What Happened to a Slave’s Family?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader's forebear was forever separated from his wife and kids by the Civil War.

African American family in 1899 (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
African American family in 1899 (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

(The Root)

“Oral history tells me that my paternal great, great, great grandfather, Sanford Mason, was born in Virginia and sold as a slave.

“Sanford met and married Nancy Jewett, and they had three children: Joe, Jeff and Eve. At some point, because of slavery, the family was separated. Sanford went to fight in the Civil War, and when the war was over, Sanford tried to find his lost family. He wandered from place to place but could not find them. He remarried, but I don’t know what his second wife’s name was. By her, three more children were born: Joe, Ida and Mary.

“Can you help me find out in which Virginia city Sanford Mason was born? I cannot find any information on him. I estimate that he was born about 1810. I’d also like to know who his parents were; what happened to his first wife Nancy and their children; and lastly, what his second wife’s name was.” Mary Margaret (Mason) Taylor

Searching for Sanford’s Birthplace and Kin

You definitely have a challenge before you, trying to pin down his place of birth and information about his parents. For the most part, records of births and deaths in Virginia were not kept until 1853, when legislation passed stating that this information was to be recorded by each county and the independent cities. Although sometimes incomplete, these registers did contain records of enslaved African Americans, so you may be able to find records of Mason’s children in these collections, since they could have been born after 1853.

If he was sold into slavery while he was young, it is possible that Sanford was given the surname Mason from the family that purchased him. Taking this into consideration, you can narrow down a geographic region where he may have lived by identifying large slaveholders who had the Mason surname. There is even a transcribed collection of surnames of African-American families, which uses information on African-American families in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census and matches this information to the surnames of known slaveholders from the 1860 U.S. Federal Census. You can search this collection by surname to see the counties that were associated with the name. For example, in Virginia, Amelia and Mecklenburg counties had both African-American families with the surname Mason in 1870 and a large slaveholder with the name Mason in 1860. If you cannot find a geographic region where Sanford may have been born, it might be a good idea to start searching for possible records in these particular counties.

To narrow down the possibilities, try searching the Federal Census slave schedules, which were enumerated in 1850 and 1860, for slaveholders with the Mason surname. These records are available on the subscription site Ancestry.com, as well as the free site FamilySearch.org. Although these schedules typically do not list the given name of the slaves, they do list details such as age, gender and race. Using this information, in conjunction with the counties where there were known slaveholders with the Mason surname, you can begin to find possible records of Sanford.

As you can imagine, narrowing down the geographic region of where Sanford lived will greatly aid your search for more about him. For example, if you can find that Sanford was enslaved on a specific plantation, it is possible that you can find records that include information on the slaves. For example, the Family History Library has microfilm of the record books of several Virginian plantations.

Also, knowing where and by whom Sanford was enslaved can lead to other local record sources, which can contain a wealth of information. Records of slaves can be found in the Virginia land and property records, which recorded slave master’s deeds (in which, sadly, people were recorded as property). Also, probate records of slave owners will often include a list of slaves in the inventory of the estate. These inventories sometimes list a name, age, gender and basic physical description. All of these records types are held at the county (or incorporated city) level, so knowing the county or city where Sanford was enslaved will be useful information.