Friday, December 3, 2021

Can Slave Families be Traced before 1870?

U. S. Freedman's Bank Records, 1865 - 1874

a3Genealogy Question Bag 

 A genealogist recently explained that slave families can't be traced, because before 1870 they were not named in the census.  I've read your blogposts that suggests otherwise.  Is it really possible to trace slave families?  How do you [a3Genealogy] connect the families if the slaves were sold on a auction block or separated from family?  Regards, Lorenzo

Thanks for submitting this question. Yes, genealogists and family historians can often "trace" and "connect" slave families.  

First note: genealogy is not a regurgitation of census records.  Good genealogy research will include historical documents and records, to uncover information. This is to say tracing a slave family does not start or end with the 1870 Federal Census.  However, unless manumitted before the enumeration of the 1870 Federal census, this was the first attempt to name ex-slaves. Early manumitted persons may be named in earlier enumerations. BUT...we are only talking census records here. Let's cover a few other resources. 

There are so many other records and documents to turn to in order to gather parents and siblings names.  Here are just three of our favorites.
  1. Military Records: Did your African American ancestor serve in the Civil War, or a veteran of later military service? Parents were often named, the depositions of family members were identified in pension records, plus other nuggets can be gathered: slaveholder names, residences, etc.  Full records are held at NARA - Archives I, Washington DC. However, researchers may begin this research on
  2. Southern Claims and Border State Claims: Researchers may find names of slaves and their ages; slave connections recounted by slaveholders, ex-slaves or free coloreds. Start here to learn more about Southern Claims.
  3. Freedman Bureau Records from 1865 - 1874. The image above proffers an outline of a full ex-slave family to include parents and siblings and hints on where to research - residence. James was born abt. 1833, well into the era of slavery.  

Lest Us Not Forget DNA
And remember DNA is a wonderful tool to connect with distant cousins. It is through DNA analysis that identifying the Most Recent Common Ancestor is possible. In tandem, we often use deeds, wills, probates, court minutes, etc, to connect slave families that have been identified through DNA

Lorenzo, keep in mind this slave family research can be arduous and time consuming.  But, it is indeed possible.  

Be Historically Correct

Kathleen Brandt
Accurate Accessible Answers