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  • Beginning Your Genealogical Search: A Guide to African American Genealogy

    Kenyatta D. Berry

    Published Date : October 8, 2007

    Genealogy is not for the faint at heart, it requires patience, perseverance and prayer. The journey and its rewards are worth it. Genealogy is important for everyone not just African Americans, it allows you to uncover your history, to discover your ancestors and understand their legacy. It also helps you determine what type of legacy you want to leave for your descendants, your children, your cousins, your siblings. Whether your family was free or slaves your history is not lost, it will just take some additional detective work to find your roots.

    Where do I begin?

    The biggest challenge that any genealogist faces is where to begin? How do I uncover my family history? Although it can be a daunting and overwhelming task, the easiest thing to do is to start with you and work backwards. There are several forms that will help you with tracing your family history. The most common are the ancestral chart and family group sheet, which are essential for beginning genealogists. An Ancestral Chart is a chart that records the ancestors from whom you directly descend and the Family Group sheet documents your family unit, parents, spouse and children.

    Sample ancestral charts and family group sheets are available online at,,

    First complete the ancestral chart and family group sheets to the best of your knowledge. Start interviewing relatives to fill in the gap; this includes your parents, cousins, grandparents, siblings, etc. During the interview process you will likely uncover fascinating family stories. For African Americans, oral history is an important aspect of our history. Oral history often provides the missing link we need to an extended family member, a plantation, a city or state. Some sample questions include:
    • What do you remember most about childhood?
    • Describe your parents?
    • Did they share any family stories?
    Sample interview questions are available online at

    What resources are available?

    The growth of the Internet has provided easy access to genealogical resources such as census and vital records. When researching your ancestors you might encounter primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are the first or earliest documents in which a particular piece of information was recorded-usually a manuscript or typescript, but occasionally a published work. Secondary sources are published works, including those distributed electronically, either copied or compiled from primary sources, or reflecting the conclusions of a researcher based on primary or secondary sources.

    Below is a list of resources typically used in genealogical research:
    • Vital Records (Birth, Marriage and Death Records)
    • Census Records
      • Federal census records (available from 1790 to 1930)1
      • State census records vary from state to state
    • Probate and Estate Records -- Provide details pertaining to a deceased person’s estate and probate records are often located in the county courthouse.
      • Wills
      • Inventories
      • Sheriff Sales
      • Judgments
      • Administrator’s records
      • Chancery Cases
    • Military Service Records – Some of these records are available at the National Archives check more details.
      • Revolutionary War Service Records
      • Civil War Service Records
      • World I & II Draft Registrations
        • World I Draft Registrations The Selective Service Act of 1917 required registration of all men who had reached their twenty-first birthday on or before registration day but had not reached their thirty-first birthday.
      • Military Discharge Papers are available from the Spanish-American War forward these are often filed in the county courthouses.
    • Property Records
      • Homestead Applications
      • Deeds
    Slave Ancestral Research

    Although it uses the same basic genealogical principles, slave research requires a study of the both the slave family and the master’s family. Common myths about African American genealogy are (a) my family history was lost during slavery, (b) there are no records that document my family during slavery, (c) I have no hope of finding my slave ancestors or their last slave owners and (d) the slave owner had the same last name as my ancestor.

    Not every white person owned slaves and whites were not the only slave owners. African Americans also owned slaves as well. The slave community typically consisted of a large plantation with 100+ slaves or a small farm/plantation with a few slaves. Resources for large and small plantations include deeds, wills, census, local records, personal and business records. The goal is to reconstruct the process of acquiring slaves and their subsequent establishment of marriage and family ties.

    The biggest obstacle for African American researchers is breaking down the 1870 brick wall. The 1870 U.S. Census was the first census that included African Americans by name and the first census after emancipation in 1865. In 1850 and 1860, African Americans were included on a supplemental slave schedule. Each slave was reported separately under the name of the slave owner. Information recorded about slaves included age; sex; color; whether the slave was fugitive; whether a slave was deaf, dumb, insane or idiotic; total number of slaves manumitted and number of slave houses owned.2

    Analyzing the 1870 Census

    When reviewing the 1870 U.S. Census, you should also examine the whites who lived in the same enumeration district3 as your ancestors. A few things to consider:
    • How many whites lived in the district?
    • Did they live closely to my ancestors?
    • Did any of them have the same surname as my ancestors? If so, it is a reasonable number?
    • Can I find them in the 1860 U.S. Census? In the 1850 Census? Are they listed as slave owners in the 1850 or 1860 slave schedules?
    Critical Assumptions
    • There were no significant changes in residence of the slaves or slave owners between 1861 and 1870.
    • Your ancestors lived near or in the same place where they were last slaves
    • That slave owners continued their lives within their former slaves who had become employed laborers.
    So, how do you break down that brick wall? There are a variety of ways to approach slave ancestral research. In this article, I will use my great-great-great grandfather, Lewis Carter to demonstrate a few techniques you can use to uncover your slave ancestors.

