Posted by Joseph Shumway on February 28, 2014 in Research

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).

Four AA Boys sitting on a canon

Given Names

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.


Family Structures

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.


Joseph Shumway

Joseph Shumway is a Senior Genealogist with Ancestry's professional research team, ProGenealogists--having joined the company in 2007. Joseph discovered the thrill of genealogy at age twelve. At age fourteen he began volunteering at his local Family History Center and by age sixteen he found himself teaching classes and giving lectures on various genealogical topics. While in high school, Joseph oversaw and directed a project involving the compilation of local cemetery records. He was later honored by the Wyoming State Historical Society and was presented the Young Historian of the Year Award for his efforts. Joseph served as a British Reference Consultant at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah for a time. He is also a member of the Genealogical Speaker’s Guild (GSG) and several other genealogical societies and associations. He has served as both President and Vice-President for the Salt Lake Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and was on the Board of Commissioners for the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen). In 2007 he obtained his AG (Accredited Genealogist) credential. Read more about Joseph's background at


  1. Catherine Meehan Blount

    Thanks for this blog. You have provided much useful information. I’d like to add a cautionary note, though. In the earliest US census documents the classification “FPOC” (free people of color) was used for anyone who was not white or enslaved. A free person of color could be of African descent or Indian descent or anything that wasn’t classified as white or slave. Let the confusion begin.

    The term “mulatto,” freely interpreted today as solely the mix of black and white, further complicated the use of race as an identifier by genealogy researchers today. The legal definition used in Virginia in 1705 for mulatto was “the child of an Indian, or a child of the child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of a Negro.” The term mulatto is much more flexible in history than modern day use allows. A person listed as mulatto in a historical document could be solely of black and white ancestry, but they could also be Native American and white or black and Native American. I am black, white and Native American; I’ve found an ancestor listed as mulatto one census year and their sibling listed a few pages later in the same census as black or Indian.

    I’d assume that the black/white interpretation of the word is most often accurate – but it’s certainly not always accurate. I’d caution researchers to be careful about either including or excluding potential ancestors based on assumptions that race descriptors foster.

  2. Joseph Shumway

    Thank you, Catherine! You made some great points on the loose term “mulatto” in the historical records.

  3. Charles

    I agree that an article on tracing African Americans Pre1865 would be helpful. Something that would stress the importance of finding out who the slaveholders were and looking at their property, legal and tax records (which often contain extremely valuable information about slaves). Baptismal records, other church records and Freedmens Bureau Records can also yield valuable clues to Pre1865 roots. I remain convinced that too many people believe that there is an impossible brick wall before 1870 when it comes to African American genealogy. Instead, I’ve found that the focus needs to be placed on other kinds of records like the ones I mentioned above and then the brick walls begin to fade away significantly for many of us.

  4. Adriana

    Although I am not African American, I am currently in the process of researching my husband’s slave-owning ancestors and tracking down their former slaves after emancipation.

    I am not an expert in the subject by any means, but I would start with the surname in the 1870 Federal Census and then searching for any slave owners in the general area in the 1860 Federal Census. Even though the Slave Schedules don’t tell you names, you do get the sex and age.

    What’s more, sometimes a slaver holder’s will reveals the names of individual slaves. In my husband’s ancestor’s case, his father-in-law bequeathed a slave girl named Sophia to his grandson. So we have a first name and we have a guess at the last name.

    Finally, sometimes you will find African Americans living in the household of their former owners or nearby their former owners in 1870. After all, you’re emancipated, but you don’t have any money or opportunity, and your former owners might still need your labor, either on the farm or in the household. Sad, but a reality of the post-Civil War era.

    In short, look at the earliest surname you, scan the area a decade earlier for slave owners, and then take a look at the slave schedule. See if your African American ancestor was employed by his or her former owner in 1870 or lived in the vicinity. And finally, sometimes you’ll hit the jackpot and find your ancestor mentioned by name in a will.

  5. Patrice Scott

    Another source for pre-1865 information is if your ancestor fought in the Civil War and applied for his pension. There is usually family information and sometimes information about the persons previous owner. I found my 2nd great grandfathers owner, and the name and date of birth of his mother and grandfather. It can be a genealogical goldmine.

  6. Joseph Shumway

    Julia, some of the other comments have offered good ideas. I would add a few things about the 1870 census. This is often a very crucial record for getting back beyond 1865.

    When you locate an ancestor in the 1870 census, the first thing you want to do is examine the white land-owning families who were listed near your ancestor. In many instances, freed slaves stayed close to the plantations where they had been enslaved. Some even continued to work for the former slave owners. These people you will want to note regardless of the surname. You want to note birthplaces and migration patterns for the family. Do they happen to fit with your ancestral family? Can you identify those white families in the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules? What did their slave holdings look like?

    You do also want to pay attention to slave owners in the 1850 and 1860 censuses with the same surname as your ancestors.

    Once you have some possible slave owners to study, you will want to research that family just as you would your own ancestors. See if you can find compiled family trees for them and identify their spouses, children, parents, in-laws, etc. Look for deeds for the family members and then for persons in those families who died before 1865, look for probate records. Those are the primary kinds of documents where you will find lists of slaves recorded. For probate records, I find that the estate inventories are the best documents to locate if you can. Wills are great, too, because slaves were often willed to family members, but sometimes a testator did not mention all of their slaves by name, which is why the inventory is a more comprehensive listing. Deeds and probate records can usually be found on a county level in the United States.

  7. Joseph Shumway

    Another thought to add is that my tips in the main body of the blog are actually very important to pre-1865 research as well. You see, to be really successful in tracing a family in slavery, you have to have a very clear contextual picture of the extended family and associated persons after slavery.

    When I start researching an African American family, I spend a good portion of time studying them up into the 20th century because I need to be aware of the neighbors, relatives, etc. and have as many records as possible to give me clues about their ages and birthplaces. When researching in slave-related records, slaves are usually only recorded by a first name and so the more people I can associate with my ancestor, the better I will be at identifying the correct family.

    For example, I might have an ancestral couple named John and Sarah Green. Just looking for slaves named John and Sarah would difficult to identify with such common names. However, if I have identified them in census records up to, say, 1910, and I notice a Ned Green living close to them over the years and another woman named Tessy Green close by (both less-common names), I would want to note such persons. Then, when I come across a John and Sarah listed in a slave owner’s inventory, and I also note a Ned and “Tisy” listed, I would feel much more confident that I found the correct family.

    Hope these ideas are helpful!

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