From time to time, I’ve been asked to assist those doing genealogy research into their African American heritage. This is probably one of the hardest tasks I’ve encountered in over fifty years of research. The major problem is the source materials are so scattered with bits and pieces of information in some of the strangest places. Real research comes into play in this case.
To begin, you have to divide your labors into about three or four groups. The first is the pre-Civil War era during the time of slavery. In my career, I’ve found only a couple of collections that give the records of this era. These materials are usually family papers and are held by the families. In most cases only the larger plantations kept the close records that are of value. In one collection that I have for Tennessee, the owner was very careful in all of the notations. This family was connected with the removal of the Cherokee from Tennessee and learned early on that good records were worth their time and efforts. The records recorded the names, values and unions within the slave colony. Showing the age and value of each individual gave some idea of how long most of the slaves were at that location. Following these up until after the Civil War, we find that most of the slaves were found on the 1870 census in the area where they grew up. Many of them were recorded in close relationship with the former owners in the census listing. This latter would indicate to me at least that the slaves continued to work with and for the former owners. This might speak of the treatment they received at the time they were held as slaves. Family materials like this are very rare indeed. You have to look into the family collections held by state libraries and archives or even local societies and libraries.
In the Pre-Civil War era, there are slaves listed in the early census but only as numbers by age groups. Check the 1840 Census to see which families have slaves and then you can go to the 1860 Slave Schedule for your area, if in the south. Here you will find the number of slaves with the individuals given in age groups, but they rarely have the names of those slaves. On extremely large plantations, an overseer would have probably kept the records and this is what would have appeared in the family papers. It is here that you will find the names given and usually includes the ages and values.
The second era to investigate is the time period just after the Civil War. This is the time of the Freedmen associations. These groups were usually run by northern groups interested in seeing that the freed slaves had land, reunions with loved ones, and a place in society. Here again, the materials are very scattered in Federal, State and local records. Most of these materials have been microfilmed, but the film is not always easy to locate. Get your sleuthing outfit on and search it out. The efforts will bring rich rewards.
Following the Civil War, additional records are found in the “Colored Soldier’s Records”. These are probably the most rewarding of the genealogical records for the time period. Many of these pension files are filled with information on place of birth, dates, names of family, etc. If you are lucky enough to have an ancestor in the military at this time, remember that most of these are Federal records and easily found in larger libraries where Civil War Pension files are held. It may take a little time to search the records out, but oh what a joy will be found at the end of the rainbow. A couple of things to remember is that most of these troops came from Northern controlled areas, but there are Southern and Border areas that had African American troops as well. In many of the Southern areas, the plantation owner could enroll their slaves for the bounty or to replace the owners’ sons in the fray. Just because you are searching in the south does not mean that you won’t find African American soldiers in the war.
There is no easy trail to follow in doing African American research, but like most all trails, you just take the first step and start from where you are and what you know and move into the unknown.