14 November 2013

The Last Slaveholder, guest post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

Gift of slaves from Sylvester DUNN to his daughter Mary GAVIN (Amite County MS, 1833)
Mary was the mother of the white man who fathered 17 of my African American ancestors

The greatest challenge for any African American researcher is identifying who held your ancestors in bondage.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was responsible for the kidnapping and forced migration of approximately half-a-million people from Africa to America. When the Civil War ended, four million people were emancipated from slavery. Your ancestors are hidden within this universe of numbers. Finding them is daunting, but not impossible.

The first Federal census to document African Americans by surname was 1870. This is the mother lode that can lead you back in time.

Here are the steps to follow:
  1. Build a family tree that goes back to 1870, following the basic rule of genealogical research to go backward from what you know. 
  2. Find your ancestors in the 1870 census. This will likely require a line-by-line read of the census in the county you are researching. Sometimes, people will not be shown by the surname by which you know them, but if you see related names in one family group, they might be yours. Also note that names could be transposed (first name last/last name first); nicknames listed instead of full names; and small twists in spelling that differentiate white from black. Familiarize yourself with the “neighborhood” – noting who lived next door to whom; who shared the same surname.
  3. Once you find your ancestors in 1870, go the state census (there are many for 1866) and try to find them again. Once more, the surname may be different (or non-existent), but look for family groups.
  4. If you can’t find your ancestors in 1870, look at the 1880 census. Life after Emancipation was in a state of flux. People wandered looking for family members and a place to settle permanently. Check counties near the original one you are searching; your ancestors might have moved on or maybe the county boundaries changed.
  5. Assuming your ancestor used the surname of their last slaveholder, identify families with the same surname who owned slaves in your target county. Once you find likely prospects, go to the slave schedules. In 1850 and 1860, the Federal census (for 17 states, mostly southern) included a separate slave schedule. The problem here is that, on these schedules, there is only a description of age, gender and color (plus notations for aberrations, like if the person was an idiot or fugitive ).
  6. Making an “educated guess” based on your work thus far, you will at this point have to look for deeds, wills, court records and estate files. People were passed on to future generations via wills and mortgaged by banks and individuals. Enslaved children inherited the status of their mother. Many of the fathers were white men (slaveholders) who are unnamed in any record.
  7. There are also other sources like Freedman’s bank records, WPA slave narratives, Southern Claims Commission files, family papers housed at universities and libraries and numerous other on and off line sources that document court cases, births, deaths and cohabitation. Look everywhere and discount nothing.
For each state, the nature and volume of records are different. It will often seem like you are looking for a needle in a haystack. But don’t give up. In the end, I believe our ancestors want to be found and honored; they will guide you along the way.

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website dedicated to African American family research. She is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). This blog expresses the views of the author and should not be attributed to the National Genealogical Society. 

Editor's Note: This is the first of a sequence of four posts by Sharon on researching African American roots. Look for these on Thursdays (except Thanksgiving) starting today and running into December.

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