I’ve had a few questions about connecting slaves and owners since my WMGS talk last month. This is not something I’m an expert in. But I am a good researcher in general so, my advice is to gather every bit of information you can on the former slave family.

  • Pay close attention to all of the locations associated with the family.
  • Look at any evidence of transactions you can—like land, produce, and labor.
  • Follow every side line—siblings, families that seem associated with the one you’re more interested in—African American or Caucasian.
  • Use the Slave Schedules to find possible owners based on age and sex—if you don’t have a better idea start where they were in 1870 but be aware that families sometimes moved with freedom sometimes only a county over and sometimes much farther.
  • Search Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress, Documenting the American South, or in Ancestry.com
  • Search the Freedman’s Bank Records through HeritageQuest.com (often accessible through local libraries)

Once you’ve got a few possibilities start researching the slaveholding families in just as much detail as you would your own. Look at land and probate records, and hunt down plantation records (these could be tucked away in university and state archives).

And if you don’t find that magical record that states clearly the connection between slave and owner, then, look for patterns. For my family that meant recognizing that you could plot the places where my ancestors appeared on a map and have it match up with a certain set of westward moving slave owners—so while I’m not certain which slaveholder was ours the odds are it’s one of a relatively small number of interconnected families.

Unless you are unbelievably lucky this will be time consuming and could take years to track down the right records. Be persistent, flexible, and thorough.

But don’t take my word for it. Track down these great resources for more detailed and expert help:

  • Burroughs, Tony. 2001. Black roots: a beginner’s guide to tracing the African American family tree. New York: Fireside Book.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. 2007. Finding Oprah’s roots: finding your own. New York: Crown Publishers.
  • Howell, Barbara Thompson. 1999. How to trace your African-American roots: discovering your unique history. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group.
  • Smith, Franklin Carter, and Emily Anne Croom. 2003. A genealogist’s guide to discovering your African-American ancestors: how to find and record your unique heritage. Cincinnati: Betterway Books.
  • Witcher, Curt Bryan. African American genealogy: a bibliography and guide to sources. Fort Wayne, Ind: Round Tower Books, 2000.

Happy hunting,


I’m pretty sure this site was brought to my attention in a presentation by Tony Burroughs at FGS2011.

One of the sites I recommended in my WMGS presentation on African American research was the Digital Library on American Slavery, a joint project between the Race and Slavery Petitions Project and the Electronic Resources and Information Technology Department of University Libraries at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is a searchable database of slaves and slave owners mentioned in petitions presented to legislatures across 15 southern states between 1775 and 1867. The material is searchable by Name (first or last), States, and keywords within the petitions.

I’ve searched a both slave names and owners and I have actually hit on the major landowners that I suspect owned members of my family—like John R. Hampton, who is listed as a defendant in an 1853 Bradley County petition. I tried searching for my 2nd Great Grandfather Sandy York in the hopes that “Sandy” was a rare enough name. As it happens it is relatively common but in the three pages of hits there was only one in the database for Arkansas. I really wanted him to be mine.  I mean… look at the information that came with this record!

Sandy in Arkansas Petition


A whole slave household with owner information and a long list of source documents related to the petition!

It could theoretically have been Sandy—who knows what last name a slave might have taken or been given—but when you have a lead (or, in this case, faint hope) make sure you follow that person out to determine their line and if it might actually overlap with yours.

This turned out to be Sandy Hopkins of Sevier County, AR who still lived in that county at the time of the 1870 Census when I know Sandy York was already settled in Bradley County. Don’t make the mistakes I have seen all over “the Internets”… really test out theories. Don’t just add whatever you find to your tree—study the information and try to verify it.

Oh and if you have any Hopkins relatives in Sevier County, AR, check out to this site soon.

Happy hunting,