    The Lewis Carter Case Study: Who owned thee last?

    Lewis Carter was born about 1817 in Virginia and spent most of his life in Madison and Culpeper counties. In 1870, Lewis was living in Madison County, Virginia with his wife and six children. He is listed as a farm hand with real estate valued at $4,700 and personal property valued at $1,150.4 How did Lewis Carter “a mulatto” man from Virginia amass substantial real and personal property holdings? Was he a free man before emancipation? Was this land given to him by his former master? Did he purchase this land after slavery? Did he enter a sharecropping agreement with his former owner?

    I searched the 1860 U.S. Census and found no record of Lewis Carter or his family. Since Lewis was a listed as a “farm hand” and not a farmer maybe he worked for someone else. I searched the Freedman’s Bureau records for Madison County, Virginia. The Freedman’s Bureau, under the supervision of the War Department, became the primary structure through which freedman sought aid, protection and assistance when needed. I found a labor contract in Madison County, Virginia between Lewis Carter and Dr. John W. Taylor dated January 5, 1866. For farming land, Lewis would receive ½ of the crops.5 These were standard terms of a sharecropping agreement after the Civil War. So, who was Dr. John W. Taylor? Did he own Lewis Carter and his family? In 1860, John W. Taylor lived in Madison County with his wife and four children. He owned real property valued at $12,500 and personal property valued at $20,570 which included twenty slaves.6 Of the twenty slaves he owned one slave “a mulatto male, age 43” who fit the description of Lewis Carter.7 There were no slave’s matching the age, race and sex of Lewis’ wife and children in the Dr. Taylor’s household in 1860.

    To further explore the possible connection between Lewis Carter and Dr. John W. Taylor, I reviewed the 1850 U.S. Census. In 1850, Dr. Taylor was a young physician, age 23 living with William H. Twyman and his family. In 1850, William H. Twyman also a physician was born in Virginia with property valued at $27,000.8 What was the relationship between Dr. Taylor and Dr. Twyman? Were they related by marriage? Since his estate grew substantially in 1860, Dr. Taylor might have inherited the 20 slaves he owned in 1860. Did Dr. Twyman own Lewis Carter and his family in 1850? In 1850, although there were several Twyman slave owners in Madison County, Dr. Twyman did not own any slaves. One of my next steps is to learn more about the family of Dr. John W. Taylor including his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

    To fully understand the lives of slaves, you must understand and discover the life of the slave owner. The documentation of your slave ancestors is found in plantation records, account books, wills, probate records and property records. Finding the last slave owner is not an easy task but once achieved can lead to more questions and clues. Slaves were property and like our property today, they were bought, sold, inherited and loaned out. Slaves and their masters were family in an unconventional sense of the word. Elderly black women took care of young white children, some privileged or house slaves were playmates of their white masters. As I continue to discover my heritage and learn more about Lewis Carter. I am reminded of the challenges and connections that bind families across generations.

    1U.S. Federal Census records are released 72 years after the date of enumeration

    2Kathleen W. Hinckley, Your Guide to the Federal Census for genealogists, researchers and family historians (Ohio: Betterway Books, 2002), 204

    3An enumeration district refers to the area assigned to a single census taker to count persons and prepare scheduled within one census period. The U.S. Genweb Census Project: Subdistricts and Enumeration districts,

    4Lewis Carter household, 1870 U.S. Census, Madison County, Virginia population schedule, Locust Dale township, Post Office: Madison Courthouse, page 38,dwelling 481, family 491.

    5Dr. John W. Taylor and Lewis Carter Labor Contract, January 1, 1866, Madison County Courthouse

    6John Taylor household, 1860 U.S. Census, Madison County, Virginia population schedule, Post Office: Madison Courthouse, page 107, dwelling 906, family 906

    7John W. Taylor, 1860 U.S. Census, Madison County, Virginia Slave Schedule

    8William H. Twyman household, 1850 U.S. Census, Madison County, Virginia population schedule, Locust Dale township, page 110, dwelling 822, family 822
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