Being the descendent of enslaved ancestors, there awaits a unique opportunity to join a specifically interesting lineage society. Here is an insight into what you would need to prove your family history, and where you would be able to provide these valuable records.
African Americans with an invested interest in their heritage and deep roots within the United States of America are all too familiar with the legacy and impact of America’s slave era. Reflecting upon that time can be a source of great pain and anguish, while others may find themselves embracing and sharing stories of survival and perseverance with audiences well beyond their own homes. Should you see yourself in the latter group there is a lineage society for you.
Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP) is a lineage-based service membership organization dedicated to remembering freed and formerly enslaved ancestors. The organization operates as a non-profit, charitable 501(c)3 organization with objectives outlined as historical, educational, memorial, and patriotic.
“Any person who is not less than eighteen years of age, and can prove direct lineal descent from a man, woman, or child who was of African descent and was forced into slavery in the United States of America, including its colonial days, prior to the end of slavery as marked by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, effective December 1865, is eligible for membership.”
As a charter member of the organization, I personally remember my initial excitement when presented with the opportunity to join. I had already successfully joined other lineage societies dedicated to the memory of my Civil War and Revolutionary War patriot ancestors, yet there seemed to be no place I could honor the contributions made by those forced into a system of chattel slavery. Here was my opportunity! My excitement took a momentary dip when it dawned on me that I would have to prove my ancestors were enslaved. Herein lies the challenge. As with any lineage organization there must be sufficient documentation proving your claim of your ancestor’s enslavement.
Regrettably, the 1870 brick wall encountered by many African American researchers and others is not considered sufficient evidence. Inability to go beyond the 1870 census where formerly enslaved ancestors were now included on records by name does not automatically relegate them into a system of forced servitude. So how might you prove those oral histories passed from generation to generation as fact for the purpose of membership to collectively honor enslaved ancestors? What types of record collections should you search and where do you find them? Assuming you have made it as far as 1870 and you cannot locate your African American ancestor in 1860, you will want to consider these research avenues.
Wills, Probate, and Estate Records
When my ancestor’s enslaver died in 1857, probate of his estate was recorded which included the names and values of all his human chattel property. My fourth great-grandfather, Phillip Branch and his son, Alexander Branch and forty-five others were named.
Historical newspapers can reveal all sorts of detail about slave-era society and often name individuals well before 1870. Ads for runaways, trustee’s sales and more can easily provide the needed evidence of an ancestor’s enslavement.
Military Records and Pension Files
If your ancestor served during the Civil War or any previous conflict during America’s slave era, military records and pension files can reveal a wealth of information regarding their place of residence as well as information on prior enslavers.
Freedmen’s Bureau Records
The Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for managing matters related to freedman, refugees and lands seized or abandoned during the Civil War. This record collection includes numerous labor contracts, hospital records, bank records, complaints, and letters as well as reports of abandoned land and more.
The four suggestions above are important starting points, but certainly not the only areas you will want to pursue. Some of these additional collection types will vary widely from state-to-state:
- Slave Certificates
- Slave Narratives
- Slave Manifests
- Slave Voyage Databases
- Emancipation Records
- Insurance Policy Records
Many of these varied records are digitized and even indexed and searchable online at major genealogy websites and elsewhere. Others, however, are still held only in their original formats at libraries, state archives, university special collections, local historical societies, and in the private hands of descendants. Those in this latter group can sometimes take more effort to access.
Then there is the hard truth. Many records were destroyed from war-era conflict and courthouse fires—along with the records you needed in them. If you are passionate about restoring dignity and humanity to your enslaved ancestors and honoring their legacy, do not lose hope. Many record sets have yet to be digitized and transcribed, so if you check today and are unable to find them, look again tomorrow.
For additional details on the Sons and Daughters of the U.S. Middle Passage, see https://sdusmp.org/.
If you need help finding or discovering your family history, or would like help extending your family lines, let Legacy Tree Genealogists provide the research. Contact us today for a free quote.