Professional genealogist offers advice on tracing African-American roots

Genealogical research in America’s Deep South can be challenging under the best of circumstances, but the task can be even more daunting for an African American family looking to fill in gaps in their family tree. While some families have had remarkable success in tracing their ancestors through the period of slavery and its aftermath, many unique obstacles exist. These including family members’ name and nickname changes, the passage of slaves from one family member to another without a deed of sale, and the dispersion of family members who were sold away from the rest of their families.

However, Virginia McAlister, a research manager at AncestryProGenealogists, encourages seekers of such information not to despair. Knowing that new records about early African American families in the U.S. are being digitized and indexed all the time, she offers the advice below to help answer those lingering questions.

While many Americans who hail from other parts of the world have the benefit of a single surname that changes little through time, African American families often face the challenge of surname uncertainty. When slaves arrived on American shores, they often were given the surname of their first owner, if they had a surname at all. Others did not take the slave owner’s name until after Emancipation.

As former slaves grew accustomed to their freedom in the years after the Civil War, many rejected their former owners’ names and created new surnames for themselves. This was particularly common in the period between 1870 and 1900. “Sometimes they would pick local reverends or prominent political figures and take their surname, or even their given name and make it their surname,” McAlister said. “So there’s all of these little nuances of trying to figure out what they changed their surname to and what are the potential reasons why. Sometimes you never can figure out why that surname changed. It just did.”

Obviously, trying to trace a family through records is difficult if they changed their surname. That is when wildcard searches in online records, while tedious and time-consuming, can come in handy. “You have to play a lot with first names, trying to find the same family group with the same first names,” McAlister said.

It is also important to realize that many African Americans used nicknames through the period of slavery and afterward, even in census records. Spellings would change frequently, since slaves were usually forced to remain illiterate. Alternating first and middle names can sometimes prove fruitful, too. If you have the time, type in as many different name permutations as possible, using an asterisk in lieu of certain letters in the name. Search first names, last names, nicknames, and even middle names if you know them. Look for groupings of people who were likely family members.

Location can be a big factor in such searches. Former slaves typically stayed close to the area where they had been enslaved in the years immediately following Emancipation, because they did not have the resources to move. “They didn’t have any money or large social networks or things like that to assist them in getting to a new place, so typically you see them very close, initially,” McAlister said.

Later, especially in the early 20th century, droughts and diseased crops caused economic suffering in the South, and many of the former slaves moved to cities in the north where jobs and economic opportunities were more plentiful. McAlister suggests widening the record search geographically if you believe this to be the case.

If you are fortunate enough to have been able to trace an African American family back to 1870, the next step may be to try to locate the family that owned the ancestors when they were slaves. The 1840 and 1830 censuses will show whether the head of a particular household owned slaves, but the slave schedules of 1850 and 1860 become especially helpful here. Each owner’s slaves were listed by age and gender on these schedules, and even though the slaves’ names are usually absent, a determined sleuth can discover clues about ancestors in these records.

If you know an ancestor’s location in 1870, McAlister suggests scanning the records from 1860 in the same geographical area to determine the major slave owners of that region. “In the 1870 census, you look right around the African American family for who are the landowners—the white people with a lot of property, because that indicates that probably, before the Civil War, they had slaves,” McAlister said. “If they had a lot of property after the Civil War, that likely means that before the Civil War they may have been running a large plantation and had lots of slaves.”

Examine the 1870 census record just above and just below your ancestor, and even explore a few pages before and a few pages after. Who are the closest landowners? You can also look for people in the area with the same last name as your ancestor, because many slaves kept the name they had during slavery. This helps create a potential pool of slave owners.

Once you have that pool, dig into the county records—probate records, land records, and deeds—where slave transactions outside the family may have been captured. “Probate records are most important because those will say the names of slaves who were actually willed to the sons, the daughters, the wife, other family members,” McAlister said.

Note: There were often deeds for a sale of a slave from one owner to another, but not always. It depends on the care each county took in keeping those kinds of records. Unfortunately, most counties did not list many slave transactions, and when they did, the record usually just includes the name of the buyer and the seller and does not give details about the person being sold.

