Walnut Grove Plantation in Spartanburg County, S.C.
South Carolina Department of Archives and History

Dear Professor Gates:

I am working on a research project for the Spartanburg County Historical Association. The directors at Walnut Grove Plantation in Moore, S.C., have never researched the descendants of the slaves who lived at Walnut Grove Plantation during the American Revolutionary War. They know plenty about the Moore and Barry families, but not about the slaves. We would like to find out if the slaves stayed in the area or moved away. 

I have never researched African Americans before. I have been to the local archives in the historical library in Spartanburg, S.C., and I have been in contact with archivists in Columbia, S.C., at the State Records and Historical Archives Library.  No luck finding them so far.  

Can you recommend any other leads? —Becky Forsythe, ADC-CDP

Researching African Americans before the end of the Civil War can be challenging because those who were enslaved were often recorded as unnamed property in census slave schedules, wills and other documents—if they were recorded at all. However, there are avenues of research you can take. Reading the previous installment of this column “How Do I Decode Slave Records?” can be a good starting point.

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Work Your Way Backward From the 1870 Census

To locate potential descendants of the enslaved people who lived on the Walnut Grove Plantation during the American Revolution, you may need to start after the Civil War and work back to the time frame in question.

According to the National Register nomination (pdf) for the historic site, the Moore family owned the house until 1961. This means it was possible that the family owned slaves after the American Revolution and through to the end of the Civil War. The individuals living at Walnut Grove Plantation at the end of slavery could very well be descendants of the enslaved who were living there during the American Revolution.

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Census records may identify potential former slaves of the Moore family who lived on the Walnut Grove Plantation. There is a strong possibility that at least some of the slaves who lived at the plantation adopted either the Moore or Barry surname following slavery. The 1870 U.S. census is the first following the end of slavery that lists former slaves by name. Surprising as it may seem, after emancipation former slaves tended to live near the locations of their enslavement. Therefore, it’s likely that many former slaves from Walnut Grove had not moved far from the plantation by the 1870 census. You should check these records for individuals living nearby.

When you search the 1870 census, available through FamilySearch, limit the results to individuals with the Moore surname whose race was recorded as “black” and who were living in Spartanburg County, S.C. When we performed this search, we located a number of records. You can perform a similar search for the Barry surname, since you know the Barry family also lived on the Walnut Grove Plantation. Some of these individuals were born as early at 1789, close to your period of significance and may have been the children of slaves owned by Charles and Mary Moore during the American Revolution. It may be the case that not all of these individuals were once owned by the Moore and Barry families, but it gives you a number of individuals you can compare with other records.

In our search, we noted that one record included a Samuel Barry, age 62, who was living directly next to a Titus Moore, age 55, in Fair Forest, Spartanburg, S.C. They were also just a few households away from a Ralph Moore, age 20. All of these families were African American. The proximity of these individuals suggests that they knew each other. Having both the Moore and Barry surnames suggests that these individuals may have been previously owned or associated with the Moore and Barry families who were not black. Perhaps the people we found once lived on the Walnut Grove Plantation and had kin who were enslaved there during the American Revolution.

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Check Slave Schedules

If you know the name of the owner of the plantation in 1860, you could search for that person in the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules via Ancestry.com to see if the person owned any slaves at that time. The slave schedules did not record slaves by name, but the slaves were described by age, sex and race under the slave owner’s name.

You can compare what you know about the African-American Moore and Barry families in the 1870 census with the descriptions of the slaves owned by the Moore family in 1860. If you were able to locate individuals who matched, you could search for them again in the 1850 U.S. Slave Schedules, also on Ancestry.com, to determine the likelihood that they were living on the Walnut Grove Plantation for a number of decades. From 1820 to 1840, you can also check the census records (via FamilySearch) for the Moore family. Although there is not a separate slave schedule in those years, they do note the number of slaves in particular age brackets, which may help you trace an individual back even further.

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You could also search records from the South Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau, which are available to browse on FamilySearch. This collection includes labor contracts for Spartanburg County from 1865 to 1867. Sometimes these contracts identify former slave owners, which may help you identify individuals who were once on the Walnut Grove Plantation. These records may help you to identify surnames other than Moore and Barry that may be associated with the plantation.

Consider Some May Have Been Freed Before 1865

If you believe there is a possibility that the Moore family freed their slaves prior to the end of slavery, you could search for people of color living in Spartanburg in the United States Federal Census from 1860 and earlier. The 1850 and the 1860 United States Federal Census lists all free individuals in the household by name. Census records from 1840 and earlier list the head of household by name but will record whether the individual was a person of color.

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It may be worth looking at any persons of color in the area, even if the surname does not match, since it is possible that they took another surname. You could also search the records available on FreeAfricanAmericans.com, which include transcriptions of records of free blacks in South Carolina. One document on the site also records known information about particular surnames, so you could search specifically about information of families with the Moore or Barry surname.

Check Probate, Land and Account Records

You could also examine any records that you have for the Moore family that mention any of their slaves, even if just by description. Probate, land and account records for the family may mention slaves by name. You can then compare these with records for African-American families in Spartanburg County. Probate records for Spartanburg County are available to view online through FamilySearch.

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According to the index for the estates, a probate record for Charles Moore was filed May 8, 1805, which named Charles Moore (presumably his son) as the executor of the estate. You could examine the file to see if any slaves were mentioned in the probate record. This may help give you an idea of whether or not he freed any of his slaves or if they were transferred to any family members. This could help you determine the likelihood that slaves remained on the plantation until the end of slavery or if you need to direct your attention to free people of color in Spartanburg.

Good luck!

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. Julie Wolf is a freelance writer and editor based outside Boston.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. 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.