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Research strategy for descendants of enslaved persons

To those of us who are descendants of enslaved persons (EPs), get prepared for the reality that we might be researching a number of potential plantations or other SH sites before our ancestors surface. This does not need to be wasted effort, however — not if we all think of the BKP as a collaborative effort.

So, document what you find, publicly posting your work to aid others, using online tools like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch. We encourage you to document an entire group of enslaved persons at a time, rather than focusing only on your own ancestor. Your ancestor’s story is tied into the larger group, and you may find clues to your ancestral story in unexpected places – through their Beyond Kin. We hope, as the BKP spreads, you will find yourself benefiting from the work others have done ahead of you, even as you do the same for them.

Recommended research strategy

We have posted the strategies in a recommended order, but do not be alarmed if some steps have to be reordered. Some will be quick and some will take a long time. It’s an organic process.

Step 1 

Working backward in time from yourself, take a line of your ancestry back to just after the Civil War.

Take a line of your family back to the 1870 U.S. Federal Census – the first federal census to list the former EPs in their own households with last names. (In some states you may find them in state censuses as early as 1866.)

Step 2

Do your autosomal DNA with a company that offers kinship matching and ethnic origins.

As you begin to unravel the mystery of your family, various types of DNA testing will be helpful to solve specific problems. But the first step will be an autosomal test that broadly matches you with others who share significant enough strands of identical DNA to be likely “cousins” and can give you a breakdown of your ethnic origins.

Step 3

Check FamilySearch’s death record collections to see if your 1870 ancestor’s parents appear.

At the following site: type your state and the word “death” in the “Filter by Collection Name” field. If you find a promising collection of death records, search for your ancestor’s name.

View FamilySearch death collections

Many of these death records also include the names of the deceased person’s parents or other family members. By this method, you might be able to take your family back another generation before you even begin to search slave and freedman’s records.

Step 4

Check the Freedmen’s Bureau Records.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records might offer details about your ancestor’s life after emancipation, and could even offer a reference to his or her SH’s name. Most Freedmen’s Bureau records are available on microfilm through the Family History Libraries, but you’ll want to start with those that have been scanned and indexed by FamilySearch.

View digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records

To search some subsets of the records, visit:

http://www.discoverfreedmen.org/

For general information about this set of materials, go to:

Background and use of the Freedmen’s Bureau records.

Step 5

Search the 1850 and 1860 slave censuses for property owners who share your ancestor’s last name and see if one of their EPs has a similar birth year to your ancestor.

Examine the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules/censuses to locate the SHs, with their EPs listed by age, sex, and race (mulatto or black). Begin in the county where your ancestor lived in 1870, and go broader if you find no matches.

Do not expect a perfect match. Your ancestor quite possibly did not know his or her own true age, nor did the SH. Find all possible matches. You’ll want to begin your in-depth research with the closest match. (If, at some point, you determine that this is not your ancestor’s plantation, begin the process again with the next-most likely SH candidate.)

Detour, if necessary

If you do not find a potential match, detour to When formerly enslaved ancestors did not take the slaveholder’s surname. Other steps will be necessary to narrow down options to the most likely SH. Then come back to Step 5 to continue the process.

Step 6

Build the family information available about the most-likely SH using the 1850 and 1860 federal censuses.

Look at the 1850 and 1860 populations censuses to find the SH you identified in Step 4. If there are several with the same name, narrow it down by looking for those who show property ownership in the census details. If you continue to have more than one option, look at who the neighbors are on either side in both the federal census and the slave census.

Using your genealogy software, build the SH’s family information. Much of what you will want to know about your ancestor will be tied to the SH’s family. Your ancestor might have entered this family group by inheritance from parents, and they might be bequeathed to one of the SH’s children. All of the details can be of help.

Step 7

Compare the SH’s 1830 and 1840 federal census slave tallies against the 1850 and 1860 slave censuses.

Try to determine what mismatches in these census records might tell you. Has an EP died, or been born, manumitted, or sold? If the SH only became old enough to have his own family in the 1850s or 1860s, try to find his parents. Do the number of EPs they owned in the 1830s or 1840s decrease at the same time their son’s EPs appear? Then perhaps he inherited them. Let these censuses and their variations raise questions for further research.

Step 8

Examine the Orphans’s & Probate Court Records of applicable counties for clues.

Some of the records of interest might be scanned and searchable through Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, and other resources. Begin your search with online sources, but know that nothing can replace a visit to the courthouse in your ancestor’s county. You might find mentions of your ancestor by first name in court minutes, estate files, wills, inventories, final settlements, deeds and tax records.

Begin with wills and estate inventories for your SH candidate. They tend to be the most fruitful sources of the names of EPs. They will usually offer a valuation, which can tell you something of the EP’s age and skill. Sometimes, the listing will provide hints as to which EPs are married and which are children of a particular mother. A will also identifies who the SH intends to inherit each EP.

Step 9

Examine other sources of information, public and private, published and unpublished.

  • Search for private records from the SH’s family. Plantation business records, personal diaries and letters, and memoirs might be in the hands of descendants or in archives at the state, county, or local level.
  • See if a history of the SH’s family or transcriptions of their records has been published.
  • Examine church and cemetery records, starting with the church and cemetery of the SH.
  • Read the local newspapers of the time and place, if available.
  • Check genealogical publications in the localities of interest. (For those who are seeking ancestors in Alabama, many of these publications are in the process of being digitized. See Alabama Ancestry Project.)

Step 10

Get training from experts.

Check with genealogical societies and archives in your localities, state, and region for advice on training. For those in the Southeast, our BKP cofounder Frazine Taylor offers group and private training on African American genealogy.

Email donnacoxbaker@gegbound.com for contact with Frazine.

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