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The 1880 Donut Hole

Two Doughnuts on a Plate

Mmmmm..yummy

This is a phrase I’ve been using to refer to that Bermuda Triangle between 1880 and 1900…the Donut Hole. Now I like donuts just as much as the next person. But I’m not the first and sure won’t be the last to lose relatives on either side of it. We all know about how the aftermath of the fire that destroyed a large percentage of the 1890 census. First, you’ll want to be sure to check that your research area is not one that has a surviving 1890 census fragment. After that, you’ll want to use all your genealogical sleuthing skills to ensure that the person “on the inside” of the 1880 donut is the same person you find “on the outside.” Minus the frosting.

One of the things I’ve encountered is the fact that a couple can have a child right after 1880 that is grown and gone by 1900. If this is a family whose makeup you’ve built by using only the census, you can easily miss a person. For example, according to her death certificate Julia Adams of Montgomery County, TN was born in 1881:

Julia Adams

Julia Adams

However, if you look at her father Lucas Walker’s household in 1900, she is not there:

1900 Lucas Walker

1900 Lucas Walker

And that’s because she married James Adams in 1897:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

If you didn’t find out about Julia from some other record or source (like this death certificate), you would have missed her completely.

Zeffie Whitaker was born in 1883. Her father Sam Whitaker’s household in 1900, likewise, does not include her:

1900 Whitaker

1900 Whitaker

She had married the neighbor’s son Robert Allison in 1899:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

She was living next door to her dad in 1900.

These examples were meant to illustrate the point: they were easy to show because the parent was listed on the death certificate. But how many death certificates do we see that have no parents listed? Also, you would have never found the death certificate if you had known this child existed AND their married name. In those cases, you’ll miss an ancestor. I know I have.

So beware and be extra vigilant of those people born in the early 1880s “inside the donut.” Tell me in the comments if any of you have “lost” an ancestor in the gap? If you found them, how did you verify that it was the correct person?

Slavery Studies

As I have researched more and more enslaved ancestors, I have become more immersed in researching slavery itself. I have a friend who is a Ph.D. and professor of African-American studies and he has really helped me understand the history in a different way. We’ve clocked tens of hours of conversation about the institution of slavery.

Although what genealogists do is similar, it’s also quite different from what professional historians do. We are more interested in the individuals and the specific while they tend to focus more on trends among larger groups of people. The difference in those perspectives fascinate me.

I wanted to present a short overview of some of the most famous works in the evolution of slavery studies and I highly encourage anyone researching enslaved people to read some (at least one) of these works. I haven’t gotten through them all but I’m working on it!

“American Negro Slavery” by Ulrich Phillips, 1918

Typical of the times, Ulrich’s racism was front and center. He believed in the inferiority of blacks and the fantasy of the “Old South.” He wrote that slavery was not a financially profitable institution and that it was done mainly to benefit blacks and maintain white supremacy. He wrote that slaveowners treated, fed and clothed their slaves well. Amazingly, this was the prevailing view of slavery for almost 30 years although W.E.B. DuBois vocally challenged his findings.

“The Peculiar Institution” by Kenneth M. Stampp, 1956

Stampp, in this groundbreaking work, was the first to counter Ulrich Phillips’ school of thought in several areas. He showed that slavery was not benign but a cruel and brutal system of labor exploitation and control. He argued that slavery was indeed a profitable system. He illustrated the extreme suffering of slaves and he also discussed the many methods of slave resistance. Stampp also discussed how becoming a slave owner was a part of a social system which allowed whites to enter the upper class and gain status in the community.

“Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” by Stanley Elkins, 1959

Elkins was the first historian to look at the psychological impact of slavery rather than just the economics of it. He compared southern slave plantations to Nazi concentration camps and argued that slavery was so brutal and inhumane that it stripped slaves of their African heritage (i.e., they had a “social death”) and transformed them into docile, submissive figures. His most famous thesis was his conclusion that the system of slavery had infantilized slaves, making them “Sambos”—reduced them by brutality to a dependant, child-like status. Although many of his arguments have now been rejected, this single book caused a firestorm and a huge outpouring of responses by other historians.

“The Slave Community” by John Blassingame, 1972

Blassingame presented one of the first slave studies to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved and contradicted historians like Elkins and his “Sambo” thesis.  Through the lens of psychology, Blassingame used 19th century fugitive slave narratives as sources to determine that in fact, a rich and unique culture developed among American slaves, with plenty of evidence that African practices survived. Historians criticized Blassingame’s use of slave narratives (which are considered biased) and questioned his neglect of the WPA slave interviews but the book remains an important contribution.

“Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” by Eugene Genovese 1974

Eugene D. Genovese was a Marxist and this book attempts to decipher, from a Marxist perspective, the world of antebellum slavery. Genovese’s thesis is that slaves created a rich culture, at once both African-American and uniquely southern. He raised some new arguments and presented a truly dizzying array of footnotes and examples. Sometimes he can lose the reader with his ruminations on social theory, but this is an engaging read nevertheless, from one of the most enigmatic and controversial American historians.

“The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925” by Herbert Gutman, 1976

In this classic text on black family life, Gutman argues that slavery did not break up the black family, which had become a familiar refrain as a result of the 1970s “Moynihan Report.”  Gutman was a labor historian who studied workers and social history. Gutman illustrates that that most black families largely remained intact despite slavery and remained that way during the first wave of migration to the North after the Civil War (although he remained open to arguments about black family collapse in the 1930s and 1940s). Gutman’s work was widely praised.

I could go on and on, and mention works by Deborah Gray White on enslaved women (“Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South”) works by Ira Berlin (“Many Thousands Gone”) and John Hope Franklin (“Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”). There are more than I could ever review here, but I hope if you have not yet thought about reading one of these works you will.

The stories of the people we uncover need to be woven with social history, and perhaps nothing looms larger and more complex than slavery. Pick up some of these at the local library or used book store and shoot me an email and let me know what you’re reading.

MC900390920My friend Aaron calls them artificial. They can also be called self-imposed brick walls. We say this to mean we have labelled something a brick wall that really isn’t a brick wall. We call them that even though we haven’t done our due diligence in terms of careful research. Consider these examples:

We declare the brick wall of not being able to find an ancestor in a census year but we haven’t tried multiple spellings and pronunciations,
haven’t used wildcard searches,
haven’t searched surrounding counties,
haven’t searched other census websites other than Ancestry,
haven’t considered a migration out of state and biggest of all—
haven’t done a line-by-line search in the district or county we expect to find them in.

We declare a brick wall, but we have only been to one or two repositories in person, or worse still, have done all our research online.

We declare a brick wall,
but have used books and websites to collect information without ordering and examining firsthand the original record.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only searched 2 or 3 TYPES of records such as census records, vital records and the “easy” databases on Ancestry (like World War I draft cards). We haven’t even tried to search land records, court records, church records, maps, city directories, probate records, newspapers and other record sets.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only been searching for our direct ancestor and maybe his wife and children. We have not expanded to the group (or “cluster”) of people that were associated with our ancestors and would significantly increase our chances for success.

We declare a brick wall,
after jumping back several generations, and not doing extensive research within each generation on all the siblings and children of each sibling.

We declare a brick wall, but we’re wearing cultural blinders. We aren’t considering that people may have had children outside of or before marriage, or that they may appear in the records as a different race.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually analyzed and correlated the evidence that we DO have. In fact, we don’t know how to evaluate the evidence. We believe everything we see in print is factual, accurate and true. If two records give conflicting information, we have no idea which one is correct.

We declare a brick wall,
and have never tried to find living descendants of any of the family members.

We declare a brick wall,
but never stopped to consider our ancestor may have had multiple marriages. We also never actually verified the mother of each child separately from the father.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never expanded our search to less common but potentially valuable records stored onsite at universities, historical and genealogical societies. And-

(my personal favorite)

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually read a book on genealogy methodology or any of the thousands of teaching articles published in genealogy journals. We have progressed mainly by asking others what to do next instead of taking the time to learn ourselves “what to do next.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Genealogy is a learned skill and a profession with defined standards. You get good at it by practice and by education. I define “good” as using best practices for careful research and ultimately being able to discern clues that don’t jump off the page. That’s what will set you apart from when you were a beginner. I look at evidence I gathered in earlier years and see things now I couldn’t possibly see then. You have to progress away from “looking up” people in databases and learn how to “look into” people’s lives, which is a different animal altogether.

I have been guilty of many of these artificial brick walls myself and have had to overcome my special tendency to declare someone dead when I can’t find them;) But I’ve gotten better over the years by constantly educating myself and learning about methodology and resources. I hope you will too. Tell me in the comments, which artificial brick walls you have been guilty of?

