Uncovering the past: African-American Genealogy

Are you having trouble researching your African-Americans ancestors before the 1870’s?  

Here are some tips for tracing hard-to- find ancestors back to the Civil War and earlier:

The first suggestion is to locate your family in the 1870 Census. Note other families in the same area and look for them in the 1850 & 1860 census slave schedule as well as your family.

Another hint is to further research the slave owner and their family if that is known or can be located in census information.

Slave owner’s business and personal papers may include: Deeds, Tax records, Probates, Wills, family bibles, Plantation Daybooks, etc. Slave owners may have kept records of supplies given to slaves, such as clothing, blankets, tools, etc. Slaves were considered property, so they may have been mortgaged, rented or insured and that would have been recorded. Plantation owners may have registered slave births or had them baptized.

Not all former slaves wanted to be associated with the Plantation owners. Only about 15% of former slaves took the surname of their last slave owner. Many took the surname of people they admired (Lincoln or Douglass) or for other associations (Freeman).  There is also the chance they may have changed their names afterwards, so focus on first names and ages.

Another thing we have noted is African Americans may not have been listed in some indexes, so always look though records even if the name is not on the index.

Freedman’s Bank and Freedmen’s Bureau

The mission of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land was to provide relief and help freedmen become self-sufficient. Records include marriage registers that provide the names, addresses, ages and complexions of husbands and wives and their children. Other registers give names, ages, and former occupations of freedmen and names and residences of former owners.

The Freedman’s Savings & Trust Company was a private financial institution with a federal charter.  Between 1865 and 1870, they had 37 banks in 17 states and DC.  They collected an enormous amount of personal information about each depositor and their family. Files can contain information such as age, complexion, place of birth and place raised, name of former owner and plantation, place of residence, occupation, parents, spouse, children, brothers and sisters, remarks and signatures. Some entries include death certificates. Available on Heritage Quest (search from home with your Davenport Library card). Other sources for information are on LDS Family Search and Ancestry.Com which are available to patrons and visitors at our library.  Fold3 has many documents relating to the government and Freedman’s Bank and Freedmen’s Bureau. That is also available online in our library to patrons and visitors.

Following are more sources to help in your search:


 Blockson, Charles S. Black Genealogy. Black Classic Press, Baltimore, MD, 1991. SC 929.1 Blo

Braxton-Secret, Jeanette. Guide to Tracing your African Ameripean Civil War Ancestor. Heritage Books, Bowie, MD, 1997. SC 973.7415 Bra

Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2001. SC 929.1089 Bur

 Fears, Mary L. Jackson. Slave Ancestral Research: It’s Something Else. Heritage Books, Bowie, MD, 1995. SC 929.1 Fea

Gates, Henry Louis. In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past. Crown Publishers, New York, NY, 2009. 973.0496 Gat (available to check out)

Rose, James D. Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy. Genealogical Publishing, Baltimore, MD, 2003. SC 929.1 Ros

 Smith, Franklin Carter. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering your African-American Ancestors: How to Find and Record your Unique Heritage. Betterway Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2003. 929.1 Smi (available to check out)

 Thackery, David T. Finding your African-American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide.  Ancestry Publishing, Orem, UT, 2000. SC 929.1 Tha

Tregillis, Helen Cox. River Roads to Freedom: Fugitive Slave Notices and Sheriff Notices Found in Illinois Sources. Heritage Books, Bowie, MD, 1988. SC 977.3 Tre

Washington, Reginald. Black Family Research: Records of Post-Civil War Federal Agencies at the National Archives. United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, 2010. SC 929.1 Uni

Woodtor, Dee Palmer. Finding a Place called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity. Random House, New York, NY, 1999. 929.1 Woo (available to check out)

Magazine & Journal Articles:

Berry, Kenyatta D.Tracing Slave Ancestors. Family Tree Magazine, Vol. 10, Issue 4, July 2009.

Hait, Michael. Breaking the Chains: Tracing Former Slaves. Family Chronicle, Vol. 13, No. 3, Jan/Feb 2009

Nordmann, Christopher A. Tracing African Americans during the Civil War. NGS NewsMagazine, Vol. 31, No. 3, Jul-Sep 2005


Family Search’s Quick Guide to African-American Records: https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Quick_Guide_to_African_American_Records

Finding Records of Your Ancestors, 1870-Present: http://net.lib.byu.edu/fslab/researchoutlines/US/AfricanAmerican.pdf

Fold3 African American Collection (search from home with your Davenport Library card) http://www.davenportlibrary.com/Page/Do_Research_Online.aspx#Genealogy

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces

Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City: http://www.blackarchives.org/

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections http://www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/

 (posted by Cristina)


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