Genealogy and African-Americans: the search for enslaved ancestors

JamesDeMers / Pixabay
JamesDeMers / Pixabay

While tracing one’s family tree can be an ambitious undertaking for anyone, the widespread availability of resources has done much to democratize genealogy as a hobby and an industry.  However, there are ethnic and religious groups for whom genealogical exploration presents unique challenges.  For African Americans, historical circumstances and events before the Civil War have led to a sparser and more idiosyncratic paper trail detailing one’s family origins.  And while researching genealogical history may be more challenging in these cases, many of these obstacles can be managed and overcome with the use of some of the suggestions summarized below.

There are several hurdles for African Americans in accurately tracing their family histories.  Most significantly, the slavery of African American people severed familial relationships and made record keeping nearly impossible.  Prior to the first census taken after the Civil War in 1870, slaves were counted only on slave schedules in 1850 and 1860, but not catalogued by name.  For those living in a pre-civil war slave state, a bill of sale documenting an African American as the property of his owner contained scant information – namely the slave’s age and gender – and is often the only record of that individual.  Another impediment to accessing information on African Americans is that slave marriages were not legally recognized prior to emancipation and therefore, no records of such marriages exist.

Tracing enslaved ancestors often requires identifying the slave-holder and his family.  This information can help in recovering any property-related documents executed by the slave-owner that reference his slaves, such as a deed transferring slaves to one’s children prior to death or an agreement granting slave ownership as a means of debt forgiveness.  Similarly, estate records can be vital sources of information since large numbers of slave-holders living in and around 1860 inherited those slaves.  These documents list the names and ages of slaves and some may even categorize them by family.  Probate materials that can be searched include wills, bills of sale (for property), inventory (for personal and real property) and guardianship.  Both property and probate related documents were required to be filed in a civil courthouse in the jurisdiction in which those slave lived.

One of the most valuable resources for locating ancestors prior to the Civil War is The U.S. National Archives.  After the emancipation of nearly four million African Americans, federal agencies created an extensive archive that holds a plethora of personal information about freed African American slaves.  One such resource is The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (or Freedmen’s Bureau), created on March 3, 1865, which contains records of military service and migration, slave-holder names, and birth, marriage, and death certificates.  Oral histories can also be helpful in uncovering lineage during this period of time.  In the 1930’s, the U.S. Library of Congress developed an oral history to record the accounts of surviving witnesses to slavery and the Civil War.  Finally, among the many online resources for African American genealogical research, one of the most prolific websites is  This site contains links to over 15 million manuscript items and an extensive photography collection dealing with African American history.


Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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1 Response

  1. May 20, 2015

    […] I discussed the challenges encountered by African-Americans searching for ancestors who pre-date the Civil War and strategies for accessing both basic and more detailed information […]

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