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)

In addition to finding records at the county level, there are also many local archives and databases that contain more detailed information about enslaved families in specific geographic regions. For example, another source for researching African-American families during the period of slavery is the African-American Families Database. This database is an ongoing project for the Central Virginia History Researchers, and the primary goal is compile information for African Americans in Virginia between 1850 and 1880. The data currently comes from two large plantations near Charlottesville, although there are plans to expand the database to cover more plantations in Albemarle County.

Tracking Down Sanford Mason’s First Wife and Children

One way to find information about Nancy (Jewett) Mason and their three children, Joe, Jeff and Eve, is to search for them in census records. The first Federal Census collection to fully enumerate the African-American population was the 1870 census. Since Sanford may have been separated from his wife before 1870, it may be useful to search this census for her under her married name, Mason, and her maiden name, Jewett.

If Nancy (Jewett) Mason was also enslaved when she married Sanford Mason, you will also want to search the various record types listed above, such as plantation, land and probated records, as these may also contain information about Nancy and give you clues as to when she and Sanford were separated.

Finding Information About Sanford’s Second Wife

Since Sanford remarried and had three additional children after the Civil War, it is more likely that we could find a record of him and his family in the 1870 Federal Census. Start by searching for each of the children and Nancy living together using estimated birth years, and be sure you check for multiple spelling variations of their names. You might find out more about them by also searching for records of their deaths.

As noted in last week’s column, there are many ways you can find if your ancestor served in the Civil War. If you do find that Sanford served as a soldier, it is possible that some of the documents relating to his service could give you clues to where he was living after his service, which might help you determine the name of his wife. You might first try searching the 1890 Veteran’s Schedule, which is a list of all surviving Civil War veterans and names of the widows of veterans.

Tracing Sanford Mason’s lineage back further than you already have may be difficult due to the general lack of records for enslaved African Americans in the early 19th century. However, by researching his children and narrowing down the geographic region where Sanford lived, you can begin to piece together the details of Sanford’s early life, which might eventually lead you to his parents.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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