How Do I Track Down a Slave Plantation?

Enslaved workers on a plantation (
Enslaved workers on a plantation (

(The Root) — In the 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column entitled "Why Was Cotton 'King'?" I described how blacks were commodified by the plantation economy in slaveholding states. For many, the trail to discovering black ancestry is paved with this sad truth and with clues in the records kept by plantations. Below, a reader hopes to find a lead.


"Is there a source that tracks plantations by state that I can use as I research my family roots?" —Linda Thomas

Depending on the state in question, its historical commission may maintain a record of historical plantations. The National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers has a useful directory of websites, with additional contact information.


Once you've identified a plantation, there may be a number of records available to help you identify a forebear. According to, the personal records of a plantation owner likely contain information on slaves, as may accounting records, "day book" entries, diaries and letters.

Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from 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.


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