MP900390424Sometimes—well, probably a lot of times—our research veers off into an unexpected direction. Usually its because we come across a person or a circumstance that is of interest.

My 3rd great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, married a woman named Margaret Fleet. I found her family quite interesting, even though she technically is not a blood relative.

After their marriage, they lived in Montgomery County, MD, but Margaret was originally from Washington, D.C, which is my own birthplace. Margaret can be found on the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census records in the 1st Ward of Washington D.C., a freed black woman before general emancipation came. By 1860 she had 7 children: Robert, Annett, Cora, Edward, Augustus, Willy and Mary. After those years, Margaret appeared in Montgomery County, MD with her new husband Perry Simpson.

This is the record that made me “turn left” (click image to enlarge):

1880UnitedStatesFederalCensusForEdwardFleet

1880 Census

  I was fascinated by the fact that Mary’s father’s birthplace was “Mexico.” Was this a fluke? Was he really Mexican? I started tracking this family through the available records. Although Margaret birthed many children before her marriage to Perry –9 according to the 1900 census—no known record documents a marriage to any other man.

In 1850, Margaret was a freed black woman in a city bursting with contradictions. Amid thousands of freed blacks living and working in the city, were enslaved “quasi-free” people, many of whom were working and living on their own while paying their masters monthly fees. Washington had been the site of an active slave trade, and a notorious slave pen making it an easy target for abolitionists looking to shame the young nation. In 1850, the slave trade was finally outlawed in D.C. During the next decade, events would continue to escalate around slavery, finally culminating in Civil War. In 1862, slavery itself was outlawed in the district creating a haven for thousands of enslaved people from the surrounding states. “First Freed: Washington D.C. in the Emancipation Era,” edited by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is a good book to read to understand what life was like for African-Americans in D.C. at that time.

Margaret had been fortunate; she came from a family of skilled artisans. Her father was Henry Fleet Jr., a freed black shoemaker from Georgetown, who learned the trade from his father, the senior Henry Fleet. Today, Georgetown is a mecca of white wealth and privilege, but it had historically been home to a thriving freed black community. Henry Fleet Sr. purchased his wife Ann and “5 or 6 children” and later freed them, something many skilled blacks were able to do if allowed by the slaveowner. Henry Fleet Sr. was doing well enough that several boys were apprenticed to him in the early 1800s to learn the trade of shoemaking. An 1803 apprenticeship document notes that “He purchased his son Henry Jr. in 1812 and he is also a shoemaker.

In 1864, while living at K Street and 21st street, Margaret was assessed $25 in the brand new federal tax system as a “Retail Liquor Dealer”. In 1870, Margaret is still in D.C., and her daughters Annie (living with her) and Cora living next door are both dressmakers. This would have been one of the best occupations for a freed blackwoman of that era. I wonder if they would have known Elizabeth Keckley, the freed black dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln?

In that same 1870 census, Sarah Carter, Margaret’s mother, is living with her and is 100 years old! Margaret also owns $1000 worth of real estate, no small feat for a black woman.

U.S.IRSTaxAssessmentLists1862-1918ForMargaretFleet

1864 Tax Assessment

1870 Fleet

1870 Fleet

In 1873, Margaret opened an account with the Washington D.C. branch of the Freedmen’s Bank, naming her new husband Perry and her children:

Freedmans Bank

Freedmans Bank

Her sons Robert (a policeman) and Edward also opened accounts. Most of Margaret’s children can be tracked through their marriages, vital and land records and city directories in D.C. The death certificate of her daughter Annett names a “Greg Jarvis” as her father. That man, Greg Jarvis, appears in the 1850 and 1860 Washington D.C. census also living in the 1st Ward. By 1860 he is married with children:

1850 Jarvis

1850 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

In these records, Jarvis is shown as being from Mexico and also New Mexico–it was probably the Territory of New Mexico (it was not a state yet). The Mexican War had just been ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the country was also reeling from the recent Compromise of 1850. I wonder what would have brought him East?

Jarvis also went from being a “mulatto” in 1850 to being “white” with an Irish wife in 1860. So what his racial background is exactly we can’t quite tell. This man appears to be heading two families, at least for awhile: one black, one white. It is unknown whether he fathered all of the children of Margaret Fleet, but documents tie him to at least 3 of her children.

