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Reconstructing the Families of Slaves

Records regarding slaves often do not use surnames, the most common reference point for identifying one's ancestors. Family groups can serve as an alternative reference point for identification in antebellum records. This article will explore records that will help you reconstruct the family groups of former slaves.


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Chattel slavery was an atrocity unparalleled in the history of the United States. Part of the legacy of the system is a lost history due to the difficulty in identifying individual slaves. Records of the era considered slaves property rather than people, and, therefore, are generally only identified by a given name, and rarely with any relationships to other slaves specified.

Despite the difficulty of the task, identifying the immediate families of your slave ancestors is necessary for successful and accurate research. In order to be sure that you have found your ancestor, other reference points must be utilized, because of the lack of surnames used in many slave-era documents. Family groups are the next easiest reference point to use.

For example, suppose your ancestor was named "John Hawkins" in post-Civil War records. During the antebellum period, he would have likely appeared merely as "John" in the records of his slave-owner. Imagine trying to go through hundreds or thousands of estate inventories, and other documents concerning slavery, trying to identify your "John" among the hundreds of others! Without another reference point on which to base your identification, it would be nearly impossible.

The following record groups created after emancipation could help you reconstruct families of slaves:

1. Oral tradition. The memories of one's elders can be the most powerful tool in reconstructing families. Living relatives may remember stories told them by their grandparents, which may include the names of their own grandparents or aunts and uncles.

2. Federal and state census records. The 1870 federal census, though it does not state relationships explicitly, still often reveals family groups. Used in conjunction with the 1880 federal census—which does state relationships—this can help to identify other relatives. Several Southern states, including Alabama, also took state censuses in the years following the Civil War. When using any of these records, do not limit yourself to a single household: broaden your search to include other nearby households bearing the same surname.

3. Vital records. If you do identify potential family members after emancipation, be sure to obtain marriage and death records for each of them as well, where available. Some states included the names of parents in marriage records, such as Virginia. Many people born into slavery died in the early twentieth century after the advent of civil death registration, and death certificates also often named parents. By obtaining the records of all of these potential relatives, you can identify common parents and confirm other relationships.

4. Civil War pension application files. Those researchers lucky enough to have discovered that an ancestor served in the U. S. Colored Troops, have another record group to pursue. Many former slaves applied for pensions, and these files might contain depositions from siblings. Even widow pensions, if the soldier was already deceased, might identify the soldier's siblings, as witnesses to the marriage.

5. Church records. The church played in a central role in the social world of former slaves. Then, as now, family members would often attend the same community church. If the records of these churches have survived, they may also identify family groups.

Once a family group has been reconstructed, you will no longer have to search records for "John." Instead, you can look for a "John," with brothers "George" and "Henry," and sisters "Agnes" and "Mary." It is much easier to locate a family group like this, than a single individual.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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