History Stories


A Quick Guide to Researching African-American Roots

If ROOTS has you inspired to explore your slave ancestry, here are some recommendations of places to start.

Always a challenging task, researching family roots can be particularly daunting for those with enslaved ancestors. A system that stripped enslaved people of their identities as people mean they lacked the basic family records—birth, marriage and death certificates, for instance—that serve as valuable guideposts for genealogists.

The genealogy work is made even harder because it requires the investigation of not only slaves but of their corresponding owners as well. “The slave’s identity was closely tied in records to the slave owner’s identity,” says Hollis Gentry, a genealogy specialist with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “The genealogist must search through records of the slave owner for references to a slave, and infer family or other relationships based on evidence found in those documents. And if the slave ancestor was enslaved by multiple owners rather than a single owner, the paper trail one has to follow may be longer and convoluted or possibly untraceable.”

For anyone interested in exploring their slave ancestry, Gentry says these are some places to begin the research process:

For a primer, Gentry recommends “Black Roots” by Tony Burroughs, “Finding a Place Called Home” by Dee Parmer Woodtor, “African American Genealogical Sourcebook” edited by Paula K. Byers, “Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case Studies” by David Streets and “Case Studies in Afro-American Genealogy” by David T. Thackery and Woodtor. She says the publications of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society can also be helpful sources of information.

Databases and web sites.
“The genealogy and history fields have exploded with digitization projects and digital collections,” says Gentry, who cites regional online databases such as Legacy of Slavery in Maryland, Virginia’s Unknown No Longer and North Carolina’s Digital Library on American Slavery. African-American collections and databases, including slave records, can also be found at free sites such as AfriGeneas.com and FamilySearch.org and subscription sites such as Ancestry.com and Fold3.com.

Freedmen’s Bureau records.
Established by the federal government in the waning days of the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau aided the nearly four million newly emancipated slaves to transition to their new lives of liberty by providing food, housing, education and medical care. Gentry says the records kept by the bureau’s agents “contain unparalleled and rich genealogical details.” Records from the Freedman’s Bank, which operated in 17 states between 1865 and 1874, list names, ages, employers, occupations, birthplaces and physical descriptions as well as names of former owners, parents, children, siblings and spouses. Thanks to the effort of nearly 20,000 volunteers, work is nearly complete on a crowdsourcing project sponsored by FamilySearch, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum to index the more than one million handwritten Freedmen’s Bureau documents to make the records searchable from an online database.

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HISTORY® is supporting The Freedmen’s Bureau Project through its social initiative, “Reading for Roots,” which is a call to action to encourage viewers to transcribe post-Civil War documents, and is a partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and FamilySearch International. To volunteer and begin transcribing, check out history.com/readingforroots.

U.S. Census records.
It’s possible to trace most African-American ancestors back to the 1870 U.S. Census, which was the first population count in which nearly all black Americans, including former slaves, were listed by name. It’s here, however, that many African-American genealogists encounter what Gentry says is referred to as “the 1870 brick wall” as they aim to reach back to a previous generation. If you are unsure if there is slave ancestry in your family, check the 1860 and earlier editions of the Census to see if African-American ancestors appear as free people. “An ancestor’s appearance or absence in the 1860 free federal Census schedule is generally the standard by which genealogists use to determine whether an African-American ancestor was free or enslaved prior to the 1870 Census,” Gentry says. “And establishing the free or enslaved status of an ancestor influences the research strategies developed and records searched as one traces back to earlier generations.”

Slave schedules.
Since enslaved people were not identified by name on early Census records, descendants will need to do some sleuthing for clues in the 1870 Census in order to locate their ancestors. After the Civil War, emancipated slaves often remained living in the same general area and usually—although not always—took on the surnames of their former owners. Examine the 1870 Census and try to find the identities of white property owners with the same surname living nearby known ancestors. Then examine the separate slave schedules produced along with the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census to see whether those white property owners owned slaves who could be a potential match. The slave schedules list genders and ages of enslaved individuals grouped together under their particular masters, but only in a few rare cases are their names given.

DNA testing.
Since 2000, DNA testing has emerged as another resource in the genealogist’s toolbox. With the purchase of a test kit from providers such as 23andMe, Ancestry.com and African Ancestry and a simple swab on the inside of your cheek, you can send your DNA sample to a laboratory for a genetic analysis. Gentry says there are limitations to the tests, however. “DNA test results offer broad insight into ancestral genetic origins, but can’t pinpoint specific places of origin to the level of a town or village,” she says. “So while the tests can indicate African heritage or an African haplogroup, they cannot identify a specific ancestor’s place of origin.”

Slave owner records.
Due to the unfortunate reality that slaves were treated by their owners as property, rather than people, documents that record property transfers, such as wills, deeds, lawsuits, tax records and probate and estate files, might offer information on the inheritance of slaves or their transfer outside of families. These records could be available from county record offices and state archives. Gentry also says the personal diaries, Bibles and letters of slaveholders could be mined for information along with farm ledgers, plantation ledgers, slave bills of sale, slave auction records, slave mortgages and slave insurance policies. While these records may be part of a family’s private collection, some may also appear in the collections of university archives and state historical societies.

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