Are you interested in researching your African-American family tree, but don’t know where to start? It’s a common concern among those who are beginners in this area of genealogy. People wonder how far back they will actually be able to get, due to lack of records in the era of slavery. However, there are a few important things to remember. One, not every African-American in the 1800s was a slave; some of them were free people of color, and plenty of records exist about them. Two, records of slaves were often meticulously kept by southern slave owners; this was not always the case, but it did happen in many cases, especially with people who owned large numbers of slaves. Three, there is always DNA to help you trace your roots back farther than you ever imagined, and usually with a few real surprises along the way.
Getting Started With African-American Genealogy Research
Assuming you know the names of your parents and grandparents (and maybe even great-grandparents in some cases), the best place to start is with them. Use the oldest generation for which you have information. Send away for their death certificates to look for the names of their parents and where they were born. Look at census records to try to find them as children living with their parents. These two simple things will take you back another generation.
After two or three generations, you will reach a point where you have ancestors who were adults in 1870. This is a significant census for African-American genealogy, especially for those who were former slaves and/or lived in the south, because it is the first census done after the Civil War. This means that former slaves who did not appear by name on previous census records are listed by name, along with everyone else living in their household, in this one. While you may find free African-American ancestors in earlier census records, this is the first one where you will find ones who used to be slaves.
Many of them will be living near where they lived as slaves. Take a look at their white neighbors. If any of their white neighbors share the same last name as your ancestors, it could be that your ancestors used to belong to either of those neighbors or members of their families. It was not uncommon for former slaves to take on the surname of their former owners after they were freed.
Using Slave Schedules and Old Newspaper Records
The 1850 and 1860 censuses had slave schedules published separately. These were lists of people who owned slaves and how many they owned. You can compare the slave schedules to the 1870 census results to see if the owner’s name on those schedules shows up as a surname in any of your ancestors who live in the area of the former master in 1870.
Old newspaper records also have records of slave sales, runaway slaves, and stories of slaves who committed crimes against their owners. They are often listed by name in these records and may be the only way you can get names of your ancestors from before the Civil War (unless you can find a historical society that has old plantation records with slave names recorded). All you have to do is use census information, slave schedules, and family names and locations to put the pieces together to connect your ancestors to the people in the old newspaper stories. You may find some really interesting information about your early American ancestors in the pre-Civil War era this way.
These are just a few tips you can use to get started on your African-American genealogy research. Once you get started, you will usually find more avenues of research you can explore, including locating distant living cousins who are working on the same line, and who may have additional research information to give you. Once you start your African-American genealogy journey, remember, the adventure is only beginning.
1870 African Americans Census Index (Free Lookups)