African American Genealogy
By Meaghan E. H. Siekman
Researching African American ancestors can be challenging and often requires some creative searching methods. Many African Americans find it difficult to trace their family earlier than the 1870 United States Federal Census, the first federal census following emancipation and the first to record many former slaves by name. Locating records of slave ancestors prior to emancipation requires researching the slave owner’s family since most of the records where slaves may be named, such as probate, account, and deed records, will all be in the slave-owner’s name. Locating ancestors that were free prior to emancipation also has unique challenges as records are dispersed and can be difficult to navigate. The process of locating African American ancestors can be time consuming but the effort can be extremely rewarding.
African American Resources at NEHGS
Live broadcast: March 26, 2015
Presented by: Meaghan E. H. Siekman
Intended audience: Anyone researching African American ancestors Level: All levels Running Time: 57:34
Description: There are hundreds of resources available at NEHGS to assist you with researching African American ancestors: from published genealogies to local histories, original manuscripts and rare documents to online databases. Gain valuable how-to tips and techniques from researcher, Meaghan E. H. Siekman.
How-To and Other Guides
Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your African American Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage by Franklin Carter Smith
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .S6514 2003
Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African American Genealogy and Historical Identity by Dee Woodtor
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference E185.96. W66 1999a
African American Genealogy: A Bibliography and Guide to Sources by Curt Bryan Witcher
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference Z1361.N39 W771 2000
Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .B94 2001
African American Resources at the New England Historic Genealogical Society: A Selected Bibliography by New England Historic Genalogical Society
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference Z1361.N39 A36 2010
Reconstruction Era Documents
Voter Registration Lists
Voter Registration Records are a good resource for locating male ancestors shortly after the end of slavery. On 23 March 1867, U.S. Congress passed an act that extended the Reconstruction Acts to include the registration of qualified voters. The Act required that all qualified male citizens over the age of twenty-one be registered to vote. The Act also required those registering to vote to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and in some states both documents still survive. Unfortunately, voter registration lists do not survive in every state, but if they are available they can provide valuable information about ancestors including their name and place of residency. In most states, these are the earliest statewide records of African Americans following slavery.
Most of these records are only available at the state archives for their respective states. Some records have been microfilmed at the Family History Library. A keyword search in their catalog for “1867 Voter Registration” will produce the collections they have available on film. You can then order the film and view it at NEHGS or your local Family History Center. Some records are available digitally. Ancestry.com has the Voter Registration Lists for Texas available to search and browse. The Alabama Department of Archives and History also has a searchable database for the 1867 Voter Registration Records in the state.
Freedmen Bureau Records
Established by the War Department by an act of 3 March 1865, The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau was in charge of providing relief and education to refugees and freedmen. These records often contain the names, ages, and occupations of freedmen and can include the names and residences of their former owners. The records vary by state, but can consist of a range of records including marriage registers, school and hospital records, census data, and military service.
Only a small portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s records are available on microfilm. Many of the records are only available at the National Archives in Washington, DC. For a description of the records collected by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands by state, see:
Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands compiled by Elaine Everly and Wilna Pacheli
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.2 .U5877 1973
The Freedmen’s Bureau Online: Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands contains databases and a search option for records that have been transcribed to the site. This is a good starting point to quickly see if an ancestor is included any of its databases, though it does not include all of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s records and additional searching for records may be necessary.
Most of the records from the Freedmen’s Bureau that have been microfilmed are available through the Family History Library. You can order the films and look at them at NEHGS. United States Freedmen’s Bureau Marriages, 1815-1869 is also available to search digitally.
NEHGS holds some collections relating to the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Freedman’s Bank Records
NEHGS, Microtext Floor E185.2 .F74 2000 CD
The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research by Reginald Washington
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks CD3020 .P72 v.29 no.2 Summer 1997
North Carolina Freedman's Savings & Trust Company Recordsabstracted by Bill Reaves; Beverly Tetterton, editor
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 N67 1992
Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Texas, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870
NEHGS, Microtext Floor CD3027.M5 N3 M822
It can be difficult to trace African American ancestors prior to the 1870 United States Federal Census. If an African American ancestor was free prior to the end of slavery you may be able to locate them on earlier census records under their own name. The 1850 and 1860 United States Federal Census recorded all the free individuals in a household by name. In earlier census records, only the head of the household’s name will appear, but the record contains the number of people in each age range in the household. Free African Americans were recorded under the columns for “Free Colored Persons.” Census records are available through Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.
