Are Slave Narratives Useful to My Family Tree Research?

Tracing Your Roots: A primer for using the Federal Writers Project collection, among others.

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Search Tips

There are two ways to do a text search of the online edition of this collection. One way is to search by descriptive information, such as narrator name, title or subject. This is a targeted search and will only return results recorded in those fields. This type of search is useful for looking up your ancestors by name to see if their stories are included in the collection. The descriptive search box is the top box on the search page.

You can also do a full-text search using the bottom box on the search page. Any words you type into this box will search all of the text in this collection and return all possible results. The results are ranked with the ones at the top most likely to be useful and with less likely matches at the bottom of the page. You can then click on a link and it will bring you to a pdf image of the page. The words you searched for are not highlighted in the document, so you will have to read the entire page to find what you are looking for.

Here is a quick example of how this type of search may be useful: Let’s say you suspect that your ancestor was enslaved at the Collier Plantation in Florence, Ala., because she was living near there in the 1870 U.S. census. You would then type in the words “Collier Florence Alabama” into the Search Full Text Box on the search page.

The top result returned for this search was the slave narrative of Jenny Greer, who was born on the Collier Plantation in Florence. Her parents were Nelson and Jane Collier, and the owners of the plantation were James and Jeanette Collier. Even if you are unable to find a direct connection between your ancestor and Jenny Greer of the Collier Plantation, you now know the names of the owners in the late 19th century and the experience of one person who was enslaved on the plantation.

If you are unable to find any useful records by doing text searches, from the main search page you can also browse the records by narrator, state, volume and subjects of photographs. Browsing by narrator brings you to a list of the individuals interviewed by name. Browsing by state lists all narratives and photographs of subjects in a particular state.

You can also browse all photographs by subject, which is typically the name of the person who is captured in each photo. If you browse by narrator or photograph subject, you are first taken to an index where you only see a few names listed alphabetically; these are the first names on each index page. Once you click one of the names, the index will be expanded to include all of the names in the range you selected. 

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Because most of these narratives were recorded in the 1930s, many of the former slaves were advanced in age, and at least two-thirds of those who told their stories were older than 80. The collection contains stories of people who were quite young in 1865, so their stories would tell more about the life of the former slave after emancipation than what life was like in bondage. Despite this problem, the collection still has value for the researcher and genealogists alike, since it can give you an idea of the slaves’ experiences in their own words. It also provides some genealogical information about those who gave their narratives, which might not be found in any other standard genealogical documents.

There are also some technical limitations to searching these records. The text from these documents is searchable because they were processed using a technology called object character recognition, or OCR. This automated process takes the digital copies of the typed narratives and tries to determine what each letter on the page is so that words and phrases can be searchable online. Although this technology is useful, it is not always accurate, and sometimes words are not translated from the typed document to digital characters correctly.