How Do I Decode Slave Records?

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

Labor receipts from the construction of the Capitol and White House in 1792-1802, now in the National Archives, record $5-a-month payments to slave masters for their slaves' labor.
Labor receipts from the construction of the Capitol and White House in 1792-1802, now in the National Archives, record $5-a-month payments to slave masters for their slaves' labor. Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

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.

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.

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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.