Slave Genealogy

If you find that your genealogy research has taken you to discover African American ancestors who were once kept as slaves, you can find yourself in some pretty tough historical territory. You’ll have your work cut out for you when you hit this type of a brick wall. Even so, don’t give up completely. Records aren’t as easy to find as some others, but there are a few really good resources for slave genealogy.

Though owned slaves were counted in the 1850 and 1860 American census, they were not recorded in any detail, and certainly not by name. It was only after the Civil War that you’ll find census records that list freed slaves by name, which means you need to start looking around 1870.


To add to the challenge, many slaves didn’t go back to their original surnames after emancipation. In many cases, they would continue using the surnames of their last owners. This isn’t always true, but it is often cited as a typical “best guess” when doing slave genealogy.

So if you have records that your family name was Cartwright during this time period, it may likely be that Cartwright was actually your ancestors owner’s name, and that your own family had a different surname previously. It’s hard to get around, but doing further research into the Cartwright family can still lead you to potential information regarding your actual ancestors.

This entire situation is mostly American, and as a Canadian I do not know as much about the problem because this is not part of our history as a country. So, I will leave the issue to more knowledgeable people at this point, and give you some links to help you get further with your African American slave research:

Freedmen’s Bureau Online – The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (usually just called the Freedmen’s Bureau) was established in 1865 to handle the various situations of American refugees and newly freed slaves. They have a large collection of transcribed documents on their website, including marriage records, legal documents, bank records and a lot of other varied resources related to slaves of that time. It’s organized by state but searchable by surname.

Afrigeneas – Though it’s not intended specifically as a slave-era website, this is an excellent resource for all sorts of African American genealogy queries. There are many good articles as well as searchable databases for slave information. Much of their collection has been submitted by individuals so you will get a lot of great personal narrative but not that much “official” information.

Lastly, you can visit the collection of links at Cyndi’s List. She has a category for slavery records that is a great help for finding state-specific resources.