If the ancestor was enslaved you will need to know the likely slave owner. In 1850 and 1860 the United States recorded slave schedules along with the federal census. These records can be accessed through Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and the National Archive. A majority of these records only provide the slave owner’s name, giving a description of the age, sex, and complexion of slaves in the household. If the slave owner’s name is not known, search for your ancestor’s surname in the area where they were living in 1870. For a variety of reasons, former slaves often had the surnames of their former slave owners. This is not always the case, but it can be a good starting point in trying to work backward in time.
Many published collections have compiled information of African Americans in census records for various states and regions. The sources include:
Free Negro heads of families in the United States in 1830, together with a brief treatment of the free Negro by Carter G. Woodson
Slaves and Nonwhite Free Persons in the 1790 Federal Census of New York by Gilbert S. Bahn
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.93.N56 B24 2000
Free Black Heads of Household in the New York State Federal Census, 1790-1830 by Alice Eichholz and James M. Rose
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.93.N56 E37
Census Occupations of Afro-American Families on Staten Island, 1840-1875 by Richard B. Dickenson
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks F127.S7 D5 1981
Land, Probate, and Account Records
Once you have determined a likely slave owner, the next step is to locate any probate, land, or account records for that individual since these are the most likely documents that will name a slave ancestor. The location of these records will vary by location, but many of these types of records are available to search or browse through the Family History Library, Ancestry.com, or the NEHGS Library. Some examples in the NEHGS collection are:
Nathan Holbrook Glover papers, 1647-1982 (bulk 1686-1744, 1793-1927)
NEHGS, Manuscripts Mss 319
This is a collection of mostly business papers of the Glover Family from 1647-1982 in Massachusetts. The collection includes slave deeds from 1704 and 1744.
Dorothea Barton Cogswell Papers, 1647-1975 (bulk: 1710-1853)
NEHGS, Manuscripts Mss 405
This collection contains original account and personal papers, probate records, and slave bills for the Cogswell and Russel Families of Gloucester, Ipswich, and Rowley Massachusetts.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution made slavery and indentured servitude illegal in all areas subject to United States jurisdiction. Prior to the passage of this amendment, individual manumission documents and state-wide abolish acts in the northern states can provide information about ancestors that were freed prior to the federal abolition of slavery. For example, Pennsylvania passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” on 1 March 1780 which specified that those born into slavery after the passing of the act would be free upon reaching the age of 21. The Act required that slaves be registered and those not recorded were to be freed. Due to this stipulation in the law, there are records of owners registering their slaves. The Family History Library has some of these records on microfilm at the county level. They also hold “ Manumissions and Indentures, ca. 1780-1840,” on microfilm which are arranged alphabetically by the slave owner’s name.
The District of Columbia was the only place in the United States in which the Federal government provided monetary compensation to ex-slaveholders in 1862 when it passed a law to abolish slavery in the nation’s capital. Records of the petitions for compensation as part of this law have been compiled into a published volume, Compensated Emancipation in the District of Columbia: Petitions under the Act of April 16,1862. The claims include information on the claimant, the names of those in their service freed under the law, and the amount of compensation awarded. Often they include additional information about the former slaves, including where they were born and their occupation.
Compensated Emancipation in the District of Columbia: Petitions under the Act of April 16, 1862 by Dorothy S. Provine
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.93.D6 P768 2005
There are some published sources on the manumission and emancipation of slaves in other states, including:
Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, Connecticut by Jeffrey B. Mead
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks F104.G8 M44 1995
Freedom Papers: 1776-1781 by M.M. Pernot, editor, introduction by Clement Alexander Price
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E445.N54 F74 1984
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record published a number of articles on the births and manumission of slaves in New York. Volumes 1-54 are available online through NEHGS. More recent volumes are located at NEHGS 7th Floor Reading Room F116. N28. Some notable articles include:
- Alice Eichholz and James M. Rose, "Slave Births in Castleton, Richmond County, New York," The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. 110, No. 4 (Oct. 1979), pp. 196-197.
- Alice Eichholz and James M. Rose "Slave Births in New York County," The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. 111, No. 1 (Jan. 1980), pp. 13-17.
- Henry B. Hoff, "Researching African-American Families in New Netherland and Colonial New York and New Jersey," The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. 136, No. 2 (Apr. 2005), pp. 83-95.
- Terri Bradshaw O'Neill, "Manumissions and Certificates of Freedom in the New York Secretary of State Deeds," The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol. 139, No. 1 (Jan. 2008) pp. 72-73.
