Genealogy for many is more than the search for roots. For African Americans, it is not just a hobby, but a passionate search for identity. The Internet has become a powerful tool for making connections among our families and finding links that would have been next to impossible a few years ago.
Tony Burroughs, of Chicago State University, and an expert in tracing Black families, cautions against unrealistic expectations such as immediately finding the "slave ship from Africa" that brought your ancestors to America. Start with the present and worth back methodically.
While there is a tendency for African American researchers to focus on ethnic-specific sites, for those researching the slave period of American history, it will be necessary to research records of white families as well. Moreover, at least one out of 10 African Americans was already free when the Civil war broke out in 1861. Adding to the complexity of the research is that many had racially mixed backgrounds encompassing African, Caucasian and American Indian ancestry.
Here are a few facts and tips:
1. In 1860 there were 3,953,760 slaves in 15 Southern states and 488,070 free African Americans, with more than half of them living in the South.
2. During the Civil War it is estimated that 125,000 male slaves were moved to Texas to "protect" their owners' investments and keep them away from the Union Army.
3. After slavery ended, many former slaves made finding relatives their first priority. In the 1870s and early 1880s as many as 25,000 African Americans migrated to Kansas.
4. African Americans established many towns in the late 1800s in California, Kansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
5. One obstacle to documenting African American ancestry is the fact that slave marriages were not legally recognized prior to emancipation, and therefore, were not recorded in official records. Tracing enslaved ancestors requires identifying the slave-owning family and tracking documents connected with that family. For example, slaveowners often "gave" (by deed or will) one or more slaves to their newly married children and transferred ownership of slaves to others to pay for debts.
6. Some slaves chose a surname which represented or identified the first slave owner of the earliest born-in-Africa enslaved ancestor who came to North America. The surname, often kept secret from the slave owners, was handed down over the generations to help track relations and lineages. After the end of slavery, those who already possessed surnames revealed them, while others chose a surname for the first time.
7. During and immediately after the Civil War, government agencies often insisted that slaves have surnames to enroll in their programs and receive benefits. Thus expediency often dictated a quick choice of a name. Others claimed names based upon the name's association with relatives or former owners, to assert individuality, or because of the sound or prestige of the name. One study of a group of South Carolina's former slaves found only 17 percent chose the name of their last master. While a different study of former slaves in Alabama and Louisiana concluded that 71 percent chose the name of their most recent owner. In a study done by Tony Burroughs he found that only 14.9% of the former slaves adopted their former master's surname.
8. Free nonwhites formed their own civil, social and fraternal organizations, especially in the South—such as the Brown Fellowship Society, restricted to mulattoes; the Humane Brotherhood, free Black men; and employment records, such as those maintained by the particular railroads, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which are housed at the Chicago Historical Society.
The image of Tara — the fictional O'Hara plantation in Gone With the Wind — is one of opulence in the antebellum period, and while some Southerners were rich, most genealogists discover the so-called "plantations" of their families were nothing more than farms with modest homes.
For African American researchers trying to locate plantation records where their families toiled in hopes of solving some genealogical riddles, and for descendants of slave-owning Southern ancestors seeking to locate these valuable old records, two myths must be exposed: First, not all slave owners were wealthy, and secondly, not all slaves lived on plantations.
In 1860 there were approximately t 385,000 slaveowners. However, of this number, the majority — more than 200,000 — owned five slaves or less. Don't just assume your ancestors were enslaved and neglect to check the U.S. Free Population Schedules of the 1860 census.
Plantation records are private business records, and some are still held by descendants of plantation owners and not available to the public. Many, of course, have not survived. Some can be found in archives and libraries that collect private papers and records, in private archives, historical societies, manuscript libraries, college and university libraries, and at the Library of Congress. The largest collection of plantation records that are rather easily accessible, because they have been microfilmed, are Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, by Kenneth M. Stampp. The so-called Stampp collection is in a series. Each series is accompanied by a guide. The first group from this collection contains more than 400 rolls of microfilm from 11 repositories in sevens states. The microfilming of plantation records is an ongoing project.
All or parts of the Stampp collection can be found in genealogical and university libraries and historical societies around the country. The records that have been filmed from the Southern Historical Collection are available via interlibrary loan, and possibly some of the others may be available through this program. The Family History Library has the Stampp collection, along with the guides annotated with the FHL microfilm roll numbers.
You might not find plantation records in the state in which the plantation was actually located because the owner might have owned several plantations in different states. Also, the owner's descendants might have sold the property and moved to another state and donated the records to a repository anywhere in the country.
The vast majority of African Americans in the United States are descendants of the 400,000 black Africans who were transported to North America against their will. Most family historians are likely to discover their immigrant African ancestor arrived in America between 1741 and 1810. Most of these enslaved people that were brought to British North America came from a narrow strip of the West African coast — known today as Angola, southern Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Benin. Others were from what is now Mozambique.