Dear Professor Gates:
My ancestors Lewis Pratt (born circa 1870) and his father, John Pratt (born circa 1840), lived in Prattville in Alabama, according to family research that I have done. My research also reveals (from Ancestry.com and a letter written by Lewis Pratt’s granddaughter) that John Pratt was born in North Carolina and moved his family to Alabama. That seems strange to me. Would someone “willfully move” to the Deep South to a place like Alabama?
I want to verify all of this, but when I was on Ancestry.com, they mentioned the information “wall” that many African Americans hit when doing family-history research because prior to the 1870 census, you have to look through the U.S. Census Slave Schedules of 1850 and 1860, which rarely mention the slaves by name. I do know that a man named Daniel Pratt was one the largest slaveholders in Alabama. Can you help me confirm this bit of family history? —Matthew Hill
As we have shared before, many African Americans are stymied by that “wall” you describe, but there is a way for some to breach it by combining a search for records on their ancestors with records relating to any potential slave owners. Collecting as many documents as possible on the generations that lived during slavery and after 1870 can provide a context as to where the family was living, if and how they moved to different regions, and what their relationship was to other families.
This is valuable information for uncovering clues about a potential slave owner. Determining the slave owner provides opportunities to locate more documents that may include information about former slaves, such as wills, deeds, estate records and even personal manuscripts from the plantations that may mention slaves by name.
Start With Your Ancestors
With that in mind (and assuming that your ancestors were indeed enslaved and not free blacks), the first step would be to locate as much information as you can about John Pratt and his son, Lewis Pratt. You mentioned that Lewis and his father were in Prattville, Ala. If you search for your Pratt family in the 1870 U.S. census in Alabama, you will see a record for a John Pratt, born circa 1840 in North Carolina, living in Athens in Dallas County, Ala.
According to the record, John had a son, Lewis, who was 7 years old at the time the census was enumerated, placing his birth circa 1863. This was the only John Pratt with a son named Lewis in the 1870 census, so it is very likely that this is a record for your John Pratt. Also included in the household is a Silla Pratt, presumably John’s wife, and three other children: Mary, age 5; Willie, age 3; and John, age 1. The race of all members of the household was recorded as “Black.”
John Pratt was the only one in the household who was listed as being born in North Carolina, and the rest of the household recorded their birthplace as Alabama. If the record is correct, Lewis was born circa 1863, meaning that John Pratt was likely living in Alabama prior to emancipation and could have been living as a slave in Alabama even though he was born in North Carolina. This could address your question of why the family would live in the Deep South after the Civil War.
It is often helpful to search the names of families on other pages surrounding your family in census records, since they can reveal potential relationships that can prove helpful in locating further records. We noted that on the following page was another John Pratt, age 19, who was also born in North Carolina. As we searched for the Pratt surname in the 1870 census for Athens in Dallas, Ala., these seemed to be the only individuals with the Pratt surname that lived in that location. Perhaps they were related or knew each other in some way. Though the connection is not evident in this record alone, it is good to note instances where you find similar surnames in the same records because they can indicate relationships that you may be able to confirm through further research.
Sometimes, in order to work your ancestry back, it is helpful to move forward in time to gather more information. You can see John Pratt and his family living in Boiling Springs in Wilcox County, Ala., enumerated in the 1880 U.S. census. In this record, John Pratt was listed as “Mullatto,” and the rest of the family members as “Black.” This information may assist with a search through other documents, since it could be an indicator of whether or not we located the right John Pratt.
Also in this record, more members of the family were recorded as being born in North Carolina. Only the three youngest children—Martha, age 6; Jasper, age 5; and Crecy, age 2—are listed as born in Alabama. Each of these births occurred after the enumeration of the 1870 census, when we know the family was residing in Alabama.
The difference in where the children of John Pratt were born is crucial to your search backward. If all of John’s children were born in Alabama, it could indicate that he may have been born in North Carolina and then moved to Alabama as a slave, which would explain his choice to remain in Alabama following emancipation. However, if his children had been born in North Carolina after the Civil War, it would indicate that the family moved from North Carolina to Alabama after the Civil War.
Locating birth records for John Pratt’s children would help you determine if the family was in Alabama during the Civil War and remained there, or if they moved to Alabama from North Carolina after the war. Birth records can be difficult to locate in Alabama, so it may prove beneficial to start with North Carolina. If you find birth records for the children there, it will help answer the question of where they were living. Databases for birth records in North Carolina are available at FamilySearch.
Another great resource for determining where your John Pratt may have been living prior to 1870 is the 1867 voter-registration records that were created as a result of the Reconstruction Act. These records list both black and white men over the age of 21 who were eligible citizens under the 14th Amendment. It is important to note, however, that based on how locations interpreted the act, not all eligible citizens may be included in the records. The records often list the individual’s name, race and place of residence, though sometimes not all information is present in a record.
In Alabama, these records are available through a database search at the Department of Archives and History. We did a preliminary search for John Pratt though the database and located one reference to a man by that name, though it does not list his race. There are also a number of African Americans with the surname Pratt included in the records. The voter-registration records for North Carolina in 1867 are in the publication North Carolina Extant Voter Registrations of 1867, by Frances Holloway Wynne, which is available at various libraries.
Then Look at Potential Slave Owners
Many former slaves adopted the surname of their owner after emancipation. With this in mind, it is likely that your family surname was derived from a slave owner with the surname Pratt. You know from the census records that your John Pratt and Lewis Pratt were living in Alabama in 1870 and 1880, and that it is possible that John was living in either Alabama or North Carolina prior to 1870. With this information in mind, you can search for potential slave owners in both Alabama and North Carolina using the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules, available on Ancestry.com.
