What Happened to a Slave's Family?

African American family in 1899 (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
African American family in 1899 (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

(The Root)

"Oral history tells me that my paternal great, great, great grandfather, Sanford Mason, was born in Virginia and sold as a slave.


"Sanford met and married Nancy Jewett, and they had three children: Joe, Jeff and Eve. At some point, because of slavery, the family was separated. Sanford went to fight in the Civil War, and when the war was over, Sanford tried to find his lost family. He wandered from place to place but could not find them. He remarried, but I don't know what his second wife's name was. By her, three more children were born: Joe, Ida and Mary.

"Can you help me find out in which Virginia city Sanford Mason was born? I cannot find any information on him. I estimate that he was born about 1810. I'd also like to know who his parents were; what happened to his first wife Nancy and their children; and lastly, what his second wife's name was." —Mary Margaret (Mason) Taylor


Searching for Sanford's Birthplace and Kin

You definitely have a challenge before you, trying to pin down his place of birth and information about his parents. For the most part, records of births and deaths in Virginia were not kept until 1853, when legislation passed stating that this information was to be recorded by each county and the independent cities. Although sometimes incomplete, these registers did contain records of enslaved African Americans, so you may be able to find records of Mason's children in these collections, since they could have been born after 1853.

If he was sold into slavery while he was young, it is possible that Sanford was given the surname Mason from the family that purchased him. Taking this into consideration, you can narrow down a geographic region where he may have lived by identifying large slaveholders who had the Mason surname. There is even a transcribed collection of surnames of African-American families, which uses information on African-American families in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census and matches this information to the surnames of known slaveholders from the 1860 U.S. Federal Census. You can search this collection by surname to see the counties that were associated with the name. For example, in Virginia, Amelia and Mecklenburg counties had both African-American families with the surname Mason in 1870 and a large slaveholder with the name Mason in 1860. If you cannot find a geographic region where Sanford may have been born, it might be a good idea to start searching for possible records in these particular counties.

To narrow down the possibilities, try searching the Federal Census slave schedules, which were enumerated in 1850 and 1860, for slaveholders with the Mason surname. These records are available on the subscription site Ancestry.com, as well as the free site FamilySearch.org. Although these schedules typically do not list the given name of the slaves, they do list details such as age, gender and race. Using this information, in conjunction with the counties where there were known slaveholders with the Mason surname, you can begin to find possible records of Sanford.


As you can imagine, narrowing down the geographic region of where Sanford lived will greatly aid your search for more about him. For example, if you can find that Sanford was enslaved on a specific plantation, it is possible that you can find records that include information on the slaves. For example, the Family History Library has microfilm of the record books of several Virginian plantations.

Also, knowing where and by whom Sanford was enslaved can lead to other local record sources, which can contain a wealth of information. Records of slaves can be found in the Virginia land and property records, which recorded slave master's deeds (in which, sadly, people were recorded as property). Also, probate records of slave owners will often include a list of slaves in the inventory of the estate. These inventories sometimes list a name, age, gender and basic physical description. All of these records types are held at the county (or incorporated city) level, so knowing the county or city where Sanford was enslaved will be useful information.


In addition to finding records at the county level, there are also many local archives and databases that contain more detailed information about enslaved families in specific geographic regions. For example, another source for researching African-American families during the period of slavery is the African-American Families Database. This database is an ongoing project for the Central Virginia History Researchers, and the primary goal is compile information for African Americans in Virginia between 1850 and 1880. The data currently comes from two large plantations near Charlottesville, although there are plans to expand the database to cover more plantations in Albemarle County.

Tracking Down Sanford Mason's First Wife and Children

One way to find information about Nancy (Jewett) Mason and their three children, Joe, Jeff and Eve, is to search for them in census records. The first Federal Census collection to fully enumerate the African-American population was the 1870 census. Since Sanford may have been separated from his wife before 1870, it may be useful to search this census for her under her married name, Mason, and her maiden name, Jewett.


If Nancy (Jewett) Mason was also enslaved when she married Sanford Mason, you will also want to search the various record types listed above, such as plantation, land and probated records, as these may also contain information about Nancy and give you clues as to when she and Sanford were separated.

Finding Information About Sanford's Second Wife

Since Sanford remarried and had three additional children after the Civil War, it is more likely that we could find a record of him and his family in the 1870 Federal Census. Start by searching for each of the children and Nancy living together using estimated birth years, and be sure you check for multiple spelling variations of their names. You might find out more about them by also searching for records of their deaths.


As noted in last week's column, there are many ways you can find if your ancestor served in the Civil War. If you do find that Sanford served as a soldier, it is possible that some of the documents relating to his service could give you clues to where he was living after his service, which might help you determine the name of his wife. You might first try searching the 1890 Veteran's Schedule, which is a list of all surviving Civil War veterans and names of the widows of veterans.

Tracing Sanford Mason's lineage back further than you already have may be difficult due to the general lack of records for enslaved African Americans in the early 19th century. However, by researching his children and narrowing down the geographic region where Sanford lived, you can begin to piece together the details of Sanford's early life, which might eventually lead you to his parents.


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 TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.


This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, 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.

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