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It Takes A Village: Sharing Documentation with the African American Community

The responsibility of all genealogists is to collect and preserve information related to slaves and slaveholdings.


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As genealogists, our interest in preserving family histories and ancestries should not be limited to our own family tree. The lives of our ancestors were intertwined with and influenced by their neighbors and their community. For many, this includes the influence of slavery on their lives and livelihood. As distasteful as we find it today, slaves were property. For the African American researcher, this means relying on the documents left behind by their masters.

Just the mention of researching African-American ancestry fills the air with a sense of failure, even before the search begins. Although a daunting task, it is far from impossible and may be made easier with the cooperation of those of us who are not of African-American descent. As we find mention of non-family members in documents and personal papers, it is our responsibility as genealogists to pass along anything of genealogical value.

Thanks to some dedicated researchers, websites such as and are beginning to emerge . They serve as central depositories for information and documentation regarding the purchase, birth, and sale of slaves, as well as free black census records, and other information of historical and genealogical value. The information gathered here and on similar websites, comes largely from some of the same sources used to research non-African-American ancestry.

Records generated after Emancipation can be very revealing, beginning with the 1870 U. S. Census when all African-Americans were enumerated with other residents. Beyond 1870, even after Emancipation, the search must become a cooperative effort. Genealogically useful records, both private and public, were concerned primarily with their owners. African-American ancestry prior to 1870 must focus on the slave owner. This is where the efforts of all genealogists are required and, indeed, relied upon. Census records, mortality schedules, deeds, and other court documents of the slave era often contain useful genealogical data to help trace African-American families. By gathering these documents in a central location, the slave years become less of a challenge to the African-American researcher. More importantly, the combined genealogies of the slave and slaveholder form a complete picture of their lives.

As valued parts of an estate, slaves were sometimes mentioned by name and may have been listed as inheritance in a will. When an ancestor's will mentions slave holdings, post the information to an appropriate mailing list or website. Generally speaking, the smaller the number of slaves in an estate, the more likely you are to find more identifying language in the will. For instance, a will that states, "I leave to my daughter, Martha Smith, formerly Dawes, and her husband, George, the Negroes bought of Nathan Graves, namely the girl Sofia and her boy, Tom." The Smith or Dawes researcher is delighted to find that George Smith's wife was the daughter of Mr. Dawes. Many of us would ignore the bequest of the two slaves and simply go on with our family research. In this instance, the relationship of Sofia and Tom is stated and there is a defined chain of ownership—Graves to Dawes to Smith—which opens the door for more documentation to be discovered. Sharing this will with the African-American community of researchers would be an invaluable piece of documentation, as well as offering new avenues of research for them.

Other probate records may also be helpful. Estate inventories, for example, may mention the purchase or sale of a slave. Bills of sale may also be found among probate documents if, for example, slaves had to be sold in order to pay estate debts. Deeds may list slaves used as collateral. If the debt was not paid, ownership would pass to the creditor. The slaves may never change hands, however, if the debt was paid. In any event, documents such as the deeds and wills discussed here should be shared.

Some states kept vital statistics records prior to 1870. Kentucky, for example, has some surviving birth and death records as early as 1852. The births of slaves were also recorded. The only personal information was usually that of age, gender, and racial identity (black or mulatto). In Madison County, Kentucky, the birth is recorded of a male slave, June 10, 1854, to Thomas Brown. The mother's name is not listed and the child is listed as mulatto. This is a good indication that Thomas Brown or one of his sons was the father of the child and that the mother was a slave. The master's custom of taking a mistress from among the slave girls resulted in the births of numerous mulatto children—some later listed as white or black, depending on the color of their skin. Although no name is listed, the age of the child makes it possible to track through subsequent census records and tax lists. The record is also a good indication that the child would take his master's name after Emancipation, although that was not always the case.

Starting in 1850, the mortality schedule listed all deaths within a year before the regular census enumeration. The deaths of blacks and mulattoes, both free and slave, were recorded. Deaths of slaves were enumerated in one of four fashions: unnamed (as in the slave schedules), but perhaps with the owner's name; by first name only; by first name and surname; and by first name with the owner noted. Many slave owners included the births and deaths of slaves in their family Bible. This practice usually indicated that the slaveholdings were small and/or that the slave family had been in the owners' possession for multiple generations. It may also suggest that the slave was a blood relative.

Court records in the antebellum slave states could document any number of situations involving slaves and their owners. They may include inquisitions on the death of a slave, disputes over the sale of a slave, or depositions in criminal cases involving a slave. One case in Estill County, Kentucky, included testimony that a married white woman gave birth to a child fathered by a slave named Mark. Again, these are records that the genealogist must share.

The vast majority of African-Americans were enslaved at the time of the Civil War. As such, they had no legal rights and could not even claim a legally recognized state of matrimony. Although marriages of free blacks was recorded on a county level, usually in a separate set of books, the marriages of slaves was not. Some marriages may be found in church registers or 'minutes," however. Many slaveholders felt it their duty to convert their slaves to Christianity. They would bring them to church and have them baptized into the faith. These baptisms were recorded in the church records, and the name of the slave was entered into the register, although usually giving only a first name and the name of their "sponsor" (owner). If they declared themselves to be married, the minister would "validate" the marriage by performing a Christian ceremony and recording it in the church registry. Following the conversion and baptism of the slave, their death, marriage and children's births were recorded, as well.

Plantation records and personal papers of slaveholders may contain information on slaves. If these papers have survived, they may still be in the possession of the family or deposited with local or state historical societies—or donated to a local museum. Many records have also been deposited at research libraries. The information in plantation records is unpredictable. Many times, the genealogically valuable information is lacking in detail. But, keep in mind that these are business records which included the purchase, sale, cost of upkeep, and other expenses associated with slave ownership. A child born of a slave mother became the property of the mother's owner, so it was in the owner's best interest to maintain a record of that birth in the absence of an official vital record. In most cases, the slave owner's records may be the only place where slave birth records can be found. Likewise, deaths may also be recorded, although the reasons for doing so were less compelling. Keep in mind that these papers will not necessarily be limited to one person, one generation, or even to a family of the same surname. As the plantation or parts of it were sold or transferred, the records could also be transferred with the property.

These are only a few examples of the information we, as genealogists, come across in our search. Just as we would not hesitate to share information found on a collateral line, we must train ourselves to share any and all data that might assist those researching African-American genealogies. After all, documenting our ancestry and preserving our history is a common goal.

Reference: Finding Your African American Ancestors—A Beginner's Guide, by David T. Thackery. Published by Ancestry Publishing; ©2000

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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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