Tips on Tracing Family Lines that Include Enslaved Ancestors

1. Interview ancestors. Collect and analyze family stories.

2. Obtain vital records.

3. Research in census records beginning with the most recent available.  Look through 3-4 pages before and after your ancestors, and note families with the same last name as well as those living nearby.  They could be relatives.

4. When researching in the 1870 census, pay careful attention to white families in the area who have similar given names and/or surnames to your ancestors.  However, most slaves did not take their master’s surname.

5. Check Freedman’s Bank Records.  If you find your ancestor, you may discover the slaveholder’s name, the plantation, locations of birth, residences, and family member names.

6. Research any white families of interest in the 1860 and 1850 slave schedules.  Note any slaveholders with slaves who match your ancestor’s age, sex, and color.

7. Sometimes the enslaved were listed in family groupings on slave schedules.

8. Look for family papers, estate papers, plantation records, and wills pertaining to any slaveholders of interest.  You may find details about your ancestor.

9. Family papers and plantation records are usually found in state or university libraries.

10. Note any plantation overseers.  They could be relatives.

11. Probate papers will itemize estate holdings, including slaves.  Slaves may be named or described.

12. Use local histories and family histories to research slaveholders, plantations, and African-American history.

13. Research the history of slave trade in the area your ancestors were enslaved.  Find out the states/locations where slaves were purchased.

14. Sometimes the enslaved took their surnames from their first or previous masters.

15. Slaveholders advertised personal details about runaway slaves in newspapers.

16. When family members wanted to reunite after the Civil War, they placed newspaper advertisements.

17. Use timelines to document your ancestors and the important events in their lives.  It will help to interpret data.

To learn about African-American resources available in the Grosvenor Room see our African-American history and African American genealogy subject guides.

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