A depiction of American slavery: Slaves of General Thomas F. Drayton (Henry P. Moore/Wikimedia Commons)

Her ancestor’s will named 13 slaves, and she seeks help getting this information to their descendants.

Dear Professor Gates:

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My ancestors were slave owners in Victoria County, Texas. My three-times great-grandfather John James named 13 enslaved people in his will, dated Sept. 3, 1863, in Victoria County. They included three boys, named Woodson, George and Addison; four girls, named Emma, Ellen, Harriet and Fanny; a woman named Millie and her youngest child, Edward; a woman named Charity and her child, Cora; and a girl named Martha and her child, Henry. I would like to post their names somewhere in hopes that somebody who might be looking for them can find them. Can you give me advice for the best way to proceed? —Pam Lynn

We frequently receive this kind of question from genealogists who recognize that information about enslaved people that they encounter in slave owners’ wills, other probate records and family documents is precious and rare. Because slaves were considered to be property, they were not named in census records, and infrequently named in other types of records. Naturally, researchers want to share the few names they encounter to help descendants reclaim their family histories.

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From time to time we also receive queries from people who are descended from slave owners, such as yourself. Some want to make apologies to the progeny of those they enslaved. In those cases, we advise patience and caution: Start with sharing the information you have uncovered about an ancestor, listen to and respect how they respond to it, and then go from there.

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Other slave-owner descendants simply want to make the information available for the descendants of the enslaved to find, as you have suggested. We commend you for making the effort.

Let Interest and Geography Be Your Guide 

There is no single database to which you can contribute the information that you have. For scenarios like yours, there are a number of local, state and international databases, historical societies and message boards with which you can share or post information.

Some of the information we shared in our 2014 column “How Do I Find Descendants of My Ancestor’s Slaves?” still applies today. For instance, Ancestry.com has a number of relevant message boards, including one specific to slave information. AfriGeneas also has applicable forums, including one on slave research and another on surnames and family research.

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However, your first move should be to determine which repositories or projects may be interested in the information. Starting at a local level is usually best, and then you can expand from there. You could contact the Victoria Regional History Center to see if it collects this type of information. Sometimes, if a repository has a collection or document from a slave owner, it can adjust the scope note in the catalog to include the names of people the individuals enslaved. Some repositories may even keep records of such information in their own collections, so it does not hurt to contact them to see if they have a good way that you could make the information known to other researchers.

For example, the Victoria Regional History Center has an African American Cemeteries Database Project, which includes columns for relationships and other notations. If any of John James’ former slaves are included in this database, the history center may be able to include the information on John James in one of these columns to help others looking for the information.

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You could also see if there are any online forums or genealogical websites for Victoria, Texas, and its surrounding counties where you could post the information. The Victoria County Genealogical Society sponsors a GenWeb page for the county with links to a variety of resources. It includes a link to contact for contributions to the site.

In addition, you could use the site to learn more about other repositories, websites or projects that may also be interested in the information. One such repository is the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston. Look into whether it has some method of collecting information about enslaved individuals named in slaveholders’ records that may be of use to others.

Look for Descendants of John James’ Slaves 

You could also try to work forward to learn more about those whom John James enslaved to see if you can learn more about them and therefore have a better idea of where the information might be of most help to those looking for it. You know, from the probate, where John James was living and the names of his slaves. From this, you can locate him in Victoria County in 1860, where he was recorded as a 54-year-old farmer with real estate worth “3,000” and personal estate worth “10,000.” You can also learn that he was born in Virginia, but based on his oldest son’s age and birthplace, he had been in Texas for at least 21 years.

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The 1860 U.S. Slave Schedule (Ancestry.com; subscription required) recorded 13 slaves in John James’ household. The number appears to be a direct match with the number of people named in his will, though not all of these individuals match up, such as three men ages 45, 22 and 18. The rest in the slave schedule are women and children, or young women who would have been adults or potentially mothers by 1866, when John James made his will.

The record includes females born around 1820, 1845, 1848, 1850, 1851, 1858 and 1859, as well as three boys born about 1852, 1856 and 1860. Keep in mind that some of the children named in his will could have been born after 1860. However, noting these birth dates may help you identify these individuals in post-Civil War records, which name everyone regardless of race.

For example, it is possible that the Charity James who was residing in Freestone County, Texas, in 1870 is the Charity mentioned in John James’ will, based on the fact that she was 50 years old in 1870, placing her birth around 1820 (matching a woman born about 1820 who was in John James’ household in 1860). Her husband in this record, Clayton James, could also be the eldest man recorded in the schedule in 1860.

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Examining the original record, you’ll also note that Charity James was living near a Harriet Epps, born about 1855; and a Fanny Baily, born about 1850, both in Texas. Their ages align roughly with the ages given in the slave schedule (remember, ages aren’t always 100 percent accurate in census records).

Freestone County is a distance from Victoria County, but when we looked, we did not locate anyone living in Victoria in the 1870 census with the names mentioned in John James’ will, so it is possible that they migrated. It’s a good idea to reach out to repositories or websites for counties around Victoria, such as Freestone, to ensure that your information reaches those who would be most interested in it.

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Finally, connecting with projects that collect and present information regarding slavery in Texas may provide avenues for you to include the information on your ancestors’ slaves. The Texas Slavery Project is focused on the years 1837-1845, but you could contact those running the project to see if they know of a good repository that would appreciate the information you have. The site includes slave and slaveholder population statistics for Victoria County between 1837 and 1845, so depending on when your John James arrived in Texas, he could be counted in these totals.

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Those who manage the project may be able to direct you to the collections and repositories that they use to create the database. Chances are, there may be some collections regarding slavery in the region that would be interested in the information in John James’ will.


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.

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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, Ph.D., 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 1 billion 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 about researching African-American roots.