Dear Professor Gates:
Through wills and census reports found during family research, I have discovered a couple sets of ancestors who owned slaves. Although most of the documents note slaves only by age and gender, I have come across three names: Sam, Dinah and Sutton, who were owned by James W. Hampton Sr. in Virginia around 1774.
I am hoping to find a database somewhere that helps match up slaveholders and the people they held. Do you know where I can upload documents and other identifying information that could help people track down any of their enslaved ancestors? I know it’s a long shot, considering all the gaps in the record, but maybe someone is looking for Sam, Sutton or Dinah. —Carrie Bowers
Oh, we wish it were that easy! To the best of our knowledge, a singular database of slave owners in the United States that compiles information on slave owners and the enslaved does not exist. However, we applaud you for your desire to help people who may be searching for information about ancestors in bondage, and there are a variety of ways for you to share the information you located about Sam, Dinah and Sutton.
As you noted, finding their names was a stroke of good fortune. Even when slave schedules were added to the U.S. census in 1850 and 1860, most locales listed enslaved people under the names of their owner, identified only by race (“black” or “mulatto”), age and gender, though a few counties listed slaves by name, including Hampshire County, Va.
Databases and Lists
A great place to start is the Virginia Historical Society, which has a database called Unknown No Longer. This project has digitized a number of manuscripts and documents relating to African Americans in Virginia. The search option on the site allows you to locate documents in the digitized collection by first name, surname or occupation, as well as a number of other options, including owner’s surname, in the advanced search menu. The goal for this project is to create a database of the enslaved Virginians included in documents in their collection. There is a message board section of this website where you could post your information. You could also contact the project director to inquire about the possibility of including your information in this project.
Another great resource is Our Black Ancestry, which has a list of slave owners who owned a large amount of slaves in 10 Southern states. You can browse the slaveholders by surname. There is also a Connections section of the website that allows for individuals searching for information on their families to post the information they have along with their contact information. You could search this site to see if any individuals are already looking for information on the slaves owned by James W. Hampton Sr., and you could also submit the information you discovered on the site in hopes that it may prove useful to someone searching for their ancestors.
Another potentially useful resource is a Web page, Large Slaveholders of 1860 and African-American Surname Matches From 1870, which is hosted by Rootsweb and Ancestry.com. The goal of the site is to match up individuals found on the 1860 census with the slaveholders listed in the 1860 Census Slave Schedule in order to identify slaveholders on earlier census records. Though this is a later time period than the records you located for Sam, Dinah and Sutton, an index of slaveholders in 1860 may direct researchers to look for slaves in an individual’s household in earlier census records. If you have information on slave owners from around 1860 as well, you may want to check if your ancestor has been documented in this project.
Forums, Message Boards and Listservs
AfriGeneas has a number of forums, including one on slave research and another on surnames and family research, both of which are relevant places to post your findings. There are also message boards on Ancestry.com, including one specific to slave information. This particular message board is fairly active, so your post may be seen by a number of people. There is also a message board specific to African Americans in Virginia, which is another good place to post your information. Genforum is another website for genealogical message boards that has a topic section for African-American research that also gets a lot of traffic. The forums are searchable, so your entry would show up if someone searched for any individual names in your post.
You may also benefit from posting your information on email Listservs specific to African-American genealogy. To join a Listserv, you subscribe to the email list and you can then submit an inquiry or information to the list manager, who can email it to everyone who subscribes to that particular list.
Probably most relevant to the information you would like to share is SlaveInfo-L, which focuses on sharing genealogical data about slaves included in wills, deeds and vital records. You could submit an email including all the information you have on Sam, Dinah and Sutton. Once you compile your email, you could submit it to other lists, including AfricanAmer-Gen-L, which is a general email list for African-American genealogy. There are others that are specific to region, such as Va-Freedmen-L, which is a list for people with interests in freedmen in Virginia, and there is also POCSouth-L for people researching in the Southern United States.
Uncovering More Clues
You may also be interested in locating more information about Sam, Dinah and Sutton to include in your posts. In addition to the wills and deeds you have already located, you could check to see if any other records exist of James W. Hampton Sr. and his estate. The Virginia Historical Society has a guide to African-American manuscripts that includes the collections of materials relating to free and enslaved African Americans in the state. You could see if it holds any records relating to your ancestors that may provide more information. If you are interested to see if anyone Hampton enslaved was ever freed, a great resource is FreeAfricanAmericans.com which has a page dedicated to Virginia slaves freed after 1782.
You may also want to check out the collection of public claims, slaves and free blacks, 1781-1865 housed at the Library of Virginia. This collection contains runaway slaves whose owners were never located and were thus transferred into the custody of the state to be sold to new owners. The collection also includes tax information for free blacks and slaves and accounts of convicted African Americans who were transferred out of state or executed. The collection is available on microfilm through the Family History Library. Since the documents date as early as 1781, it may include information on Sam, Dinah or Sutton or others owned by the Hampton family.
On a related note, there is also a database you can search online for British slave owners as well. Legacies of British Slave Ownership is a database that contains information about slave owners compiled for the records of the Slave Compensation Commission, which managed the compensation to slave owners in 1833 when slavery was abolished in Britain. The database includes the names of slave owners who filed a claim for compensation and how much they received, but it does not include information on the enslaved. Perhaps one day a database such as this one will include a broad list of American slave owners, but until then there are plenty of ways to share your information with those who may be searching for their forebears.
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 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 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.