(The Root) —
"I've completed the African Ancestry paternal lineage test and it says that I have Angolan heritage. I would like to find information about the ports that people from Angola were sold from to the United States — and where they landed —- in hopes of pinpointing where my Angolan ancestors came from. My family hails from Arkansas. How can I do this?" —Rauland Sharp
Where Slaves Came From
According to the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, Angolans who were carried to North America or to English ports in general usually were exported through ports on the coast of modern-day Angola, Cabinda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These ports lay north of the city of Luanda, the capital of Angola. The most important of these ports were Ambriz, Mpinda and Boma, all of which were parts of the old Kingdom of Kongo and are today in Angola (except for Boma, which is in the Democratic Republic of Congo). In addition, Malimba, Loango and Cabinda were very busy ports. The greatest number of Angolans carried into the Atlantic trade came from these three ports.
Many of the slaves who came through Angolan ports were sent to Brazil. However, as we noted in a previous column, 24 percent of slaves sent to North America between the 1600s and 1800s came via Angola. This doesn't mean those enslaved people were all Angolan. As Heywood and Thornton explain, slaves who were exported from these ports might have been enslaved originally in a large zone of Central Africa. Relatively few came from the immediate hinterland of the ports, both because these regions were not thickly inhabited and the kingdoms in which these ports were located were not particularly active in enslavement.
Where Slaves Landed
Prior to 1808, various U.S. ports were used for the transportation of slaves. A number of Angolan slaves were brought to South Carolina and Virginia during the Colonial period, and the earliest known group of slaves from Angola was sent to Port Comfort, Va., in 1619. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is a valuable resource for learning more about the various ports used for the slave trade. It shows that between 1628 and 1860, more than 73,000 people came through embarkation ports in West Central Africa and St. Helena Island to the United States. In addition to finding data on more than 35,000 slave voyages, one can use the database to create customized tables containing information on specific regions where certain ships sailed from, as well as their disembarkation locations.
To learn more about the Angolan slave trade, you may also wish to review books such as Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660, by Linda Heywood and John Thornton; Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, by John Thornton; The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, edited by Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman; and Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830, by Joseph C. Miller.
You note that your family has roots in Arkansas. There were several Southern ports that could have been the location where your slave ancestors first arrived in the U.S., including through Charleston, which some 40 percent of the slaves did, before being channeled to locations in both the upper and lower South, depending on their date of arrival. Although the importation of slaves from other countries was banned in 1808, the sale of slaves within the U.S. continued to take place — during a period also known as the Second Middle Passage. That forced migration moved more than a million slaves from the Upper South to the Lower South in the 19th century, largely because of the cotton boom.
The territory acquired by the U.S. through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 included what is known today as the state of Arkansas. As Heywood and Thornton explain, when Arkansas Territory was organized in 1819, slavery was permitted. Your Angolan ancestry most likely came from one or more African Americans who were brought down to the Deep South in the Second Middle Passage or through a recently arrived Angolan purchased during the illegal slave trade between Cuba and the American South.
Tracing Their Journeys
A common way to transport these slaves to work on Southern plantations was by ship, carrying them from places such as Baltimore and Richmond to areas along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. The ship masters were required to turn in ship manifests to the Collector of Customs upon arrival. These manifests included information such as the departure and arrival ports, the names of the slave owners or traders and, occasionally, the names of the slaves. Many of these records are available on microfilm through the National Archives and Records Administration, as part of Record Group 36: Records of the U.S. Customs Service, 1745-1997. However, very little information is provided about the slaves on these records, so it is important to learn more about your slave ancestor before searching for your ancestor's port of arrival.
As with any family history research, it is important to begin with what you know about your ancestor and work your way backward. Census and vital records, as well as deed and probate documents, are some sources to use when tracing your family's origins. Once you are able to identify the name of your ancestor's slave owner, looking at the probate and land records of these slave owners may yield clues regarding the chain of ownership of your ancestor. Slave owners often bequeathed slaves to family members, and tracing that family member's whereabouts may reveal whether they moved to a different state, or even sold their slaves to a different individual. You may wish to check local libraries and historical societies for the family papers of a particular slave owner's family, which may contain information on the purchase or sale of slaves.
The Old State House Museum, located in Little Rock, Ark., has available on its website a number of transcribed slave narratives. These are searchable by topic, as well as by name. These transcriptions may provide additional insight into the lives of your ancestors. Another source is the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, which are available online at Ancestry.com. The names of the slaves are not listed in these documents, but one can review the ages and gender of slaves owned by particular individuals and track their ownership over a 10-year period.
There are several websites useful to Arkansas African-American research, including Afrigeneas, which provides links to databases such as slave owners from different counties; Arkansas Genealogy, which includes information on a number of African-American cemeteries in Arkansas; and the website for the Arkansas Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. Another important resource for your family research in Arkansas is the website for the Black History Commission of Arkansas, which contains links to items such as a land-record database, a list of African-American newspapers and information about various African-American funeral home and cemetery records. You may come across a number of brick walls while trying to trace your ancestor's port of arrival and Angolan origins, but these resources may help you obtain additional information on your slave 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 the editor-in-chief 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 Eileen Pironti, a researcher from 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.