A Cheat Sheet for Researching African-American Ancestors

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
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Over the past few years that we’ve been writing this column, we’ve encountered numerous people who have reached the “brick wall” of emancipation when researching their African-American ancestors. They are stymied by the fact that before the end of the Civil War, enslaved African Americans were rarely recorded by name in documents of any kind, making the tracing of their antebellum ancestry nearly impossible. Unfortunately, they were considered to be the property of white slave owners, and that’s how they were treated in wills, deeds, account and probate records, as well as census enumerations.

Even free people of color were often neglected in public records before emancipation, making them difficult to trace.


Difficult, but it’s not completely out of the question. After all, we wouldn’t have a column if there weren’t ways to push beyond the wall.

Among the tips we have for tracing black ancestors before emancipation:

* Find out as much as you can about your ancestors immediately after the end of the Civil War in 1865 and then work your way backward in time.

* Start with the 1870 U.S. census, which was the first one to list all African Americans it counted by name. Note all of the information you gather: name, age, birthplace, residence, race, householder status, as well as the names, ages and genders of others living in the household. All of this information can help you to find patterns and confirm identities when searching other, earlier records. It’s available on Ancestry.com (subscription required).

* When you look at the 1870 census records, note the surnames of neighbors, as they can give clues to who the slave owners may have been. For instance, if a white family of the same surname lived close by, they could be from the slave-owning family. A black family living close by may be related to your ancestors or have shared the same owner.


* Search 1867 Voter-Registration Lists by state to identify male ancestors just after the end of slavery. Among the vital information they contain is length of residence in the state.

* Check Freedmen’s Bureau records (via the National Archives), which contain a wealth of information. Between the years 1865 and 1872, the Freedmen’s Bureau kept track of a variety of records, including marriage, medical, and school and census information. Advice for searching them can be found in our previous column on the trove.


* Armed with information about possible slave owners of your ancestors, search 1850 and 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules on Ancestry.com, which list slave owners by name, but slaves, typically, by gender and age only. We also shared tips for searching them in a previous column.

* Check wills and probate records of possible slave owners, as sadly, slaves were often left to beneficiaries as property. If they are not listed in the will itself, they might be listed in the associated inventory of property.


* Identify laws in your ancestors’ state that may have required slave owners to register their slaves. For example, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania in 1780 required owners to register their slaves annually. Many of these records are available in microfilm through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (find out more at FamilySearch).

* The District of Columbia was the only place in the United States that offered compensation for the emancipation of slaves in 1862. The petitions for compensation submitted by slave owners contain a wealth of information about their slaves and have been compiled in a book by Dorothy S. Provine.


For more in-depth advice, watch the webinar above by Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The online companion to it is at American Ancestors, full of resources, advice and a list of services provided by NEHGS to help find African-American ancestors.

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 co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan Siekman, a 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 about researching African-American roots.

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