Dear Professor Gates:
My ancestors Lewis Pratt (born circa 1870) and his father, John Pratt (born circa 1840), lived in Prattville in Alabama, according to family research that I have done. My research also reveals (from Ancestry.com and a letter written by Lewis Pratt’s granddaughter) that John Pratt was born in North Carolina and moved his family to Alabama. That seems strange to me. Would someone “willfully move” to the Deep South to a place like Alabama?
I want to verify all of this, but when I was on Ancestry.com, they mentioned the information “wall” that many African Americans hit when doing family-history research because prior to the 1870 census, you have to look through the U.S. Census Slave Schedules of 1850 and 1860, which rarely mention the slaves by name. I do know that a man named Daniel Pratt was one the largest slaveholders in Alabama. Can you help me confirm this bit of family history? —Matthew Hill
As we have shared before, many African Americans are stymied by that “wall” you describe, but there is a way for some to breach it by combining a search for records on their ancestors with records relating to any potential slave owners. Collecting as many documents as possible on the generations that lived during slavery and after 1870 can provide a context as to where the family was living, if and how they moved to different regions, and what their relationship was to other families.
This is valuable information for uncovering clues about a potential slave owner. Determining the slave owner provides opportunities to locate more documents that may include information about former slaves, such as wills, deeds, estate records and even personal manuscripts from the plantations that may mention slaves by name.
Start With Your Ancestors
With that in mind (and assuming that your ancestors were indeed enslaved and not free blacks), the first step would be to locate as much information as you can about John Pratt and his son, Lewis Pratt. You mentioned that Lewis and his father were in Prattville, Ala. If you search for your Pratt family in the 1870 U.S. census in Alabama, you will see a record for a John Pratt, born circa 1840 in North Carolina, living in Athens in Dallas County, Ala.
According to the record, John had a son, Lewis, who was 7 years old at the time the census was enumerated, placing his birth circa 1863. This was the only John Pratt with a son named Lewis in the 1870 census, so it is very likely that this is a record for your John Pratt. Also included in the household is a Silla Pratt, presumably John’s wife, and three other children: Mary, age 5; Willie, age 3; and John, age 1. The race of all members of the household was recorded as “Black.”
John Pratt was the only one in the household who was listed as being born in North Carolina, and the rest of the household recorded their birthplace as Alabama. If the record is correct, Lewis was born circa 1863, meaning that John Pratt was likely living in Alabama prior to emancipation and could have been living as a slave in Alabama even though he was born in North Carolina. This could address your question of why the family would live in the Deep South after the Civil War.
It is often helpful to search the names of families on other pages surrounding your family in census records, since they can reveal potential relationships that can prove helpful in locating further records. We noted that on the following page was another John Pratt, age 19, who was also born in North Carolina. As we searched for the Pratt surname in the 1870 census for Athens in Dallas, Ala., these seemed to be the only individuals with the Pratt surname that lived in that location. Perhaps they were related or knew each other in some way. Though the connection is not evident in this record alone, it is good to note instances where you find similar surnames in the same records because they can indicate relationships that you may be able to confirm through further research.