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.

Northwestern State University of Louisiana - Watson Memorial Library, Cammie G. Henry Research Center
“I have traced my great-grandfather, Kinchen Bell, back on the 1850 Census Slave Schedule for Kentucky. He is listed in the slave owners’ column and indicated as being black. There is an adult female listed who I believe is his wife, my great-grandmother, Sarah. There are a number of minor children listed. When I went to the 1870 Census, I found that he was listed as a farmer in Alabama with six children. My great-grandmother is still listed there, along with my grandmother Rhoda.

“His being listed in the 1850 Census under slave owners, with his family listed under him, is puzzling to me. Was he a free man? I tried to go back further and search his birthplace, Virginia, but only found a schedule on which he may have been on.

“Where do I go from here? I know that my grandmother, Rhoda, ended up in Clarksdale, Miss., listed as a widow. We were told she had 14 children, but only four are listed. Her first husband’s name was supposedly Daniel Bell. Apparently she remarried, because somewhere along the way, because she became Rhoda Davis. She and the four children relocated to Memphis in the late ‘30s. I would appreciate suggestions that will put me on a more direct path to securing my relatives’ information.” —Ina Wilson Edwards Price

Your predicament reveals two interesting questions: 1. How do you verify information about black ancestors whose lives began before the 1870 Census started to record full information on African Americans? 2. Did black people own slaves? First, we’ll tackle the records search.

Fill in the Details of More Recent Family History

It is important to work your way backward from known records to bring your research into focus. It is also useful keep in mind the various sources of information you will come across and understand why those records were created and what the information contained within really means.

If Rhoda was still living in the late 1930s, it is likely that there was an official record of her death, as most states had adopted official registration of vital records by this time. Since her last known residence was Memphis, Tenn., you will want to begin by searching for death records there. FamilySearch.org has a collection of Tennessee death records from 1914 to 1955 that can be accessed free of charge. If you are able to find her death record, it may have information that will be useful, such as her parents’ names, including her mother’s maiden name and her spouse’s name. If you are unable to find her death record, talk to other living relatives to find out more information, which might give you more clues. You could also search for death records of her siblings, which should also have information about her parents.

Next, you’ll want to search for a record of her marriage to the man with the surname Davis. If you do find her death record, it may have his name already; if not, you can use census records to narrow down the time period of when she got married. Once you have an approximate year and place of marriage, you can begin to search online marriage indexes on genealogy sites such FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. You can also use these sites to search for birth records of her children as well. As you find more information about your family, you begin to put together a timeline to help you organize your research.

Continue to Work backward From the 1870 US Census