Saturday, February 20, 2010

Researchers to Share Family Slave Records - Responsibilites and Reasons

Emancipation information on Amyntus Earl, Hopkins County, KY, 10 May 1841; Slave owners name was Samuel Compton (not Earl). Amyntus was yellow complexion, 35 years of age, spare form and five feet eleven inches.

As genealogists we often collaborate with others to gather documentation and information, but often we forget to mention or posts information on the slaves in the household, or slave names, ages, and descriptions as found in family records, bibles and unregistered deeds and agreements, etc. This information is a vital part of our history and there is a loud call for descendants of slave masters to share these documents as they would with all others, so that descendants of slaves may piece together a very difficult puzzle caused by limited information of persons in bondage. This would include indentured Irish and German servants who were purchased and sold by ship captains on the docks and eventually may have lost their families or identity, which was very common in the 1600’s to 1800’s, as well as those of African descent.

Slaves and indentured servants were used in all areas of the USA, including the northeast, even though they were not in vogue as long. Slaves were owned by both white and black slave owners, so don’t overlook the possibilities of a slave owned by your advantaged ancestor, especially a free-colored. Some free-coloreds purchased family members and never officially emancipated them through the courts, others actually purchased slaves to work the land or for their skills.

Revealing that your descendant owned slaves or indentured servants along with other information on the family, helps all genealogists place the family in the proper historical social perspective.

Putting stereotypes behind, family records can reveal religious influences on the family – “Did the family emancipate their slaves during the strong Quaker movement or due to another social movement?” Unpublished family records also may have the actual names of the slaves, who they were purchased by (very vital) and to whom they were sold. Family records may also reveal runaway slave names.
Emancipation Agreement (indenture) for slave Amyntus Earl, Hopkins County, KY to purchase his freedom, signed 23 May 1839. Amyntus was 32 year of age and hired out ot Orlean Bishop to pay for his freedom.

As some deeds or wills were never properly registered, the family record may be the only indication that a written or verbal agreement was made with a slave or with other slave owners, putting light on slave surnames (which was not always that of the master), leading a researcher to a different plantation or family, Civil War records, emancipation dates, and slave trafficking.

Descriptions often included skills of slaves. Was the slave a blacksmith or farrier (or other skill)? This can reveal information of the slave's life and ability to purchase his own freedom and that of family members, in some cases, substantiating a family folklore.

Family records and bibles of slave owners can reveal the price of a slave, the economy (supply and demand) at any given time in an area and may even guide a researcher to the slaves African homeland. If in the area a slave was sold for much less than the going rate, it could be from whence the slave originated; i.e. Angolan slaves were often cheaper due to the idea that they were not producers and worked lazily in the field. Often the purpose for the slave is written in these records; words like “breeder,” “strong,” “cook”, etc may be found.

Family records may have drawings of the land revealing sizes of slave quarters, uses of the slaves by name, allotments of slave provisions, costs to maintain slaves, reasons for selling slaves, etc. There may be letters which mentions a favored slave by name, the children’s nanny or wet nurse. All of these hints give a bit more to the slave family researcher. It also gives a bit more insight to the slave master researcher a bit more about their ancestor's social class, struggles, and lifestyle.

These are just a few of the reasons to post/publish your family slave documentation along with your other genealogical data. Sure it was not the most pleasant part of our history, but as genealogists we do not rewrite history, we unveil it.

Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers


  1. Kathleen,

    Wonderful post. Many great points addressed. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and reading. I almost never get comments on my African American posts either, so I share in the "lonely" sentiment.

  3. Kathleen, there are not enough words to thank you for not only posting these vital historic documents, but for the sentiments expressed as well.

    We are a community of collaborators & it moves me to see this channel of communication opening.

    It will literally change the face of how we, African-American, research & pull together our fragmented history.

    You are yet another shining example of what a TRUE Friend of Friends represents.


  4. Thank you, Kathleen for posting all of this useful information.

  5. Fascinating read. You have provided some great insights.

  6. Thanks so much for this! For a long time I didn't even think it'd be possible to trace my ancestry since there are a special set of challenges for tracking down slaves. Henry Louis Gates' PBS series African-American Lives, Alex Haley's Roots, and now your post have given me more hope that things can and will get better for those of us researching in this area.

  7. Due to the kindness of a stranger a cousin received papers from the plantation our ancestors were slaves on. it is something else to read their names, ages, descriptions....bills of sale. directions to overseer... i keep looking and hoping that i will find records for the other side of my family that will substantiate oral history and possible but unsourced findings.

  8. I know this is an old post, Amyntus Earl is my paternal great great grandfather.