Help Me Find My Ancestors in Slave Records

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nancy Bernard
U.S. Census Bureau 1850 Slave Schedule

Dear Professor Gates:

I have been unable to find any records of the Armstrong branch of my family before the 1870 census and look to you for possible answers. The 1870 census shows Tom and Joanna Armstrong living in the Barbecue Township of Harnett County, N.C. There were six children in the house at that time (only the boys), but they had four daughters who were married, plus one other son, who had moved out of the house as noted in the 1880 census when the family was living in Anderson Creek, N.C. (a total of 11 children).


The children were Amy, Susie, Charlotte, Margaret, Isaac, Fred, Peter, Daniel (Dan'l), Rusty, Benjamin and Abe (Abraham). Daniel was my great-grandfather and was the only son who migrated from North Carolina to Georgia.

Info from other family members on Abe's line states that there was an Armstrong Cemetery in Harnett County. I am looking for slave records or any other information that can be found on this family. Can you help? —Janie Armstrong

Based on what you’ve told us, you likely are looking for slave records. As mentioned in an earlier Tracing Your Roots article, a free person would appear in the 1850 and 1860 census records with his or her own name listed—whether or not that person was head of household. But since you have not been able to locate Tom Armstrong in these censuses, then he most likely was not free. The best place to start would therefore be the United States Census Slave Schedules for 1850 and 1860 (the latter via; subscription required).

This is where the search becomes very challenging for most African Americans. As we have mentioned previously in this column, slaves were considered property and generally were not named in census rolls. The slave schedules 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.


Narrowing Down the Likely Slave Owners

You will want to search the slave schedules for the surname Armstrong, since it was common for a former slave to take the surname of the slaveholder. Because Harnett County was formed from Cumberland County in 1855, we searched for the surname Armstrong in the 1850 Slave Schedule via FamilySearch in Cumberland County. 


We located only one Armstrong household listed: Farquhar C. Armstrong was head of household, enumerated in Eastern Division, Cumberland County, N.C. According to this record, Farquhar C. Armstrong had 26 slaves, including a 35-year-old black male and a 30-year-old female. Tom Armstrong and Joanna Armstrong would have been about these ages in 1850. However, they also would have had several daughters ranging from ages 4 to 10, and they were not found on the record.

Next we searched the 1860 Slave Schedule, first in Cumberland County, where we found three households with the Armstrong surname: F.C. Armstrong (quite possibly Farquhar C. Armstrong) in the town of Cumberland; J.C. Armstrong in the town of Cumberland; and Malinda Armstrong in the town of Fayetteville. The only person close to age 45 was a 42-year-old black male in the household of F.C. Armstrong. However, according to the 1870 and 1880 U.S. censuses, the ages of Tom Armstrong’s children would have ranged from about ages 2 to 20 in 1860; there were no young males in the household of F.C. Armstrong.


In the 1860 Slave Schedule for Harnett County, we found only one household—a Melinda Armstrong. There were eight slaves enumerated; however, the oldest male was age 21, and the other young persons did not match up with the ages of the children of Tom and Joanna.

At this point, we would recommend gathering more information about Farquhar C. Armstrong and his family. Perhaps he was related to J.C. Armstrong and Malinda or Melinda Armstrong. We would first search for his probate record because often slaves would be bequeathed to heirs. You can search for probate records in Cumberland County in the various wills indexes on FamilySearch. However, FamilySearch does not have a searchable index for Harnett County.


Although we did not locate a record for Farquhar C. Armstrong in the wills index, we did find one for a Thomas Armstrong, recorded in 1802. According to his will, found in Book A, Page 53, he bequeathed property, real and personal, to his wife, Janet, and children William, John, Farquhar, Thomas and Isabel. Since Farquhar is a fairly unique name, this is probably his family. The will mentions the names of slaves whom he bequeathed to family members. But the will is dated in 1802, and we did not find a slave named Tom (your ancestor likely would not have been born yet).

You could continue searching for probate records for the other slave-owner family members to see if the records include the names of slaves in hopes that there will be a match in name and age with your ancestors. Keep in mind that a slave-owner family member may not have left a will; but you could still search for account and administrative records because property was usually included in these records.


You can also search census records, North Carolina census records 1762-1979, North Carolina Marriages, 1759-1979, and Find a Grave to gather more information about these Armstrong family members.

Learning More About Your Kin After Slavery

FamilySearch had searchable land records for Harnett County. We found several deeds for a Thomas Armstrong in the grantor index, including the following quitclaim deed for Thomas Armstrong to Fred Armstrong, briefly abstracted.


According to the record, Thomas Armstrong of Anderson Creek Township, Harnett County, N.C., sold a lot of land, 250 acres, situated in Anderson Creek Township to Fred Armstrong of Moore County, N.C., for $25. Mentioned in this deed were Peter Armstrong, Benjamin Armstrong, Margaret Eccles and Amy McDougal[?]. The deed was signed by Thomas Armstrong and his wife, Margaret, and was dated Aug. 8, 1890. Since we know that your ancestor Thomas had sons named Fred, Peter and Benjamin, and a daughter Amy, this deed probably refers to him. Perhaps Tom remarried at some point.

To build on this lead, you would also want to search for him in the grantee index, as well as the grantor and grantee indexes for Cumberland County. However, keep in mind that according to the FamilySearch catalog, courthouse fires of 1892 and 1894 destroyed court records and many of the land records.


You mentioned that there may be an Armstrong Cemetery in Harnett County. We located the cemetery between the townships of Barbecue and Anderson Creek. You may want to contact the town clerks to obtain more information about the cemetery.

Another great source is the local library. Most libraries have local history and genealogical rooms and often have sources that are not available anywhere else, such as archived local newspapers. You can contact the reference librarian at the Harnett County Public Library and the Anderson Creek Public Library (910-814-4012).


You may also want to search for church records in these townships. This list contains the names of eight churches in Anderson Creek. You could call these churches to find out if they have historical baptismal, marriage and death records, and if not, they may be able to suggest where you could find them.

And lastly, take a look at the North Carolina State Archives. You can search its online catalog and finding aids to look for pertinent collections.


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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This answer was provided in consultation with Nancy Bernard, 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,, 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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