How Do I Decode Slave Records?

Tracing Your Roots: What to look for in antebellum documents in your family-tree search.

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Slaves were also sometimes used as collateral for loans. As such, in the deed records, you may find slaves named and held "in trust." Regardless, the names (and sometimes the ages) will assist you in beginning to piece together potential family units among the slaves of a particular owner.

Keep at it, and please let me know how it goes!

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 editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

This answer was provided in consultation with researchers 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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