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.

Villagers in Benguela, Angola, 2010 (Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

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To learn more about the Angolan slave trade, you may also wish to review books such as Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660, by Linda Heywood and John Thornton; Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, by John Thornton; The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, edited by Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman; and Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830, by Joseph C. Miller.

You note that your family has roots in Arkansas. There were several Southern ports that could have been the location where your slave ancestors first arrived in the U.S., including through Charleston, which some 40 percent of the slaves did, before being channeled to locations in both the upper and lower South, depending on their date of arrival. Although the importation of slaves from other countries was banned in 1808, the sale of slaves within the U.S. continued to take place — during a period also known as the Second Middle Passage. That forced migration moved more than a million slaves from the Upper South to the Lower South in the 19th century, largely because of the cotton boom.

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.