Many of us face challenges when conducting African American genealogy research. We begin with relatives closest to us, or known information about subject families, and follow trails that hopefully lead to the nineteenth century and beyond. The 1870 population census is a great source, as it enumerated many African Americans, for the first time by name. 1870 census schedules may also present discrepancies or conflicts with historical family data. Given names and/or surnames, and specific locations may differ from our data. Conflicts can divert us from our established path as we know it, forcing us to rethink our strategy.
Our currently-held information can provide us with opportunities to expand our search, if we carefully analyze our findings. So, how do we research ancestors for whom we may not have accurate surnames and locations? Where do we focus our search, once our “facts” are overturned with conflicting information? When we face inevitable obstacles to our research, we must step back and analyze our retrieved records. What do the details tell us? Have we retrieved information that conflicts with existing evidence? Do we possess written sources to support oral family stories?
We must utilize creative research practices to assist in searching for, retrieving and analyzing sources, to provide us with a body of direct and indirect evidence to support our research. Consider these four elements to enhance your research.
- Be objective in your analysis – “Think outside the box.” Don’t accept secondhand information as absolute fact, but pursue all viable, relevant possibilities. Consider variations of given names, surnames and other data found in records created by a third party such as census enumerations. If your ancestor was enslaved, be mindful that their chosen surname may not match that of a probable slaveholder. Remember, the history and documentation of African American lives has not been straightforward; therefore, we must be creative when accessing and analyzing available records.
The following image shows a deed of emancipation filed in 1850, by John Morford to emancipate his slave, Octavius Alexander. Imagine the confusion to a descendant who may have heard John Morford was the slaveholder of an ancestor, but nothing about a different surname for the enslaved individual.
- Diversify your search efforts to incorporate county court, tax assessment, slave schedules, probate, property, city directory and military records. Analyze census and vital records you have retrieved to establish a summary profile for respective ancestors. Determine which historical record groups may provide additional evidence. It is important to venture beyond census schedules and vital records in our quest to validate family relationships.
- Expand your research to neighbors in census enumerations, associates noted in court records and tax records, and known and suspected extended family members. We must “widen the net” to search for information that may indirectly lead us to evidence about our ancestors’ lives. This is called cluster research, researching groups of people, rather than one or two direct family lines. When researching a formerly enslaved family, cluster research must include the lives of potential slaveholders. Enslaved individuals are not listed by name in the census until after Emancipation; however, slaveholders appear in slave schedules, various court records, and estate documents that may identify enslaved individuals by name. Slave schedules identify the enslaved by approximate age, color and gender, and not by name, but this information is valuable to establish possible matches when analyzing our total body of evidence.
- Indirect evidence is vital to proving relationships and answering research questions. This type of evidence may not directly answer a specific research question, but combined with other indirect evidence findings, we are able to “build a case” for relationships. Understand the significance of relevant indirect evidence in all retrieved sources.
A recent client case illustrates many of these research principles. Identifying the owner is the first step in researching an enslaved person before Emancipation. In 1870, the neighbor of a former slave Simon Cooper [names have been changed] and his children was John Cooper, a white man. While Simon Cooper held no real estate and $400 of personal property, his neighbor, John Cooper, owned $2500 of real estate and $1200 of personal property.
Only one Cooper family owned slaves in White County, Tennessee on the 1860 slave schedule, enslaving a 45-year-old female and a 12-year-old female; neither slave was the right age or gender to be Simon Cooper. Research efforts shifted to the probate records of the county and led to a breakthrough. In 1834 John Cooper, Sr. willed his “negro boy named Simon” to his wife, Rebecca.
In the 1840 census John’s widow Rebecca was listed with one male slave 24-35 years old and one female slave 55-99 years old. After an inventory and account of Rebecca Cooper’s estate in 1841, the Circuit Court ordered her administrators to sell her slaves to satisfy her debts. Rebecca’s son, John, Jr., purchased “One negro man named Simon … for $923.00.”
Then, in 1850 John Cooper, Jr. owned one slave in on the 1850 slave schedule, a 41- year-old black man. Simon stayed with John Cooper for 1860 when John, Jr., moved to another Tennessee county, where Simon was listed in the 1860 slave schedule. This move was traced through property records, and the identities of the slaves would be unrecognizable if not for the earlier probate records and the 1870 census record. The implied family consisted of Simon, an unnamed mother, a 19-year-old daughter, and the three children named in the 1870 census. The ages were a little different, but it appeared that the unnamed mother had died and the three children lived with their father. The family relationship was further established when Simon’s daughter moved to Alabama, where other White County community members were also living.
This case was a classic example of tracing enslaved persons through slave schedules, probate, and property records. Simon matched his owner’s surname because he stayed with the same slaveholder and his son for much of his life. Simon’s surname might have been different if he had been sold or willed to a son-in-law or if he would have selected a different one (surname). Tracing the former owners was essential to tracing the family of the enslaved person.
The family was found by widening the net to include the slaveholder and his extended family, examining property records of the slaveholder’s children, probate records, the slave schedule, and the regular census. Additional clues came from the birth and death records of the former slaves’ children and grandchildren. Searching broadly and widely connected the family from Alabama back to the former slaveholder in Tennessee.
African American genealogy research can be challenging, but overcoming those challenges with patience and persistence can be very rewarding.
For answers to common African American genealogy research questions, check out our Legacy Tree Live broadcast focused on African American genealogy research on our YouTube channel.
If you have African American ancestry and need help locating information on your ancestors, we can help! We have researchers that specialize in “thinking outside the box” and evaluating every possible clue to overcome brick walls to extend your family history. Contact us today for a free quote!
 Mason County, Kentucky, Court Order Books, 1850 May Term, p. 427, Deed of Emancipation, John Morford emancipates enslaved Octavius Alexander, “County Court Order Books of Mason County, Kentucky 1789-1870,” digital images, Familysearch.org, https://familysearch.