How can the 1850 and 1860 census slave schedules aid my research?

The 1850 U.S. Federal Census was the first census to identify every resident by name -- every resident, that is, except slaves. In both the 1850 and 1860 census, there were two questionnaires, one for free inhabitants and one for slaves. The slave questionnaire, however, did not identify slaves by name, but listed them by age, race and gender, under the name of the slave holder. Only in rare instances is one or more slaves identified by name. Prior to 1850 there was only one questionnaire, identifying by name the free-inhabitant heads of households only; all others, including slaves were merely tallied (counted) within their respective categories: white, slave and free colored. The 1870 census was the first to identify all African Americans by name.

It is often assumed the 1850 and 1860 slave schedule are of no value because they do not list slaves by name. But used in combination with other records, slave schedules can be of considerable service to researchers, both those seeking their African American slave ancestors and those seeking ancestors who were slave holders.

If you are researching ancestors during this time period, you may want to consider posting to the Genealogy Today Message Boards to engage the assistance of others. Key Points

  • Slave schedules are organized by state and county (see list of states below).

  • Most farms had less than 10 slaves, which may aid your research. Certainly, there were larger farms and plantations, which can make the research more difficult, but more slaves may suggest more transactions and possibly more records.

  • A slave holder might hold slaves in more than one county or state and may not have lived on the land. It is possible the person listed as slave holder could be a company, estate administrator or even an overseer or manager, which makes it important to cross-reference slave schedules with the regular census returns for that year.
Using Slave Schedules

It is important to note, the age, gender and race seen on slave schedules applies to the slave only and not the slave holder.

  • Slave schedules identify slave holders name and place -- this is important as almost any other record that exists for slaves during this time period were associated with the name of the slave holder, including bills of sales, wills and probate, etc. Following emancipation, many former slaves took the name of the slave holder, and many stayed in the same geographic area.

  • Slave schedules can also help you determine if the slaves recorded for a particular slave owner are of the correct age and gender of your ancestor. In some cases, slaves appear to be listed in family groups, although they may just be listed by age. Keep in mind that ages may have been estimated and the determination of color may have been subjective.

  • You may also find additional information by researching a slave holder's family and neighbors, as slaves were often were often transferred or shared from one to another.

  • In addition to age, gender and race (color: black or mulatto), slave schedules also indicate the number of slaves who had fled and not yet returned; the number of slaves freed or manumitted during the year; whether a slave was deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic and any crime or convictions.

  • The 1860 slave schedule added a question about the number of slave houses. The number of slave houses may indicate the size of an operation, and it may also indicate slave families on a farm or plantation. And, if there are no slave houses listed, it could suggest slaves living within the family household.
Slave schedules exist for the following states:

District of Columbia
New Jersey
North Carolina
South Carolina
Utah Territory

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