Why Would My Former Slave Ancestor Move South?

Tracing Your Roots: The search for answers involves hard-to-decode documents of slavery.

The home of Daniel Pratt
The home of Daniel Pratt Steven H. Moffson, Historic Preservation Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Sometimes, in order to work your ancestry back, it is helpful to move forward in time to gather more information. You can see John Pratt and his family living in Boiling Springs in Wilcox County, Ala., enumerated in the 1880 U.S. census. In this record, John Pratt was listed as “Mullatto,” and the rest of the family members as “Black.” This information may assist with a search through other documents, since it could be an indicator of whether or not we located the right John Pratt.

Also in this record, more members of the family were recorded as being born in North Carolina. Only the three youngest children—Martha, age 6; Jasper, age 5; and Crecy, age 2—are listed as born in Alabama. Each of these births occurred after the enumeration of the 1870 census, when we know the family was residing in Alabama.

The difference in where the children of John Pratt were born is crucial to your search backward. If all of John’s children were born in Alabama, it could indicate that he may have been born in North Carolina and then moved to Alabama as a slave, which would explain his choice to remain in Alabama following emancipation. However, if his children had been born in North Carolina after the Civil War, it would indicate that the family moved from North Carolina to Alabama after the Civil War.

Locating birth records for John Pratt’s children would help you determine if the family was in Alabama during the Civil War and remained there, or if they moved to Alabama from North Carolina after the war. Birth records can be difficult to locate in Alabama, so it may prove beneficial to start with North Carolina. If you find birth records for the children there, it will help answer the question of where they were living. Databases for birth records in North Carolina are available at FamilySearch.

Another great resource for determining where your John Pratt may have been living prior to 1870 is the 1867 voter-registration records that were created as a result of the Reconstruction Act. These records list both black and white men over the age of 21 who were eligible citizens under the 14th Amendment. It is important to note, however, that based on how locations interpreted the act, not all eligible citizens may be included in the records. The records often list the individual’s name, race and place of residence, though sometimes not all information is present in a record.

In Alabama, these records are available through a database search at the Department of Archives and History. We did a preliminary search for John Pratt though the database and located one reference to a man by that name, though it does not list his race. There are also a number of African Americans with the surname Pratt included in the records. The voter-registration records for North Carolina in 1867 are in the publication North Carolina Extant Voter Registrations of 1867, by Frances Holloway Wynne, which is available at various libraries.

Then Look at Potential Slave Owners

Many former slaves adopted the surname of their owner after emancipation. With this in mind, it is likely that your family surname was derived from a slave owner with the surname Pratt. You know from the census records that your John Pratt and Lewis Pratt were living in Alabama in 1870 and 1880, and that it is possible that John was living in either Alabama or North Carolina prior to 1870. With this information in mind, you can search for potential slave owners in both Alabama and North Carolina using the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules, available on Ancestry.com.

Using the advanced search, you can limit the result to men with the surname Pratt living in Alabama and North Carolina. All slaves were listed under the name of their owner; however, knowing that your John Pratt was born circa 1840, you can further limit the search to men of about the same age. The site will then display the names of slave owners who had males around the age of 20 living in their households in 1860.

Conducting this search in Alabama, we found a number of results listed in the household of Daniel Pratt of Prattville in Autauga County. It is important to note that there were at least four other Pratts in Alabama that had slaves of the description of John Pratt in 1860, but since you also have the family story of connecting to Daniel Pratt, it may be worthwhile to start with him.