The Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, ratified and adopted in December 1865, effectively ended the institution of slavery, although it did not ensure civil rights. Also, 1865 saw the end of the American Civil War. Five years later, the 1870 U.S. Federal Census was the first to enumerate all citizens by name, regardless of race, and is often the first document recording the surname of former slaves.
Prior to 1870 only free African Americans were actually named in the census, under the category "other free colored persons" (which could refer to those of any racy other than white). Those held as slaves were enumerated under the name of the slave owner.
From 1790-1840 only the heads of households were named in the census, including free persons of color; others in the household, including slaves, were merely counted by number and in later censuses, tallied by age and gender.
The 1850 and 1860 were the first to identify by name every "free citizen," in a household, including women and children, with a separate "Slave Schedule" for slaves. Slave Schedules identified each slave by number, age, gender and color, under the name of the slave owner -- only in "rare instances" are slaves mentioned by name. Although the category of "free persons of color" was not used after 1840, free blacks were identified by race, "B" for black, "M" for mulatto -- in some instances identified as "N" for negro.
It is also interesting to note, regarding our modern online census indexes, some of those transcribing the records may have confused the handwritten letter "W" with the letter "N" or "M"; thus, it is very important for the researcher to personally examine the original census image to make sure you are comfortable with the information as transcribed. This advice holds for the information presented in any transcribed document.
The 1850 and 1860 censuses asked slave owners to identify the number of "uncaught escaped slaves" in the past year and the number slaves "freed from bondage" on the past year, which may help in tracing ancestor's of a certain age missing from one census year to the next.
The 1880 census was the first to identify the relationship of every resident to the head of household, as do all subsequent censuses up to 1930 (the 1940 census is scheduled for release in April 2012). In addition to relationships, these censuses also identify age at last birthday, place of birth, occupation, literacy and other important information. By 1880 it still may be possible to find former slaves with a birth place listed as Africa -- by 1870 former slaves were free to list their place of birth, although many may have been reluctant to do so.
A survey of census records is one of the first steps for those just beginning to research their African American ancestry, beginning with the last census taken before death, back to the first census taken after birth. In moving from the recent to the past, the 1870 census may be the last census in which former slaves are named; however, a careful examination of the census may suggest the name of an ancestor's slave owner, which can help in research prior to 1870. Many former slaves continued to live in proximity to their former slave owner and may very well have taken the slave owner's name at emancipation.
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