Friday, April 30, 2010

Slaves were Immigrants Too

Finding Your Slave Ancestor

Jim Ison, of Family Search, gave one of the most informative lectures at the NGS Conference assisting descendants of slaves in finding their ancestors. Ison used statistics to show Migration Patterns: An Alternative for Locating African Origins.
Using social history, economics and crop trends, Ison substantiated the migration patterns of transporting slaves prior to the Civil War and the patterns of ex-slave movement after the War. Charts were provided to distinguish percentage distributions throughout the states, therefore giving researchers a place to start their pre-1870 searches.

For example, slaves living in Alabama or Kentucky, entered the States through one of the familiar port entries of the Northern States, Virginia/Maryland, South Carolina/Georgia, Gulf Louisiana or American Colonies. This information is further specified by migration periods between 1626 and 1810. As we know, slave import was illegal as early as 1808 (even though it still continued), most of the slave trade after 1808 was internal (1810-1860,) between states and persons.

By using, Ison showed how to perform a specific no-name search to understand population migrations, especially after the Civil War. This method allows the researchers to see trends of migrations for that allusive emancipated slave within years after the Civil War. This is where Elizabeth Shown Mills theory of expanding your search to Friends, Associates, and Neighbors (FANS) of your ancestor comes into play. Don’t search for your slave ancestor in a box. Take FANS along, as they probably migrated across America in familiar groups.

The goal is for the researcher to get closer to an ancestor’s entry into the USA. Although Ellis Island is not a frequent entry point for African American ancestors, they still entered into the colonies or States via ships. There was still a point of entry, and most were documented even if they arrived prior to 1808. Prior to using the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database Voyages homework must be completed. The first key is to pinpoint a general locale of your ancestor’s port of entry. Once identified using the search methods above, then matching ship records and local records will help you discern your their ship record and country of origin.

For more information, Ison suggests we read Ira Berlin’s "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America" and Phillip Curtin’s "The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census." Then, venture to books and articles on the slave trade in your ancestor’s specific region.

Accurate, Accessible Answers


  1. As always, very informative post. Thanks a bunch. I will add the last books cited to my very long list!

  2. Thanks for commenting Dionne. I always wonder if readers are interested in the African American topics.