When researching African-Americans, the criticality of the 1870 census cannot be understated. It is called the “Brick Wall” for good reason. Because the vast majority of blacks were enslaved prior to the Civil War, and because most stayed in the area of their enslavement, finding the family in 1870 can be the key that unlocks the door to their enslaved past. As property, slaves were not enumerated by name before 1870.
The upheaval and violence surrounding the civil war does not always make that task easy. Formerly enslaved blacks varied in the reasons for their surnames and after the war there was still a fluidity about surnames. Families can be found in 1870 with one surname and in 1880 with an entirely different surname. Spelling, we all quickly learn, was subjective at best.
Still, the best tool we have to find the ever-important slaveowner is to find the family in 1870. Patience Prather had been enslaved by William Blunt in Montgomery County, MD. In 1870, she was reunited with her husband Tobias, and just two houses away was the William Blunt household:
It is not uncommon to see several people of differing surnames living together in 1870. Always be curious about others living in the household–researching them can often lead to finding other family members. Remember that former slaves formed kinship ties with fellow enslaved people. This is one of the mechanisms they used to survive in a system where at any moment blood-family members could be sold, never to be seen again.
Elisha Riggs, also in Montgomery County, MD, owned the following slaves along with others:
Look at the household of Tobias in 1870, living in Washington D.C.:
These people had been enslaved together and those ties continued.
Of course, the 1870 census can also cause us to stumble when we forget that no relationships are given in that census year. Relationships are suggested; the census above suggests Tobias and Mary were married and had children Lizzie, Lavinia and Willie. But we have to verify that relationshiop with other records.
There are some lines that may not yield success for various reasons. Some families did live their immediate areas–some were driven out by white violence, others in search of work or family that had been sold. Others stayed where they had been enslaved, but the slavewner may have died or left the area. Some had been forced to move with slaveowners trying to refugee their slaves during the war.
For those who can’t find their family in 1870 on the census, try to get as close to that timeframe as possible. Be sure to check land and court records, and several Southern states had tax and voting records that survive. I found a North Carolina man who was missing on the 1870 census in a 1867 tax record.
The 1870 census remains, for those researching African-Americans, the most critical census of all. But it’s a brick wall that can, with diligent research, come crashing down.
Postscript: I just discovered that my good friend Michael Hait blogged about this exact topic in 2009. Check out his post. Great minds think alike!!!