Using the advanced search, you can limit the result to men with the surname Pratt living in Alabama and North Carolina. All slaves were listed under the name of their owner; however, knowing that your John Pratt was born circa 1840, you can further limit the search to men of about the same age. The site will then display the names of slave owners who had males around the age of 20 living in their households in 1860.
Conducting this search in Alabama, we found a number of results listed in the household of Daniel Pratt of Prattville in Autauga County. It is important to note that there were at least four other Pratts in Alabama that had slaves of the description of John Pratt in 1860, but since you also have the family story of connecting to Daniel Pratt, it may be worthwhile to start with him.
Daniel Pratt was an industrialist born in 1799 in New Hampshire who moved first to Georgia before settling in Autauga County in 1836. There he constructed cotton gins and built a permanent gin in 1838. The town of Prattville was founded from this enterprise, since workers needed a place to live.
Pratt used both free white labor and slave labor to build Alabama’s first major industrial endeavor. There are a number of books, such as The Conquest of Labor: Daniel Pratt and Southern Industrialization, by Curtis J. Evans, that can provide further context for Daniel’s cotton industry, of which your ancestors may have been a part.
In examining the 1860 Slave Schedule for Daniel Pratt, we learned that he owned 97 slaves in 1860, and none of them were listed by name. This makes it incredibly difficult to determine which may be your John Pratt. From the previous census records we uncovered, we know that your John Pratt was born circa 1840. We searched for 20-year-old males listed in Daniel Pratt’s household and located eight males between the ages of 18 and 22 that could be your John Pratt. This is very little evidence to go on to establish that your John Pratt was one of Daniel Pratt’s slaves, however.
Daniel Pratt died in 1873, which provides us with a date to search for his will. Often slaves are mentioned in probate documents, sometimes by name. Please note that a probate record for Daniel is unlikely to reveal the names of his slaves, since he died after emancipation. The document may still prove useful in providing further context about the family and their relationships to other families.
Since Daniel died after slavery ended, the documents from his estate may be the best option for finding clues about his slaves. The Autauga County Heritage Association holds a number of records on Daniel Pratt and his estate, including handwritten letters. You could visit the institution or request a search for documents relating to Daniel’s slaves to see if they hold any information about your John Pratt. The Alabama Department of Archives and History also maintains records concerning slavery in that state. These records could hold receipts and documents on slave purchases and may hold a manuscript that could prove helpful in your search.
Since the census records differ regarding the place of birth for John Pratt’s wife and a number of their children, it is important not to rule out other options. We searched the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules for the surname Pratt in North Carolina and located a John Pratt who owned 47 slaves living in Wadesboro in Anson County.
There are two male slaves listed that fit the age of your John Pratt, so you should not rule out the possibility that your John Pratt could have lived at this location. The record states that the slaves listed were a part of John Pratt’s estate but that he was dead. This indicates that there may be a probate record for him prior to this date.
The index to wills in Anson County is available in the collection for North Carolina Probate Records, which lists a number of individuals with the surname Pratt, though none of the devisors in the index are a John Pratt. It would likely prove useful to investigate the other Pratts in the index to see if they also owned slaves in Anson County, since it appears to be a location where this Pratt family resided for a number of generations. The State of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources’ Office of Archives and History also contains state, county and private records relating to African Americans that may be useful in uncovering more information about slave owners with the surname Pratt in North Carolina. A great information circular about the office’s holdings is available on the NCDCR website (pdf).
Since your John Pratt was born in 1840, he would have been included in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules, too. Performing a similar search in this collection may help narrow the search. You can compare the names you located in 1860 with those of slave owners who had a 10-year-old boy in 1850. It is always possible that your John Pratt was sold from North Carolina to Alabama during this period as well, so you could also look for instances in which the household had no listing for a 10-year-old boy in 1850 but contained a 20-year-old male in 1860, and vice versa.
Though it can be a long process, you can also take notes on the surnames you see in the slave schedules living directly next to the Pratt surnames you are looking for. You can then compare these surnames with those of the individuals living near your John Pratt and Lewis Pratt in the later census records.
It is likely that former slaves of neighbors of the Pratts also took on their former owner’s surname, and it is possible that your John Pratt may have relocated with people he knew. It could provide further evidence of where he was living in 1860. Any connections you can uncover to other families can help reveal where you should look for more information about your family.
Finally, Learn About Local History
The reason the family would “willfully move” to the Deep South depends on whether or not John Pratt was in Alabama prior to the end of the Civil War. If he was already in Alabama, then it seems probable that he would not have gone any farther than needed to find stability for his family. He probably would have been moved from North Carolina to Alabama in the first place, judging by the evidence we’ve accumulated so far, because of what historians call the second Middle Passage, the period between 1830 and 1860 when more than 1 million slaves were relocated from the Upper South to the Lower South to work the cotton plantations.
Sadly, as Professor Gates wrote in his 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column about that forced migration, “When we think of the image of slaves being sold ‘down the river’ on auction blocks—mothers separated from children, husbands from wives—it was during this period that these scenes became increasingly common. The enslaved were sometimes marched hundreds of miles to their destinations, on foot and in chains.”
However, if John Pratt was living in North Carolina after the Civil War and then moved to Alabama just prior to 1870, he could have been moving because of the availability of work or the opportunity to reside in the same location as family. Local histories of the area may provide some context for this decision.
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.