Probate records are most helpful if the slave owner or someone in his or her family died before 1865, when the Civil War ended. Probate records for deaths after that time would not usually include a slave by name, but before the end of the war, a dying person would often name his or her slaves in the will and describe who should inherit those slaves. Household slaves tended to be close to their owners, so they were most commonly named.

“If the potential slave owner did not die before 1865, then you have to do some research about that slave owner’s family,” McAlister said. “Learn who were his father and brothers, and start looking to see if any of them died before 1865, because so often slaves were passed around in the family. So you’re trying to track the slaves through any family member’s will. Did the father deed this slave to his son? Is that how he became the owner?”

Do not forget that families with various surnames may have been connected. Clusters of families who owned neighboring plantations married and socialized with each other. Sometimes female family members of a plantation owner married someone in that social circle and inherited a slave who eventually took her new husband’s name.

That happened in one case McAlister worked on recently. An older relative remembered that her parents and grandparents, who had changed their surname to Smith after slavery, had once been connected to a family with the surname Thorpe. After exhausting all possible records about Thorpe families without finding the client’s ancestors, one persistent researcher on McAlister’s team struck gold. She found that one daughter of the elder Thorpe had married a man with the surname Norman. Sure enough, digging into probate records for the Norman family helped her track down the ancestral family, who had changed their surname after the Thorpe daughter (by then a Norman) had inherited them.

“So this is where you have to start building out the full family group of those slave owners,” McAlister said. “You need to understand the marriages. You need to understand the in-laws, because these slaves are passed around. It could have been a father-in-law was passing his slave to his daughter, so it was ending up owned by the husband. You have to be persistent and dig and keep going.”

Every once in a while, a slave owner would free a slave when he or she died, but it was rare. Some pockets of free blacks existed, especially around Lynchburg, Virginia. However, it was unusual for people to free slaves in the deep South—on the cotton plantations of Georgia and Alabama.

Much of traditional genealogical work traces the records of men because women were often not named specifically in a household or on a deed in early records. With African American research, it works the opposite way. In most slave-owning areas, slaves were not allowed to formally marry. Owners would keep careful track of the slave women who bore children, because children born into slavery were the property of the mother’s slave owner. Because slave owners saw their slaves as property as opposed to family units, they did not reliably record the identity of a slave child’s father. Therefore, when looking to trace a family, finding the slave owner of the mother is most important.

One of the many benefits of taking a DNA test is connecting to someone who has a more established family tree and can help provide elusive answers. However, McAlister urges those of African American heritage who are planning to take a DNA test to prepare themselves for the likelihood of finding Caucasian ancestry in their results. “That can be really hard for some people and really startling for some people, to see how much is in there,” she said.

Sometimes DNA connections to Caucasian matches can help suggest the identity of the family’s one-time slave owners. “And in terms of the African-American side, it can certainly help you connect to cousins you didn’t know about, family lines that maybe changed names, and clues about where the name changes were,” McAlister said. In genealogy work that is more matrilineal than patrilineal, DNA sometimes provides the breakthrough.

Part of the oppression of the pre-Emancipation era was that slaves were not allowed to read and write, and their opportunities to record their own family history was severely limited. In lieu of pen and paper, they shared stories from one generation to another, and African-American families to this day often retain a deep and cherished oral history. Pay attention to what the oldest family members say about their ancestry and connections to people who lived around them in the “old days.”

“We pay close attention to those clues with anything they tell us that has been passed on within the family,” McAlister said. “A lot of times there is something important there that we can use to extend the line. Talk to the oldest family members you’ve got, because they’ve probably had those stories passed down to them, and there’s really important information in those stories.” Indeed, that was the key in the case mentioned earlier: a relative’s memory of the Thorpe surname led researchers down a path to the eventual answer in the Norman family line.

If desired, clients can get professional help with this. AncestryProGenealogists has interviewers on staff who conduct oral history interviews and can help mine the memories of older relatives for information that could help to trace a family’s path through time. Sometimes people do not realize the importance of what they know and how it can lead to answers. Interviewers who have a genealogical background can help them retrieve these details from the stories of the past.

Persistence is the key in many cases, since African-American research rarely follows a straight path and a “miracle record” that answers the tough questions usually does not exist. That just makes the breakthrough that much more rewarding. “It is challenging,” McAlister said. “But it’s super-satisfying when you can make those connections and say, ‘Ah! Found it!’”

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