Tracing African American genealogies has many challenges. However, I find it one of the most rewarding areas of family history research in my work as a professional genealogist. The greatest challenge obviously comes when an ancestor is traced back to the time of slavery. While there are many different methodologies that can be used to break beyond the Civil War threshold, there are plenty of other challenges that you may encounter in tracing an African American family after 1865. I would like to provide a few tips that you will want to add to your tool-belt in carrying out such research.
Many people think that all freed slaves adopted surnames after emancipation. However, slaves did typically have surnames; they were just not generally known by them in public or recorded with them. Yet, to themselves and within the slave communities they were known by a surname. Here are a few things to understand about African American surnames:
- Often times a surname was derived from a former slave owner somewhere in an ancestor’s past or their family’s history—not necessarily the last owner they personally had.
- Surnames were typically handed down in slave families from parents to children. So a surname may have origins many generations back even though they did not remain enslaved by a family of the original surname.
- Slave status was determined at birth by the status of the mother. Because of the awful circumstances of slavery, many slaves did not know their fathers. Hence, most carried their mother’s surnames.
- Some freed slaves were known to have changed their surnames after gaining freedom, but I find this to have been less common. You will want to keep this in mind, though, and watch for surname changes between the 1870 and 1880 censuses in particular.
- In cases where a freed slave took on a new surname, it was sometimes derived from prominent historical figures, geographical icons (e.g. a river) or someone in the local community they admired (e.g. a respected abolitionist minister or legislator).
Be cautious in regards to given names. People are often listed with nicknames or other variant names (e.g. Bob for Robert, Betsy for Elizabeth, etc.). Also, slaves (and freed slaves) often had very strong accents and because names were often spelled the way they sounded to a record-keeper, you may find very unique spellings for a more common given name (e.g. Leweser for Louisa, or Selah for Celia). Also, names can vary from record to record and so do not disregard someone because the name doesn’t quite fit your immediate expectation.
One of the tragedies of slavery was the fact that a traditional family unit (married father and mother with children) was often not possible to maintain. As you research African American families—especially those up to 30-40 years after emancipation—keep in mind that terms of relationship were used loosely (e.g. son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin). During slavery, in lieu of a traditional family unit, people would often congregate together for strength and support in a family-type unit even though they may not have been closely related—if at all. This cultural tradition often continued a generation or two after slavery. For example, it is not uncommon to find an African American couple in the 1900 or 1910 census listed in their late 50s and 60s with children under the age of 10 (listed as their sons and daughters). Obviously, such children were probably not actual biological children, but possibly grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or orphaned children that they kindly brought into their home.
Ages & Birthplaces
Ages for slaves and freed slaves can vary dramatically. This was because they often did not know their exact age because there were no records kept. Therefore, keep a range of 5-15 years open for consideration. Birthplaces can also fluctuate from record to record—especially if a slave was transferred across state lines as a child. As with their age, they may have been unclear of their exact birthplace.
Race & Color
These are some of the historical terms and pieces of information you need to be familiar with as you study historical records about African American ancestors:
- Mulatto: A person of mixed race with some degree of African blood. In several states the definition was a person with 1/8th African ancestry regardless of skin color.
- Quadroon: 1/4th African (less-common term).
It is important to remember that race designation was subjective and usually the sole judgment of the record keeper. If a person was lighter-skinned, they may have been listed as mulatto in one record, but as black in another. Hence, do not dismiss a possible ancestral record because the race is not listed the same as another record.