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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Enslaved cotton workers

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Editor's note: This article was originally published on Feb. 13, 2013.

For many African Americans the paper trail back to your ancestral origins hits a wall once you reach the slavery era. During the hunt for information about my great-great grandmother, Jane Gates, who was born into slavery in 1819, we were able to find her in the 1870 census, the oldest census to list all African Americans by name. Before then, few counties listed slaves by name, so we shifted gears and searched the "slave schedules" for the 1860 and 1850 census information for slave owners named Gates. However, we weren't able to find anyone under that name who owned a slave who was around her age. This means that she was owned by someone with a surname other than Gates, and the only way to find her by using records would be to undertake a systematic search of the estate papers, wills and tax records, and other documents of every slave holder in Allegany County, Md.  

Below, a reader faces a similar challenge:

"I have traced my maternal genealogy back to slave records, which are hard to decipher. What do I look for in those documents?" —Quinnette E. Free

The slave schedules for the 1860 and 1850 census enumerations list enslaved people under the names of their owner, identified by race ("Black" or "Mulatto"), age and gender. This makes it difficult to identify an ancestor in these lists, especially in instances when there were many slaves owned by a particular individual.

However, there were a few counties that listed slaves by name, according to genealogist Jane Ailes.

For 1850 the counties are:
Utah County, Utah
Bowie County, Texas
Scott County, Tenn.

For 1860 the counties are:
Hampshire County, Va. (where I have ancestors)
Boyd County, Ky.
Camden County, N.C. (named only in the copy held by courthouse, not the National Archives copy)
Some, but not all of those listed in Twiggs County, Ga.
Washington County, Tenn.
2nd Ward, City of St. Louis

Almost all slaves over the age of 100 are named in all counties, says Ailes. You can also find slaves named in the federal census mortality schedules for 1850 and 1860.

As heartbreaking as it is, because slaves were considered to be property, another good resource is deed records. Though these are traditionally used in identifying land that was bought and sold, the buying and selling of slaves is often recorded in these documents as well. Deed records may also include the age of the slave at the time of the sale, as those who were mid-teens to their 30s were often worth much more because of their ability to work harder. Sometimes a mother and child may have been sold together, which is helpful when trying to attach names to those listed in the slave schedules.