Why Was My Black Ancestor Listed as a Slave Owner?

Tracing Your Roots: A listing in the 1850 Census Slave Schedule leaves a woman searching for answers.

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Once you have a definitive record of Rhoda and her parents in the 1870 U.S. Census, the next task is to find the origin of the family’s name—was it taken from a slave owner?—to determine if your kin were enslaved or granted their freedom. Our previous posts on pre-Civil War research in the South and finding the origin of the surname of enslaved African American ancestors have some useful tips on finding information beyond the 1870 Census.

Former slaves were not listed by name in the census records until 1870. In contrast, free African Americans were enumerated by name beginning with the 1850 Census. Prior to that year, only the heads of the household were listed in the census records. If a free African American was the head of the household before 1850, they would be listed by name, but the rest of the family would only be enumerated gender and a broad age range. If Kinchen Bell was free in 1850, you should be able to find a record of him in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census.

You mentioned that the 1850 slave schedule entry for Kinchen Bell shows that he was black and that he also owned slaves. We should note here that the 1850 and 1860 Census slave schedules usually did not list the race of the slave owner. They also do not list the enslaved people by name; instead, they list age and race for the enslaved population. There are also columns to show if the slave was a fugitive from the state and then the number of slaves manumitted (or given freedom) by a slave owner.

The 1860 slave schedules have an additional column to show how many slave houses the owner had. Usually, the slaves are listed from oldest to youngest; therefore, it is difficult to see if there are any family connections amongst the slaves. Sometimes, especially for larger slaveholders, they were grouped by families, but there is not any way to confirm that the groups of slaves were, in fact, related. Before 1850, there were not any separate slave schedules, but the number of slaves was listed in the household entry for the slave owner. Here only a range of age is given, so there is even less information.

It may seem like these records aren’t very useful for finding your ancestors, but there are some instances where they can provide direction for your research. If you know approximately where your ancestors lived, you can use these schedules to see if there were any slaveholders with your family’s name in the area. Furthermore, if you know that your ancestor was freed from slavery before emancipation, you could search for slave owners in the area that manumitted slaves.

The next step for many African Americans tracing back their roots before Emancipation is to look up slave owners in the 1850 and 1860 Census records (even for the vast majority of those whose ancestors were owned by whites). This will give you information about the owners’ birthplace, birth year, family members and value of real estate. All of the information will be useful if you then search for probate and land records of slave owners. Such documents might list all of the slaves they owned, by name.

Find the Right Kinchen Bell

To locate more information about Kinchen Bell, we searched for a record of him in the 1850 Census (as opposed to the slave schedule). In our own search, we found one record that shows Kinchen Bell of Union County, Ky., was born circa 1793 in North Carolina. He was a farmer who lived with his wife and four children. There was not a mark made in the race column, which suggests that he was white. From this information, it seems likely that this is a different Kinchen Bell than your ancestor, since the 1870 Census record for your ancestor shows that he was born in Virginia circa 1810.

All of this suggest that your ancestor, Kinchen Bell, was probably not living in Kentucky in 1850. You can now focus your research in the geographic regions in which your family was known to live based on other definitive records you have found, such as the 1870 U.S. Federal Census and Rhoda Bell’s death record. 

Did Blacks Own Slaves?