There’s a common misconception that African Americans can’t trace their ancestry due to the obstacles posed by slavery. Fortunately for African Americans today, that’s not really the case. Yes – African American research poses a unique set of challenges, but these obstacles can be overcome in many cases.
Our expert team here at Ancestry.com has put together variety of resources to help you get started. If you’re new to African American research, this is a great place to gather some tips to help you on your journey. If you’re a family history veteran, maybe we have a new resource for you.
STARTING YOUR RESEARCH – GETTING TO 1870
As many of you know, when you start your family history research, it’s best to start with yourself and what you know about your immediate family and go backwards from there. Taking it one generation at a time, gather everything you can find before moving back to the next. Regardless of your ethnic background, this will help you build a solid foundation upon which future research will rest.
It can be helpful to start with U.S. federal censuses and find your family in each one. Pay attention to extended family and note every clue you find. You’ll want every detail at your disposal when you begin moving into slavery-era records.
Since the 1870 census was the first census taken after the Civil War, it is a particularly important enumeration for African Americans. Remember to use all of the details in that 1870 census record, noting relationships, ages, and location.
If your ancestors were free, they would have been enumerated in earlier census population schedules and that would be your next place to look. Don’t assume that your ancestors enslaved unless you have some proof. There were free people of color living in the U.S. prior to the Civil War.
Finding a Slaveholder
If your family members were enslaved, your next task will be to try and figure out who the slave owner was. Prior to the 1870 census, slaves were counted on slave schedules in 1850 and 1860, but not listed by name.
If you were successful in finding your family in the 1870 census, start your search in the location that your ancestors were living in. They may have stayed in the same area after being freed. Look closely at white families who lived near you relatives in the 1870 census and shared the same surname. Sometimes former slaves adopted their former slaveholders surname as their own, so if you find a family with the same last name, try tracking them back. Check the 1860 census for that family and see if they held slaves, and check the 1860 slave schedules and see if there were slaves on the schedule whose ages match up with your ancestors’ ages at that time.
Sometimes the listings for large slaveholdings appear to take the form of family groupings, but in most cases, slaves are listed from eldest to youngest with no apparent effort to portray family structure. In any event, the slave schedules themselves almost never provide conclusive evidence for the presence of a specific slave in the household or plantation of a particular slaveholder. At best, a census slave schedule can provide supporting evidence for a hypothesis derived from other sources.
In all U.S. Federal Censuses for 1850-1880, and the 1885 censuses of Colorado, Florida, and Nebraska, enumerators recorded anyone who had died in the past year. These names were recorded on mortality schedules. African Americans were listed by name on mortality schedules, so search for anyone in your family who may have died within the census year. This can help place your ancestors in a particular place during that census year, even in the 1850 and 1860 censuses when most African Americans aren’t listed by name.
The Civil War devastated the South, leaving former slaves and many whites destitute and homeless. Returning veterans came home to a ruined economy and the loss of their fortunes. Former slaves now had to seek employment and were thrust into a new social order. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (a.k.a., the Freedmen’s Bureau) was formed in 1865 to help rebuild the South and assist the many needs of these Southerners.
In addition to the above mentioned services, the Freedmen’s Bureau “legalized” the plantation marriages of many former slaves. These records have not been indexed, and the format varies by state, but many include names, ages, and residences; number of children; former companions; how many years they were together, and the reason for separation; and the color of bride, groom, and both sets of parents. Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records, 1815-1866
The year 1865 found many African American Civil War veterans and ex-slaves with money in their pockets and there was a need for an institution to serve them. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (often referred to as the Freedman’s Bank) was incorporated on 03 March 1865 to meet that need. Unfortunately mismanagement and fraud led to the failure of that institution in 1874 wiping out the savings of many African Americans. While some were eventually able to recover about two-thirds of their savings, many never got any of their money back.
For purposes of identification, these registers asked personal questions of the account holder and as a result, many contain a goldmine of information regarding family structure. Names of spouses, children, parents, siblings, and even aunts and uncles can be found on the signature registers. Other information may include physical description, place of birth, residences, occupation, employer, and some earlier records will even include the names of former slave owners–a critical piece of information for tracing a slave beyond the Civil War.
After the Civil War, the U.S. government created the Southern Claims Commission whose duty it was to assess claims of reimbursement for personal property loss as a result of the war. In order to receive reparations claimants had to prove loss of property, that they supported the Union, they did not provide aid to the Confederate army, etc. Petitioners were also required to provide the testimony of someone who knew them for at least five years; this was often their former slave. They each had to answer 80 questions. The testimony given by former slaves often reveals genealogical details of the slave and his/her family. First, find the correct family in the right state/county in the Master Index and see if it was barred, disallowed or allowed (most were not approved). Then look in the appropriate database to locate the pages of testimony.
- U.S. Southern Claims Commission, Disallowed and Barred Claims 1871-1880
- U.S. Southern Claims Commission, Allowed Claims 1871-1880
The Ancestry.com Family History Wiki is a great place to go to search for just about any kind of brick wall you may have in your research, and a great resource for African American research. Type “African American” in the search bar and explore the wiki to see what is available. A great place to start is the ‘Overview of African American Research’ which is taken from The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy and gives an introduction to research. There is also a list of related topics which cover some of the records in more detail that were discussed above and can give you more great insights into searching those records. Overview of African American Research
The Ancestry team is always working to make your research easier to understand. Below is a list of some resource materials to help you as you embark on your research journey:
The key to good research is knowing what is available and understanding the limitations of the records – hopefully with this quick guide you’ll have a good path carved out for you to get started.