How to find slave records
1. How to Start
Researching ancestors believed to have been enslaved can be challenging, since the record trail is spotty prior to 1865. The 1870 federal population census, the first on which former slaves are listed by name, can be confusing because individuals with shared surnames may be family members or former owners. Even if one knows that an ancestor was born during slavery, work backwards from the most current census (currently 1940) to the earliest known record of the ancestor(s). Searching all known and suspected family members' births, deaths, and marriages, often identifies connections not immediately obvious.
Co-habitation records – available at the county level -- not only indicate the number of years a couple has lived together as husband and wife but also confirm the family belief that the ancestor was born in slavery. Other county records, such as deeds, estates, and tax lists, cemetery records, Bible records, and church records, can also contain valuable information. Freedmen’s Bureau, Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company records, and WPA slave narratives may also prove useful.
2. Census Records
Slaves were enumerated on all federal census records from 1790 to 1860, but not by name. From the 1870 census (in which all persons were named), proceed backwards to the 1860 and 1850 slave schedules that list, under the name of the owner, each slave only by sex, specific age, and color.
1870 census excerpt with African Americans listed by name.
Elizabeth City Township, Pasquotank County, NC, page 18.
Look for a male or female (and his family, if appropriate) who is 10 and 20 years younger than the individual(s) previously identified on the 1870 census schedule. The 1790, 1800, and 1810 census schedules indicate only the total number of slaves, but the 1820, 1830, and 1840 censuses list slaves by sex and age range.
Because slave information is only available from their former owners' records, you will need to learn as much as possible about the owner and his family: his wife and in-laws, his children and whom each married, even the church he attended. One could acquire slaves through purchase, inheritance, marriage, and natural "increase" (the children, grandchildren, etc., of enslaved adults).
3. County Records
Records of slave ownership may be public or private. Public records are those created by the owner as required by local, state, and national governments. Local records, i.e., the county records in North Carolina, are the most fruitful for genealogists. These record marriages of owners, deeds of gift or deeds of trust of slaves, purchase or sale of slaves, transfers of land among family members, property, and records of actions in the local county courts.
The miscellaneous records of some North Carolina counties include some slave records. William L. Byrd III and John H. Smith, for example, have transcribed records for a number of counties in the series North Carolina Slaves and Free Persons of Color, published by Heritage Books.
Most early North Carolina county records are housed in the State Archives of North Carolina. County Records Box Lists show records for each county, whether original or microfilmed, that are available for research in the Archives Search Room.
Also useful is the "Preliminary Guide to Records Relating to African Americans in the North Carolina State Archives" (pdf) (Archives Information Circular No. 17).
Private records (family Bibles recording their births or deaths [like the one at right], business ledgers, contracts, leases, and other records relating to the health and work of their slaves) are kept by owner(s). Since these are personal records are for private use, they may be difficult to find. Those that have survived may still be in the possession of the former owner's family, in a manuscript collection, or in an archives.
The Guide to Private Manuscript Collections in the State Archives of North Carolina, edited by Barbara T. Cain, Ellen Z. McGrew, and Charles E. Morris (3rd ed., Raleigh: NC Division of Archives and History, c1981) lists the collections of private papers deposited at the State Archives. The Southern Historical Collection at UNC—Chapel Hill and Perkins Library at Duke University also have outstanding manuscript collections.
Records of white churches, generally held in their respective church repositories, are another category of private record to review, as slaves often were members of the local white churches or were permitted to worship at their owners’ churches.
Slave Records Bibliography
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. Online (American Memory), Manuscript Division and Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
- Freedman’s Bank Records. 27 reels National Archives microfilm Record Group 101; CD-ROM, Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000; HeritageQuest database. (Available remotely to NC residents via NC LIVE through their local libraries). [Includes signatures of and personal identification data about depositors in 29 branch offices of the Freeman’s Savings and Trust Company, 1865-74.]
