station, this county.”

What Records are Enslaved People Found In?

Many records that genealogists use discuss enslaved property. There is nothing technically called a “slave record.” Information about them is mostly found in estate records, but they were documented in church records, tax, court and deed records as well.

Some have been fortunate to find the records of  slaveholders that list slave births and deaths. I loved how Mariann Regan’s shared a journal that documented enslaved people owned by her family.

There are also many states and counties  that have unique records with regard to researching enslaved people. For example, Virginia’s slave birth register and the slave statistics available in some Maryland counties.

Many of the New England states that gradually abolished slavery had to have records of the births of enslaved people. They needed this information to know when each person would be manumitted. The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer database contains a nice visual showing the varied types of documents that mentioned enslaved people.

The problem with all of this is that you have to know the name of the slaveholder FIRST before you can use these records. How do African-American researchers work back to 1870, and then find that person’s last owner? That is the challenge.

1823 estate inventory for Walter Williams

Estate Records

The single most important document for researchers of enslaved people is the estate inventory. But that’s only if the slaveholder died before 1865. If the slaveholder lived through the Civil War, the inventory won’t help because enslaved people were no longer property. In that case, researching the suspected slaveholder’s parents estate papers –and his wife’s parents—may yield the required connecting documents.

Men very often came into enslaved property through their marriages, like for example, George Washington. I discuss inventories here because while wills often name slaves, they don’t often name all the enslaved property a person owned.

In many cases, we can’t find direct evidence proving slaveownership. Researchers will have a build a case for slaveownership.

Family Groupings and Surnames

Even when one finds the identity of the slaveholder, another major hurdle awaits. Slaveholder practice was to use given names only in documents about enslaved property, even though many knew the surnames of their slaves. Most estate inventories of slaveholders will provide a list of their enslaved  property with dollar values attached to each name.

Luckier researchers will find ages attached to those names, which is helpful. A much smaller group of only the luckiest researchers will find family groupings of those enslaved individuals. I found an inventory with surnames attached to the given names which was just astonishing. But even inventories that list family groupings almost never include the name of the father. They often only include a woman and her children.

The lack of indication of family structures is one of the hardest things to deal with as an African-American researcher. One of the cultural clues researchers often use is the practice enslaved people had of naming their children after their parents or siblings. This was a way to remember loved ones in a life filled with constant sale.

Slave naming patterns were important factor in reconstructing enslaved families. If a will exists, sometimes the relationships between enslaved people are included.

Replica of the inside of a slave cabin, Baton Rouge, ca. 1999

Research Strategies

Here are some ways that researchers find the name of the last slaveholder:

Suggested Resources

For those looking for background reading, I recommend the book Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity by Dee Parmer Woodtor. This is an excellent book with a nice balance of African-American history and genealogy.

NGS Quarterly and other genealogy journals have published many case studies involving enslaved people. Reading them is a good to learn more about methodology and sources. Slavery historian Ira Berlin (at the University of Maryland) does a fantastic job of discussing this history in his talk, Slavery In American Life). The work he and his team have done at the  Freedmen and Southern Society Project has taught me so much.

I have written numerous posts on slave and slaveowner research. Use the drop down box in the right column of this blog (where it says “What I Talk About”)  to see the associated posts.  Some that I would recommend to add to this general overview are:

What you Didn’t Know About Slavery
How Were Slaves Sold?
Slave Distributions
The Terror of Reconstruction
A Slave’s Letter too His Former Master
Slave Research: Four Things You Need to Know
Mind of the Slaveowner

Soldier Samuel Smith and his family

My friend and fellow genealogist Melvin Collier has done numerous posts on his research on enslaved ancestors. I also recommend genealogist Renate’s blog Into the Light and her explorations of her enslaved ancestors and free black ancestors.

Closing Thoughts

Some of you may have noticed that I go to great lengths to use the phrase “enslaved people” as opposed to “slaves.” The battle between use of these terms continues in academic circles, but you can guess where I fall in that debate.

Slavery was imposed on human beings, and using the word “enslaved” makes that clear. Words have power. I will use the word “slave” only if the sentence becomes overly unwieldly.

Researching the enslaved people your family owned could reveal information about your own family. Enslaved people were in the FAN club or cluster of people. They lived in close daily proximity to your family and both groups knew a lot about each other.

Though most former slaves were illiterate, they knew alot about the slaveholding family. Look at Cupid Hamilton’s Southern Claims testimony:

“My master Mr. William Heyward gave me two horses and a wagon to make a living for myself and family as he could not afford us any longer.

He’s dead now…died in Charleston of yellow fever in 1872. His grandson Mr. William Hankel was not present when he gave me the horses and the wagon, but he lives on the plantation now and I believe knows all about it”

That death date and place might be valuable information for the descendants of slaveholder William Heyward.

Thanks for taking to the time to read this blog post (short novel?). Please continue to send me any specific questions you may have about your research and let me know your thoughts.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email