Locating Slaveowners

Locating the individual or family that enslaved your ancestors can be very difficult, but it is often possible. Do not begin this stage in your research until you have traced multiple close lines back to 1870 and have a firm grasp on the post-slavery family structure, surname choices, and oral histories passed down to today.

What's in a Name?

If you had used only one name your whole life, and were given the chance to pick a whole new name to use, how would you decide what name that would be? Some people took the name of their last slaveowner. Some took the name of another white family in the community. Some took a name that had been passed down through oral tradition for many years. Whatever the name your ancestors chose, it was important to them for some reason.

Think Generationally

Most slaves were kept with a white family over time, being divided among the heirs of the previous generation. Even if the freed slaves did not take the name of a white family, there may be clues based on where people came from. Look for the oldest black person in the area close to your ancestors in 1870. Then look for white people of the same approximate age in the same area and see if any of them were born in the same place. In the case of the Shoemaker family, Charles P. Shoemaker was born in Virginia around 1812. The people known to have been his slaves were also born in Virginia.

Did the Slaveowner Die in Time?

To locate your enslaved ancestors in estate records, three conditions have to be met: first, the slaveowner had to die before the end of the Civil War; second, the white family had to file estate papers with the local court; and third, the recorded records have to have survived over time for us to use today.

The best way to begin your search for the slaveowning white family is to look in the index to estates for people with the surnames you are interested in who died before the end of the Civil War. Also, make a list of the white people who lived around your ancestors in 1870, then find out who their parents were. Using that information, locate people who died before the end of the Civil War in the immediate area of any surname.

Check Deed Records

Many slave sales are recorded in deed books. Most modern indexes do not include references to these sales, but new deed abstract books are revealing a substantial amount of available deeds. Quality deed index books will include the names of slaves in the index. If no index is available, it is still possible to go through each deed book looking for transactions that might name your ancestors.

Was Your Family "Free"?

"Free Persons of Color" can be found living in all states before the Civil War. Free blacks generally received their status because their mother was free. During the 1800s, the laws in Southern states placed strict limits on the ability of slaveowners to free their slaves. Most free blacks during the 1800s came from families that had been freed in the 1700s or had come to the United States as free people.

The word "free" is used in quotes because, while they were not slaves, many harsh restrictions were placed on free blacks. They were required to pay hefty fees and taxes, were not allowed to travel without permission, had to have a white "guardian," had to register with the local white officials each year, could not sell certain goods, and could not live in certain areas. Unlike records of slaves, there are many records available to document free blacks, including Registers of Free Persons of Color, the United States Census, city council minutes, county court minutes, city directories, and deed records.