(Finally) Adding Enslaved People To My Family Tree

If you are a descendant of slave holders, there are two parts to researching that aspect of your family history.

1.) Finding the enslaved people in records and documents. I am learning a lot about that, through trial and error, and will post more about it later.

2.) Figuring out an accurate and respectful system for adding the enslaved individuals to a family tree!

Though I have extensive notes on my slave holders, and have been posting information here for some time, like many descendants, I’ve been stuck on how to fully incorporate the enslaved individuals into my family tree.

Of course, if there is any evidence that an enslaved person is actually a relative, I would add them right away. But lacking that evidence, it just isn’t good genealogical practice to link people in familial relationships if there is no documentation at all to prove a “spousal” or child relationship.

Yet there IS a relationship, to be sure. Slavery was an economic practice, but it was also a personal one. Aside from not wanting to “whitewash” my family history, it seems to me that ignoring people that lived on the same property as my ancestors and were involved in many aspects of their lives, from farming to raising children, just makes no sense.

A few days ago, someone posted this helpful Ancestry video, “Documenting the Enslaved,” to a Facebook group. Though I found the information on finding the enslaved a bit incomplete (the slave schedules on Ancestry aren’t really indexed, hello), the suggestions for adding enslaved people to a family tree were like a lightbulb going off. Finally!

And so, yesterday, I spent a snowy afternoon linking enslaved individuals to my fourth and fifth grandfathers, Thomas and Miles Bembry. Here’s the method I learned from the video.

1.) Add the enslaved person to the tree as an unrelated individual. (I had already done this for many people, I just didn’t know how to connect them up with the tree.)

2.) Add a web link to the enslaved person to the profile of the enslaver. This is done by simply copying the URL of the profile of the enslaved person and pasting it into the Web Link field on the enslaver’s profile.

3.) Add relevant Facts and documents to both individuals.

So, since I already had most of the people, I added the links. Here is a screenshot from Miles Bembry’s updated profile on Ancestry.

miles bembry screenshot
Individuals enslaved by Miles are now shown on his profile as links.

On each enslaved individual’s profile, I added what I knew about them from the records; approximate birth dates, children, and so on. I also ran a search to see what else might come up. In several cases I was successful in locating the people on the 1870 census and other records from that time period.

So, this was a great start. But, I also wanted to find an efficient way to both add more information and to integrate it all with Family Tree Maker, which is my main database. The web links above are not reflected in my offline tree (they do not sync with Family Tree Maker) I am developing a similar network of relationships in my software by linking multiple individuals to shared facts, source citations and media items. Here’s how it works.

In Family Tree Maker, I started with Miles Bembry’s estate inventory. I made a Fact just for that inventory, apart from the rest of the probate record.

In the Description field I put, “Miles Bembry estate inventory: Guilford, Ben, Ned, Hannah, Dorcas, Phelitia (Lisha), Rose, Jane, Clarry, Lovey.”

I attached an image of the inventory to the Source for the Fact. Under Media Details, I made sure the image was not marked private (so it would upload to Ancestry). My tree is already publicly viewable, but for various reasons, I do not sync all the the media I have to it.

I copied that Fact to all the individuals mentioned in the inventory. Then I synced my tree.

miles bembry inventory fact
The estate inventory fact as shown on Ancestry.

So, now, on to the sharing part!

On Ancestry, Miles Bembry’s estate inventory Fact now clearly shows the names of the people he held as slaves. And, every one of those enslaved people also now has a Fact on their profile showing Miles Bembry’s inventory.

However, Miles also held other people that were not included on his inventory. One document does not tell the whole story! For that reason, and to provide a more complete picture, I followed the same procedure for several other documents; deeds of sale, a court case, and so on. Each fact and document has been copied to all the enslaved individuals mentioned in them, linking them together both offline and online.

(Note that the images did upload to the Gallery for each individual, however, I had to manually add the media to the Fact in order to make it show up on the profile.)

For deeds and other items with squiggly writing which I had transcribed in the past, I also pasted the transcription into the Description field for the item.

The deed image with a transcription in the Description field on the right side of the screen.

I really like this method for several reasons.

First, because I think it documents these connections in the most respectful way possible under the circumstances. Guilford the carpenter is now recorded as a real person with his own life story and family, not just as a name on a white person’s deed or inventory.

guilford bembry screenshot
Guilford Bembry’s profile with shared Facts and documents from my ancestor’s profile, as well as further information obtained from Ancestry searches.


Second, because it allows me to attach the enslaved individuals to multiple people in my tree. Many white families exchanged enslaved people among themselves by inheritance or other means. Guilford, for example, was held by Miles, apparently inherited and sold to a neighbor by Miles’ son Kenneth, and employed by Miles’ other son Thomas, my ancestor. So, linking him to just one of those people wouldn’t make any sense.

A couple more notes.

I am aware that there were no hard and fast rules about surnames among emancipated people, but I added all the enslaved people with the surname Bembry to start with. As it turns out, quite a few of them actually kept that name after emancipation, but I am sure not all did (Guilford actually switched names at least once, as can be seen above.) I decided on this approach because it was the most likely surname to be adopted, and the most likely to bring up hints on Ancestry.

The suffix “AA” for “African-American” is simply to help me distinguish the many black Bembrys from the white Bembrys, as many of of them have the same names and even similar birthdates. (There was even a Confederate Thomas Bembry and a Thomas Bembry in the U.S. Colored Troops, which is a whole ‘nother story to tell one day.)

I added the deeds and such as Property facts because there is no Fact for Slave Transaction or similar that will sync with Ancestry. I could just put “Other” but that’s pretty vague. I don’t especially like the way Property looks, but I think I’m just going to have to use it until Ancestry catches up with the genealogy community and develops a Fact to describe slavery related transactions.

So, this is how I plan to document and include the people enslaved by each ancestor in my family tree. It’s going to take a while, and I may not be able to complete it in so much detail for those who are not in my direct line. But I am really happy to have finally found a method that makes sense to me! I think it is important not only to share the information, but to draw  an accurate picture of my own family’s history.

This is a work in progress, and I welcome any comments about ways to improve these methods.

8 thoughts on “(Finally) Adding Enslaved People To My Family Tree

  1. Check out The Beyond Kin Project (beyondkin.org). We are a group of people who are documenting people who were enslaved. We also have a research database, so I encourage you to add your research there. You don’t need to be a Beyond Kin researcher to add the names of skaveholders to the database.


  2. This was extremely helpful. I recently found documentation between my 3rd great grandmother and her enslaver which I wanted to connect on my Ancestry tree. Now I know how I’m going to spend the rest of my afternoon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I use a system to identify slaves by using as surname “slave-xyz”. That way I can keep up with the owner’s name. If the slave is sold, I add the second owners name with a hyphen “slave-xyz-sos”. I can then keep all slaves in one alphabetic column and also easily eyeball the movement of where the slaves went. Not full proof, but it works for me. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Thank you for these hints. I have several slaveholders in my ancestors. I’ve been looking for a way to share the names of the enslaved people I have found. I’ve put some names on my blog, but that doesn’t help those searching on Ancestry. That’s where people would tend to look.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s