A mortgage executed in Montgomery County in 1911 noted Margaret’s date of death and listed all of her heirs living at the time, who had inherited her land:

“Edward G. Fleet, Sr. & wife Lucinda William Fleet & his wife Blossie, Mary Fleet, widow Harry Fleet, unmarried, Anna Grant, widow Cora Lemos, widow Augustus Fleet & his wife Sarah, Mary Lemos & her husband Beverly”

Margaret, amazingly, lived into her early 90s, long enough to leave a death certificate:

Death Cert

Death Cert

Margaret’s life was pretty interesting and only goes to prove that sometimes veering off-course is absolutely well worth it.

My 14-year-old ggrandmother Martha Simpson was serving in the 1860 Howard County, MD household of William R. Warfield. A special set of records called Slave Statistics available in some Maryland counties connects slaveholders with the names of their former slaves. I was surprised to find this for Warfield (his heirs):

WmRWarfield_PERRY
Warfield owned Martha’s father, Perry Simpson (no. 2 on the list above). Martha and her siblings had been born to a freed black woman, Louisa, illustrating that freed blacks often married enslaved people. We’ve got be open to looking out for this scenario in our research, especially in areas like Virginia and Maryland where there were relatively large numbers of freed blacks.

Using the basic methodology for researching slaves, I checked the probate records of William Warfield’s father and found Perry listed as a young boy:

BealeWarfield1
I can’t say exactly who Perry’s mother is–there are at least 3 women of age to be his mother in the inventory (all the slaves are not shown in the clip above). For many of us researching enslaved ancestors, this is usually “the end of the road”; an inventory in the slaveowner’s estate. That’s it. I’ve shown it here on my blog before. Most of the time, enslaved people will not be listed by family. Sometimes you are lucky enough, and I do mean LUCKY enough to find: personal papers, bible or court records that name or discuss the enslaved family or even freedmen’s bank or pension records that name the mother or siblings of that enslaved individual. Even if you find that mother, again, she’s usually listed in someone’s inventory. Mariann Regan’s blog, “Into the Briar Patch,” discusses the type of record a slaveowner might have that would be priceless for the descendants of slaves. Marian has been kind and generous enough to transcribe and share these extraordinary records with the public. But the vast majority of us will hit a brick wall at that estate inventory.

I had a hard time coming to grips with that reality. There’s a sadness–a melancholy for me in this. I so badly want to know who Malinda’s mother was, who Harriet’s mother was, or who Margaret’s mother was, separated from her at age 13 as she was. And for that matter, who were their fathers? It’s like the fathers never were, the tragic inevitability of a system built on sexual exploitation. Was Sarah, my earliest documented ancestor, born ca. 1750, an African woman? She easily could have been. Was she Igbo, Mende or Angolan? I have so many unanswered questions.

People love to ask how far back you’ve gotten in your genealogy. That isn’t the most important thing to me. For most African-Americans, we’re fortunate to trace roots back to the 1800s and in a truly elite group if we can trace back to the 1700s. I suppose in some sense, everyone comes to end of the “documented” record—even though for many Europeans it may be much earlier, perhaps the 1500’s in Russia, Poland, Ireland, England or some other Old World country.

Someone asked me recently why I do genealogy. What makes it interesting or meaningful (as it was not to the person asking)? I had to pause. What is it that continues to drive me personally to spend thousands of hours through the years in courthouses, archives, libraries, in books and online, in meetings and blogging, learning about resources and methodology, obsessively and compulsively digging for more, more and more? I realized it’s not just any one thing.

Initially, it is the new information, the puzzles we crack, the names we uncover that drives us most. Discovery is always simply thrilling in and of itself. I would have never dreamed of freed black ancestors from the early 1800s or that my Tennessee roots started in Alabama, or even (on the negative side) that I had an ancestor who was lynched and one who died after World War I in a mental hospital.

