Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900
Trans-Alantic Slave Trade Database

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Nov. 21, 2014.

Dear Professor Gates:

I am an amateur genealogy enthusiast seeking help with my family tree research. How can I find records of slave trading in the U.S.? I know my grandparents on both sides of the family were born in Mississippi and Tennessee, but I’m pretty sure their parents didn’t arrive straight from Africa or the Caribbean to those states. How can I locate the areas from overseas that embarked slaves to the U.S. and which states in which they disembarked? I have relatives all over but have been concentrating on Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. —Toni Stovall

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Because of the dehumanizing nature of the slave trade, it will be very difficult to trace your ancestors in this manner. As David Eltis, co-editor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, told us in an email, “If families can trace their origins to pre-Revolutionary times, then there’s a good chance that their African ancestor(s) disembarked at the port closest to where he or she [lived], but even then, we cannot usually make specific documentary connections between voyage and captive. A major reason for this is that slaveholders typically renamed newcomers.”

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So we’re not sure we can give you the answers you desire, but we can tell you what we do know, and give you some leads to pursue.

Migration Patterns

One strategy to answering your question is to follow migration patterns created by the slave trade domestically and overseas. This method will provide a better sense of how your ancestors likely arrived in the United States and how they moved once they got here.

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As previously noted on The Root in the column 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, between 1525 and 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World, and 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Only about 388,000 were sent directly to North America.

In addition to that forced migration of human beings to North America, in the seven decades leading up to the Civil War there was the domestic slave trade in the United States. This second mass migration complicates even further any attempts to locate the ports through which your ancestors first arrived here. However, sources are available that provide data on the patterns in this migration, domestically and abroad, and that may help you in your search.

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If you are interested in working back to your ancestors’ origins overseas, you must first trace your family back as far as possible in the U.S. to determine a likely starting point for your family’s roots in the Americas. A great place to start learning more about how your ancestors may have moved within the U.S. is In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, a project by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The site includes an entire section on the domestic slave trade, along with maps of each era that provide a visual of the migration created by this system. The site also provides links to other sources that may be helpful in your search.

The patterns of migration described in this source may prove helpful in tracing your ancestors’ movements within the U.S., providing clues on where to look for more information. If you are able to determine the location of your ancestors in the mid-1700s, they were probably living close to where they arrived, in which case you could take the next step in tracing their likely origins in Africa.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database may prove to be the most useful source for answers to your question. There are three methods to search for information through this source: You can search the Voyages database; examine documents, tables and maps through the Assessing the Slave Trade option; or explore the African Names database.

Regions of Entry

As for pinning down where most enslaved Africans ended up when they hit our shores, although we can’t pinpoint ports for most of them, we can identify the regions where they tended to end up. Wrote Eltis, “After the (American) Revolution—a period that saw nearly 30 percent of the total number of captives disembarking—the movement of slaves after disembarkation is potentially immense. At the end of this period, cotton was expanding westward rapidly, and many of those coming to Charleston[, S.C.] (the major initial market), were sold on via New Orleans.

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“Then there’s the question of all those who came into what became the U.S. via the Caribbean—the above paragraph referring only to those coming directly from Africa. A new book by Gregory O’Malley, Final Passages, is devoted to this topic and will become the standard source,” Eltis continued.

Eltis provided us with the following information from his Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, written with David Richardson, on arrivals of enslaved Africans to various regions of the U.S. from 1619 to 1860:

Chesapeake             128,000         32.9 percent

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South Carolina          187,000        48.1 percent

Gulf states                  22,000          5.7 percent

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Georgia                      21,000          5.4 percent

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Middle Colonies          21,000         5.4 percent

New England              10,000         2.6 percent

Total:                         389,000        100 percent

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Since some of your ancestors were located in Virginia, there are online sources about the slave trade in Virginia that may prove helpful. For instance, the article “New Findings About the Virginia Slave Trade,” by Lorena S. Walsh, suggests that there was a strong pattern to the slave trade in Virginia. The tables included in the article demonstrate that ships originating in different locations in England tended to land in particular regions in Africa where the slaves originated and that they also consistently landed in the same locations in Virginia. This means that slaves from the same region in Africa were likely to be delivered to the same location in Virginia.

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The tables in the article break down the data to display the information by naval district in Virginia where the slaves disembarked, where slaves originated in Africa and date ranges for the statistics. This also highlights shifts in the slave trade over time. Since you are looking for information on ancestors in Virginia, the pattern of the slave trade in particular regions in Virginia may help you determine the likelihood of where your ancestors originated in Africa.

It will probably be impossible to know exactly which voyage your ancestors took to the Americas, but understanding the patterns of the slave-trade networks may help you determine a likely path.

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We suggest that you have your autosomal DNA tested in order to find out for certain where your ancestors originated. Many companies, including Ancestry.com, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA, have tests that can provide an analysis of your roots in Africa. You could then compare your DNA results with the information you gathered during your research to gain a greater perspective of your family’s history.

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, 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.