- University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Afro-American Sources in Virginia: A Guide to Manuscripts, Michael Plunkett, Editor, and Guide to African American Documentary Resources in North Carolina, Timothy D. Pyatt, Editor.
- Woodtor, Dee Parmer. Finding a Place Called Down home: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity. New York: Random House, 1999. [Her Interactive Guide for Beginners is highly recommended.]
- Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots, a Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African-American Family Tree. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
- Byrd, William L., III, and John H. Smith. North Carolina Slaves and Free Persons of Color series. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2000- .
- Catterall, Helen Tunnicliff. Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro. 5 volumes. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1926-37.
- Cooper, Jean L. A Genealogical Index to the Guides of the Microfilm Edition of Records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War. Bloomington, IN: 1st Books, c2003.
- Federal Writers’ Project [WPA]. Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States, from Interviews with Former Slaves. 17 volumes. Reprint, St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, 1976. [Volumes 13 and 14 are North Carolina.] Also available through
- Rose, James M., and Alice Eichholz. Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.
- Streets, David H. Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case Studies. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1986.
- Thackery, David T., and Dee Woodtor. Case Studies in Afro-American Genealogy. Chicago: The Newberry Library, 1989.
- Thackery, David T. Finding Your African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide. Orem, UT: Ancestry, c2000.
- White, Barnetta McGhee, compiler. Somebody Knows My Name: Marriages of Freed People in North Carolina County by County. 3 volumes. Athens, GA: Iberian Pub. Co., c1995.
- Witcher, Curt B. African American Genealogy: A Bibliography and Guide to Sources. Fort Wayne, IN: Round Tower Books, 2000.
- Brasfield, Curtis. “ ‘To My Daughter and the Heirs of Her Body:’ Slave Passages As Illustrated by the Latham-Smithwick Family.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 81 (December 1993): 270-282.
- Brasfield, Curtis G. “Tracing Slave Ancestors: Batchelor, Bradley, Branch, and Wright of Desha County Arkansas.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 92 (March 2004): 6-30.
- Jupiter, Del E. “From Agustina to Ester: Analyzing a Slave Household for Child-Parent Relationships.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 85 (December 1997): 245-275.
- Lennon, Rachal Mills, and Elizabeth Shown Mill. “Mother, Thy Name Is Mystery! Finding the Slave Who Bore Philomene Daurat.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 88 (September 2000): 201-224.
- McBride, Ransom. “Searching for the Past of the North Carolina Black Family in Local, Regional, and Federal Records Resources.” North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal 9 (May 1983): 66-77.
- Mallory, Rudena Kramer. “An African-American Odyssey through Multiple Surnames: Mortons, Tapps, and Englishes of Kansas and Missouri.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 85 (March 1997): 25-38.
- Mills, Gary B. Notes and Documents: “Can Researchers ‘Prove’ the ‘Unprovable’? A Selective Bibliography of Efforts to Genealogically Document Children of Master-Slave Relationships.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 89 (September 2001): 234-237.
- Nordmann, Christopher A. “Jumping Over the Broomstick: Resources for Documenting Slave ‘Marriages’.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (September 2003): 196-216.
- Peebles, Minnie K. “Black Genealogy.” North Carolina Historical Review 55 (Spring 1978): 164-173.
- Randall, Ruth. “An Interracial Suit for Inheritance: Clues to Probable Paternity for a Georgia Freedman, Henry Clay Heard Sherman.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 89 (June 2001): 85-97.
- Rapport, Sara. “The Freedmen’s Bureau As a Legal Agent for Black Men and Women in Georgia: 1865-1868.” Georgia Historical Quarterly 73 (Spring 1989): 26-53.
- Ruffin, C. Bernard, III. “In Search of the Unappreciated Past: The Ruffin-Cornick Family of Virginia.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 81 (June 1993): 126-138.
- Williams, Gary M. “Links Before Emancipation: Afro-American Slave Genealogy in Virginia.” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy 32 (February 1994): 3-10.