Free African Americans
A great resource to start your search for Free African Americans is Paul Heinegg’s website, “ Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware.” The site compiled information from tax lists, registry lists, wills, deeds, and other records on free African Americans prior to passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. More recent articles on the site also include information from Tennessee, Indiana, and Illinois. Hard copies of some of the compilations are available at the NEHGS Library:
Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware: From the Colonial Period to 1810 by Paul Heinegg
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .H46 2000
Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820 by Paul Heinegg
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .H48 2005
Other sources in the NEHGS Library on free African Americans include:
Free African Americans of Maryland 1832: Including: Allegany, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Caroline, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Frederick, Kent, Montgomery, Queen Ann's, and St. Mary's Counties by Jerry M. Hynson
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.93.M2 H96 1998
Somebody knows my Name: Marriages of Freed People in North Carolina County by County compiled by Barnetta McGhee White
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .W53 1995
Church records can contain a wealth of information including valuable vital records of births, marriages, and deaths. Northern Anglican, Catholic, and Quaker church records can also contain information about manumissions and admissions of free African Americans to congregations. Church records are housed in a variety of places and sometimes can still only be located at the church if it is still in operation. Identifying an ancestor’s congregation can lead to more records on the individual and their family. There are a number of repositories that have programs focused on collecting African American church records.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a part of the New York Public Library, actively collects church records as a part of its Preservation of the Black Religious Heritage Project.
Amistad Research Center housed in Tulane University’s Tilton Memorial Hall in New Orleans, Louisiana also collects church records in addition to the American Missionary Association Collection.
The Library of Virginia produced “ African American Church Histories in the Library of Virginia,” which contains a full list of the resources that they hold in their library as well as a list of organizations, biographies of church leaders, and manuscript resources.
“ The Church in the Southern Black Community” contains a collection of autobiographies, histories, church documents, and other materials to document the history of the church in African American communities.
American Indian Connections
Many African American families have family lore indicating a connection to an American Indian community. Understanding the history of African American and American Indian relations will help determine a potential connection. One of the most likely scenarios is that an African American ancestor was a former slave of an American Indian slave owner. This, of course, was not the only kind of African-Indian relationship, but it is the most likely scenario for which documentation exists. Prior to the end of slavery, a number of American Indians owned African slaves, namely the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, or the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes.” When slavery was abolished, some of these former slaves became citizens of the Native Nations to which they were previously enslaved. The enrollment cards created by the Dawes Commission to determine who could gain citizenship can be a valuable resource to learning more about ancestors that were Freedmen of these Native Nations.
Black Indian Genealogy Research by Angela Y. Walton-Raji
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96.W294 1993
A good reference book for understanding how to search for an American Indian connection.
The enrollment records are available on microfilm through the United States National Archives, but there are indexes to the records that can be searched first to determine the likelihood that an ancestor is included on the rolls.
Index to the Cherokee Freedmen Enrollment Cards of the Dawes Commission, 1901-1906 by Jo Ann Curls Page
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96.P34 1996
You can search the index to the final rolls online through Access Genealogy. These are the final rolls of those accepted as citizens, so it is not an exhaustive index of the applicants. It is helpful to also examine records for rejected applications since they contain valuable genealogical information.
There are many records available to research ancestors from the Caribbean and a number of these resources are available online. The Family History Library has a number of collections for Barbados and the Caribbean Islands that are searchable, including Caribbean Births and Baptisms. There are also a number of resources to help identify slave owners. The University College of London has also created a database of British slave owners that filed claims for compensation in 1833 when parliament abolished slavery. This is a searchable database called Legacies of British Slave-Ownership that includes information about the claimant and the extent of the claim. Most of these slave owners filed claims for slaves in the Caribbean. Dr. Oliver Gliech has compiled a list of Plantation Owners of St. Domingue which is helpful in identifying slave owners that were a part of the French Colony of St. Domingue.