But its also something much more. Because of the tragedy of slavery, I consider it a radical act to seek out and find the names of and explore the lives of enslaved people.  In that process I am truly “reclaiming” pieces of myself.  It also represents my connectedness and my entry way to history. It is through researching my family that history has been made real for me. Be it African civilizations, slavery, Native Americans, the U.S. and French Revolutions, west ward expansion, the Civil War, emancipation, the Great Migration, industrialization, World War I and II (and on and on) I approach all of those topics from the perspective of my family. I think about:

—Joshua, born during the revolution and before we were the United States;
—Mason, who migrated west with owners and was present at the founding of the state of Kentucky;
—Daniel, an ordained minister with the Maryland Methodist church in the early 19th century;
—John, the former slave who became the largest black landowner & postmaster in the county;
—Luther and Mattie who left Tennessee for Dayton, Ohio to find their fortunes after World War II;
—Doss, whose pride and courage made him stand up and fight during a TN race riot;
—Beatrice,  who attended the Institute for Colored Youth in the early 1910s, which became Cheyney, the first historically black college

All of them fascinate me and connect me to the very fabric of life. They fill me with pride and they increase my understanding of the world. It has filled me with a desire to write up my discoveries and share them with the world, knowing that this history truly is powerful. It also does something else–it makes me look at my own life so very differently than I would have had I not known any of this.

So even though many roads will lead to and end with a name in an estate inventory, it still has tremendous meaning for me. I honor and celebrate the lives that could not be celebrated in their own time and believe their spirits are smiling at the remembrance of their name. The search continues.

MC900433938I have posted before about the value of black newspapers and the goldmine of information they have. I think newspapers, like Freedmen’s Bureau records, are an important resource that haven’t yet been made widely accessible and easy to research. However, great strides have been made by various providers, including the Library of Congress, digitizing newspapers. They are still time-consuming to search, but I suppose anything worthwhile in genealogy is that way. I was even surprised to recently discover that the local newspaper of Montgomery County, MD where my ancestors lived was digitized bythe Maryland State Archives. That paper has been on my “to do” list for years. It was not a black newspaper, but I still want to search it for relevant news of the times.

The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott and eventually became the largest and most popular black-owned newspaper in the nation. The paper was famous for detailing lynchings and racial oppression, to referring to blacks as “The Race” and for putting “(white)” after white people’s names in the paper the same way white papers did to black people. The Defender was  a driving force in convincing Southern blacks to migrate to the North. More than 100, 000 black people came to Chicago alone between 1916-1918.

What I didn’t realize until I read my friend Tim Pinnick’s book was that the small, rural towns many of our ancestors migrated from were often covered in these large urban papers. It made sense I suppose: people wanted news from their towns. But I would have never searched in a Northern paper looking for news of my family, especially if they didn’t live there. Tim’s book explains that the papers hired correspondents from those small towns who submitted news. There would be a page called “Tennessee News” and then perhaps 20 or 30 paragraphs, one for each community. The same for North Carolina and other states.

I have recently been searching the Chicago Defender through Proquest Historical Newspapers which is available from my local library (and able to be searched from home!). I was surprised to find that one of my Holt relatives, Annabelle Holt Crowder, who had lived in Chicago for a time, was actually one of the correspondents for her small town of Decaturville, TN! That meant she wrote a lot about her family. Her husband Dave was the principal of the black high school, a revered man for whom the school was later named for.

The tidbits of local history gleaned from these columns is simply priceless. In addition to marriages, births and deaths, they talked about who was sick, who was moving, the black schools and politics, the benevolent and lodge organizations, the teachers and farmers and of course, the ever-prominent black churches and ministers. The articles are filled with visits from out of town relatives and I thought to myself as I read that it looked tome like they spent all their free time socializing! But, because I pulled articles form mostly the late 20s and early 30s, I had to remember there was no television, and radios and cars were fairly new.

There is of course lots of juicy family history, especially because the articles often mentioned the town where people were visiting from, as well as specifically naming parents, siblings, grandkids, etc. Here are a couple of snippets I found from my local TN towns:

September 1928

September 1928

Richard Kendall was indeed a Civil War veteran, and this article gives the names and locations of his relatives from all over the place. Imagine if you were one of his descendants.

This next one names several of my Holt relatives (Lawson was my ggrandfather). I was most fascinated to discover that they enjoyed fox hunting! I would have never guessed that. Notice also how they say “motored to” instead of “drove to.”

November 1930

November 1930

Here’s one more:

April 1930

April 1930

I’ve had luck before with the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper, and I’ve got to believe similar articles may be found in the Pittsburgh Courier and other large black newspapers of the times.

Take a look and let me know if you have any luck finding any of your small towns. It’s important to mention that MOST newspapers are not online and are not digitized, but there were in fact hundreds of black newspapers.

P.S.-Tim has a truly wonderful lecture on researching black newspapers on YouTube. It’ll teach you almost everything you need to know to get started!

