From Which Port Was Slave Ancestor Sold?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader with Angolan roots wants to find the path her ancestors took to Arkansas.

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The territory acquired by the U.S. through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 included what is known today as the state of Arkansas. As Heywood and Thornton explain, when Arkansas Territory was organized in 1819, slavery was permitted. Your Angolan ancestry most likely came from one or more African Americans who were brought down to the Deep South in the Second Middle Passage or through a recently arrived Angolan purchased during the illegal slave trade between Cuba and the American South.

Tracing Their Journeys

A common way to transport these slaves to work on Southern plantations was by ship, carrying them from places such as Baltimore and Richmond to areas along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. The ship masters were required to turn in ship manifests to the Collector of Customs upon arrival. These manifests included information such as the departure and arrival ports, the names of the slave owners or traders and, occasionally, the names of the slaves. Many of these records are available on microfilm through the National Archives and Records Administration, as part of Record Group 36: Records of the U.S. Customs Service, 1745-1997. However, very little information is provided about the slaves on these records, so it is important to learn more about your slave ancestor before searching for your ancestor's port of arrival.

As with any family history research, it is important to begin with what you know about your ancestor and work your way backward. Census and vital records, as well as deed and probate documents, are some sources to use when tracing your family's origins. Once you are able to identify the name of your ancestor's slave owner, looking at the probate and land records of these slave owners may yield clues regarding the chain of ownership of your ancestor. Slave owners often bequeathed slaves to family members, and tracing that family member's whereabouts may reveal whether they moved to a different state, or even sold their slaves to a different individual. You may wish to check local libraries and historical societies for the family papers of a particular slave owner's family, which may contain information on the purchase or sale of slaves.

The Old State House Museum, located in Little Rock, Ark., has available on its website a number of transcribed slave narratives. These are searchable by topic, as well as by name. These transcriptions may provide additional insight into the lives of your ancestors. Another source is the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, which are available online at The names of the slaves are not listed in these documents, but one can review the ages and gender of slaves owned by particular individuals and track their ownership over a 10-year period.

There are several websites useful to Arkansas African-American research, including Afrigeneas, which provides links to databases such as slave owners from different counties; Arkansas Genealogy, which includes information on a number of African-American cemeteries in Arkansas; and the website for the Arkansas Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. Another important resource for your family research in Arkansas is the website for the Black History Commission of Arkansas, which contains links to items such as a land-record database, a list of African-American newspapers and information about various African-American funeral home and cemetery records. You may come across a number of brick walls while trying to trace your ancestor's port of arrival and Angolan origins, but these resources may help you obtain additional information on your slave ancestors.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, 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,, 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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