This is the third of three posts about researching enslaved people and adding them to my family tree. Please note that I am not a professional genealogist. I am just sharing what I have learned through trial and error while researching my slave-holding ancestors. I hope that it will help others shine a light on this often-overlooked aspect of our American family histories. Previous posts:
- (Finally) Adding Enslaved People To My Family Tree
- Hiding in Plain Sight: Slave Records on Ancestry.com
So, after sketching out the basics using Ancestry.com as described above, I moved on to the treasure trove called Family Search.
The Family Search catalog. There is a jaw-dropping amount of information on this site. Any researcher should be using it, for lots of reasons. The catch? It’s mostly not indexed, at least in the modern sense. You can’t find most information by typing a name into a search box.
However, older indexes do exist. And this is where you will find most of the information about the people enslaved by our ancestors: names, ages, family relationships, and sometimes even professions.
First, go to Catalog, and type in the county and state where your ancestor lived. Select “online” to see records that are available from your home computer.
A page will come up with links to all the available records that are specific to that county, arranged under several subheadings; “Land and Property,” “Court Records” and so on.
Land and Property. Enslaved people were property. Therefore, their sales were recorded just like any other form of property. In many counties, the deeds were recorded in the same books as land transactions. (Slaves could even be mortgaged!) Explore the records listed under the subheading “Land and Property” to find these items.
Many collections have been indexed; if so you will see a microfilmed index at the top of the list of deed books. If you don’t see this type of index, however, don’t give up! The individual volumes will often have contemporary handwritten indexes at either the front or the back of the book. In fact, I would recommend checking these even if there is a master index because some times the master lists, painstakingly compiled by long-suffering court clerks of old, do miss some entries.
If slave sales are not listed with land sales, they may be called “negro deeds” or simply “bills of sale.” I have found slave deeds at Family Search for every county I have researched except for one. (In that case, I went to the local archives website for that county which had posted an index of bills of sale online and via email requested copies of all the bills in which my ancestors were mentioned. Sure enough, most of those records were also for slaves.)
Probate files. Enslaved people were also listed by name (and often age) as property in wills, probate files, and estate inventories. An estate sale record will also list who bought each enslaved person, allowing a descendant researcher to jump to the next step in filling out their family tree if you share the information publicly. Click “Probate Records” to view these documents.
Court Records. Next, click Court Records. These can be more difficult to search, because they aren’t always indexed. However, they are usually in chronological order. If you know about when your ancestor died, for example, and there is no will on file, you may find information about their estate and heirs in court records around that date. Slaves were very valuable, and white families argued about them all the time. (One of my lines practically camped out at the courthouse, it seems.) Unrelated people also sued each other over slaves, these records will be indexed if such indexes exist in court minutes.
It’s been said that enslaved people are part of our ancestors’ FAN (Friends, Neighbors, Associates) club. This is absolutely true: in researching these records I have learned or confirmed many facts about ancestors, from locations between censuses to family relationships via “deeds of gift” in which enslaved people—often young children—are bequeathed “for love and affection” to the slave holder’s own children.
Yes, these can be very difficult documents to read, but facts are facts. This is the world in which our ancestors lived, and this is who they were. The primary-source records on Family Search provide an invaluable window to the past. Go down the rabbit hole to see what you find. And don’t forget to share!