Monday, April 19, 2010

Pre-1860 African American Records

Underground Railroads and Anti-Slavery Records

Not Only Runaways Used the Underground Railroads
There’s a misconception that only runaway slaves used the Underground Railroad to escape the south.  Although primarily the Underground Railroad assisted fugitive slaves, it was also used to protect free coloreds - those either never born into slavery, or emancipated slaves - when leaving the south.  The biggest question is why would free-coloreds who almost always carried proof of their status, need protection when moving out of the south?  The answer:  slave traders would often catch free-coloreds migrating north and illegally sell them back into slavery; ignoring their right as a free-citizen.  Therefore, the Underground Railroad was needed to protect free-coloreds too.

The Underground Railroad Records

As early as 1786 the Underground Railroad was in motion.  By 1830 it was operating in over 14 states.[1]  Records were kept by agents of the network and are now preserved in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript collections operated by the Library of Congress.  Also in the NUCMC collection are private records of individual’s Fugitive Journals. This collection should not be overlooked when searching for free-colored or fugitive slaves that settle in the north, Canada or Midwest prior to the civil war, as they are often detailed with names, origin and destinations, descriptions of family units or groups. 

Anti-Slavery Societies and Abolition Group Records
Anti-slavery societies and abolition groups also kept records as early as 1830.  These records can usually be located within the local genealogy library or within historical society libraries and contain useful genealogical information.  The most common project noted in historical books is that of the Manumission Society of Guilford County, North Carolina in 1830.  Not only did this society purchase slaves and compensate slave-masters, they tried relocated the slaves.  First they chartered a ship to the West Indies, but their ex-slave cargo was refused.  They then used wagon trains to ship the ex-slaves to small communities in Indiana and Illinois, other locales in the Midwest, and Canada.  But don’t limit your search to this society.  Chicago, Ohio, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania, among others had multiple active manumission societies, religious based societies, or abolitionist societies that kept records.  Some of these societies even enumerated their black citizens, like census records.  Like that of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society where they also recorded how citizens gained their freedom.

Pennsylvania Abolition Society Enumeration Records
The commonly known Pennsylvania Society of Friends enumeration is available from 1847 [2]. In addition, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and for Improving the Condition of the African Race (Pennsylvania Abolition Society) has preserved their enumeration records since 1838.

These are some of the few areas overlooked when looking for African American ancestry before the Civil War.

Additional Black Ancestral Research Information
The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, published by Ancestry Publishing Company
The Blacks in Canada: A History; by Robin W Winks., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971

Kathleen Brandt

[1] The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, published by Ancestry Publishing Company, 1984 pg. 591; Black Ancestral Research
2] The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, published by Ancestry Publishing Company,1984, pg. 124; Census Records

1 comment:

  1. That's very helpful information, Kathleen. Thanks for the post! :)