There are a number of source books that are particularly useful for Caribbean research:
A Tree without Roots: The Guide to Tracing British, African and Asian Caribbean Ancestry by Paul Crooks
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks CS203.C76 2008
My Ancestor Settled in the British West Indies: Bermuda, British Guiana and British Honduras by John Titford
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks CS203.T58 2011
Tracing Ancestors in Barbados: A Practical Guide by Geraldine Lane
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks CS261.B3 L36 2006
A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and the Carib to the Present by Jan Rogoziński
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks F2175.R72 1992
Caribbean Historical and Genealogical Journal
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks F2155.C365 1993
Black Soldiers - Black Sailors - Black Ink: Research Guide on African-Americans in U.S. Military History, 1526-1900 by Thomas Truxtun Moebs
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference UB418.A47 M64 1994
Minority military service, New Hampshire, Vermont, 1775-1783 published by National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E255 .M56 1988-91
"Strong and brave fellows": New Hampshire's black soldiers and sailors of the American Revolution, 1775-1784 by Glenn A. Knoblock
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E269.N3 K57 2003
On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier: Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866-1917 compiled and edited by Frank N. Schubert
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .S383 1995
Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898 by Frank N. Schubert
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .S383 1995
Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War by Hondon B. Hargrove
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E540.N3 H35 1988
Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball
NEHGS, 7th Floor Stacks CS71.B2 2001
Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond family, 1846-1926 by Adele Logan Alexander
NEHGS, 7th Floor Stacks CS71.B7 1999
Workbook on the Families of Color of Nashoba Valley compiled by George W. Dewey, Joy Hartwell Peach, Joann Heselton Nichols
NEHGS, 7th Floor Stacks CS71.H428 2004
The Hemings Family of Monticello by James A. Bear
NEHGS, 7th Floor Stacks CS71.H4928 1980
Descendants of Shandy Wesley Jones and Evalina Love Jones: The Story of an African American Family of Tuscaloosa, Alabama by Ophelia Taylor Pinkard and Barbara Clayton Clark
NEHGS, 7th Floor Stacks CS71.J76 1993
The Ancestors and Descendants of Theodore Roosevelt Whitney (1902-1979): Profile of an African-American Family by Harold Coleman Whitney
NEHGS, 7th Floor Stacks CS71.W62 1994
Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920 by James M. O'Toole
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.96 .095 2002
African American Biographical Database
The largest electronic collection of biographical information on African Americans, 1790-1950.
The Life of William J. Brown of Providence, R.I.: With Personal Recollections of Incidents in Rhode Island foreword by Rosalind C. Wiggins; introduction by Joanne Pope Melish
NEHGS, 5th Floor E185.97 .B88 2006
Captain Paul Cuffe's logs and letters, 1808-1817: A Black Quaker's "Voice from within the Veil" edited by Rosalind Cobb Wiggins; with an introduction by Rhett S. Jones
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.97 .C96 C84 1996
A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten by Julie Winch
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.97.F717 W56 2002
Prince Estabrook: Slave and Soldier by Alice M. Hinkle
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E241.L6 H575 2001
African American Family History Association Inc., Newsletter
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E184.5 .A4
Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E185.86 .A35
Manuscript Collections at NEHGS
Gaines Funeral Home Records, 1929-1934, (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
NEHGS, Manuscripts Mss 1080
The Gaines Funeral Home was established by George W. Gains in 1919 in the historically African-American, Homewood section of Pittsburgh. The Gaines Funeral Home is the longest-operating African-American-owned business in Western Pennsylvania. The records include names of deceased, vital information, names of parents and next of kin, and places of the funeral service and internment.
Diary of Josiah Freeman Bumstead, 1834 January-June by Josiah Freeman Bumstead
NEHGS, Manuscripts Mss A 5042
Josiah Freeman Bumstead was the superintendent at the Belknap Street Sunday School, African Baptist Church. This manuscript collection contains his diary between January and June 1834. The Massachusetts Historical Society holds Josiah Freeman Bumstead’s letters from 1841-1846.
1st Kansan Colored Vol. Reg't., 1863-1865 by Ethan Earie
NEHGS, Microfilm Collection E508.9 1st Microfilm; Manuscripts Mss C 4911
This collection contains the Original account book of Capt. Ethan Earle, commander of First Kansas Colored Volunteer Regiment Company F. The documents includes a roll of the soldiers in Company F and a list of it field, staff, and line officers. The collection also includes a written history of the regiment.
Saddle River Reformed Dutch Church by Herbert S. Ackerman and Arthur J. Goff
NEHGS, Manuscripts Mss A 7181
This collection consists of transcriptions of admissions, (1812-1924), dismissals, (1866-1924), marriages, (1813-1922), and baptisms, (1811-1890) of the Saddle River Reformed Dutch Church in Bergen County, New Jersey. It includes African American baptisms, marriage, admissions, and burials.
African-American Historical and Genealogical, Inc.
Afro American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier
The North Carolina African-American Heritage Foundation
Black Belt African American Genealogical and Historical Society
California African American Genealogical Society
African American Genealogical Society of Northern California
Indiana African American Genealogy Group
African-American Cultural & Genealogical Society of Illinois, Inc. Museum
African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky
Black Genealogy Search Group (Colorado)
Louisiana Creole Research Association
Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society
St. Louis African American History & Genealogy Society
Midwest Afro-American Genealogical Interest Coalition
Oberlin African-American Genealogy and History Group
African American Genealogy Group
Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society
Middle Peninsula African-American Genealogical & Historical Society of Virginia
Freedom on the Move
Unknown No Longer, Virginia Historical Society
In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience
Digital Library on American Slavery
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
Slave Sales in Louisiana, Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1718-1820
North American Slave Narratives
American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology
Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware
African American Gateway
American Memory – Slaves and the Courts 1740-1860
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