There is a good probability that many of us researching our African-American lines will find at least one line that was freed before 1865. In 1860, there were over 400,000 freed blacks in the U.S.. I like this map from the Schomburg migrations website:

freed blacks

Although Northern cities like Philadelphia and Boston had large black populations, over half of all freed blacks lived in the South in cities like Charleston, New Orleans, Savannah, Baltimore and Petersburg. Escaping blacks would often aim for these cities, as they’d have a better chance of blending in with other freed blacks.

map by Columbia University

map by Columbia University

I had freed black ancestors living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland which was not surprising since Maryland had over 60,000 freed blacks by the time the Civil War began—the most of any state. More surprising was that I discovered a freed black ancestor living in south west Tennessee in Hardin County. She was one of only 37 freed blacks living there in 1850. That was truly unexpected.

berlinOne of the core texts about freed blacks is “Slaves Without Masters: the Free Negro in the Antebellum South” by Ira Berlin. Their lives were only a little bit better than the lives of enslaved people. They worked alongside and many times married enslaved people. They were widely perceived by the white community with suspicion and regarded as an enticement to insurrection among slaves. Some of the most famous slave revolts were planned by freed blacks such as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. There have been several very interesting books written about freed blacks who attained great success and wealth, such as in “Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the South” .

As the number of freed blacks grew in states like Virginia and Maryland, state laws also increased drastically limiting their movement and actions. Examples of some of the laws against freed blacks in various states include the inability to vote or testify against whites in court, the need to register movements in and out of state, the inability to own a dog or gun, and the inability to assemble in large numbers without a white person present. Eventually, several states simply legislated that if a black was freed, he or she had to leave the state.

How do you research freed blacks? First, you’d want to find them by looking for your ancestors on census records before 1870. Before that year, only freed blacks would have been included. Sometimes, we assume our ancestors were enslaved before 1870 without first actually checking.

If you discover an ancestor who was freed before 1865, next you’ll want to attempt to discover how they gained their freedom. Slaves could be freed in 5 general ways:

  1. Born Free (legal status came from the mother, so a freedwoman’s children would be free)
  2. Manumitted (freed by their slaveowner)
  3. Purchased their freedom (slaveowner must allow this possibility)
  4. Runaway
  5. Military Service (Revolutionary War or the Civil War)

It’s not always easy ascertaining the method by which an ancestor became free. Many states required freed blacks to register their freedom with the county court to prevent escaping slaves from claiming they were free. The Maryland Assembly put it this way in 1805:

“great mischiefs have arisen from  slaves coming into possession of certificates of free Negroes, by running away and passing as free  under the faith of such certificates”

Therefore, county court minutes are a good place in general to search. That is where I found a reference to my ancestor in Hardin County. The court would grant the person a “freedom certificate” that a freed black was expected to carry on their person at all times and submit it to any white when questioned. Some localities also kept separate sets of these “Freedom Certificates”. If you’re lucky, it will state how the person became free. Here’s an example of one from Anne Arundel County, MD:

Freedom Certificate

Freedom Certificate

Depending on the state and county, there may be separate books of Manumissions (the legal document through which a master frees a slave). A separate book will often contain an index of the slaves’ names. However, the manumission may also be mixed in with the Land Records, or could have been made through the owner’s Will, both records that can be harder to search in the beginning because they are typically  indexed by the name of the slaveowner. Here is a portion of a transcribed Manumission:

man
I haven’t mentioned the fact that in many of the records, there will just be a first name, such as “Negro Sarah”. That complicates the process by forcing us to make sure we are connecting the right “Sarah” with the “Sarah” that we’ve found in the census with a surname attached.

If  you have no luck in finding Freedom Certificates or Manumissions, check to see if your ancestor owned land and if so, from whom did he or she purchase that land? Check Indentures, as many freed black children were indentured to whites. They also may be living near the white person who freed them, so use Cluster Research principles. Freed blacks often had a white person who served as “protector”, someone to vouch for and support them when they were challenged or cheated by whites. You may be able to identify that person by evaluating enough documents. Also,  try to find out what the laws were regarding freed blacks, for example, this book about the black laws in Virginia. and this blog that discusses laws regarding freed blacks in North Carolina.

This was only the briefest introduction to yet another endlessly fascinating topic. There’s a good discussion of researching freed blacks on the University of South Florida’s website and I also recommend this more scholarly discussion of the topic by James Horton who is one of my favorite historians. If you found an ancestor living as a freed black before 1870, let me know in the comments.

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