How do I find descendants of my ancestor’s slaves?

Tracing Your Roots: If only there were an online database to match the progeny of slave owners and the enslaved.

BY: HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. AND MEAGHAN SIEKMAN, NEHGS RESEARCHER

Dear Professor Gates:
Through wills and census reports found during family research, I have discovered a couple sets of ancestors who owned slaves. Although most of the documents note slaves only by age and gender, I have come across three names: Sam, Dinah and Sutton, who were owned by James W. Hampton Sr. in Virginia around 1774.
I am hoping to find a database somewhere that helps match up slaveholders and the people they held. Do you know where I can upload documents and other identifying information that could help people track down any of their enslaved ancestors? I know it’s a long shot, considering all the gaps in the record, but maybe someone is looking for Sam, Sutton or Dinah. —Carrie Bowers

Oh, we wish it were that easy! To the best of our knowledge, a singular database of slave owners in the United States that compiles information on slave owners and the enslaved does not exist. However, we applaud you for your desire to help people who may be searching for information about ancestors in bondage, and there are a variety of ways for you to share the information you located about Sam, Dinah and Sutton.

As you noted, finding their names was a stroke of good fortune. Even when slave schedules were added to the U.S. census in 1850 and 1860, most locales listed enslaved people under the names of their owner, identified only by race (“black” or “mulatto”), age and gender, though a few counties listed slaves by name, including Hampshire County, Va.

Databases and Lists

A great place to start is the Virginia Historical Society, which has a database called Unknown No Longer. This project has digitized a number of manuscripts and documents relating to African Americans in Virginia. The search option on the site allows you to locate documents in the digitized collection by first name, surname or occupation, as well as a number of other options, including owner’s surname, in the advanced search menu. The goal for this project is to create a database of the enslaved Virginians included in documents in their collection. There is a message board section of this website where you could post your information. You could also contact the project director to inquire about the possibility of including your information in this project.

Another great resource is Our Black Ancestry, which has a list of slave owners who owned a large amount of slaves in 10 Southern states. You can browse the slaveholders by surname. There is also aConnections section of the website that allows for individuals searching for information on their families to post the information they have along with their contact information. You could search this site to see if any individuals are already looking for information on the slaves owned by James W. Hampton Sr., and you could also submit the information you discovered on the site in hopes that it may prove useful to someone searching for their ancestors.

Another potentially useful resource is a Web page, Large Slaveholders of 1860 and African-American Surname Matches From 1870, which is hosted by Rootsweb and Ancestry.com. The goal of the site is to match up individuals found on the 1860 census with the slaveholders listed in the 1860 Census Slave Schedule in order to identify slaveholders on earlier census records. Though this is a later time period than the records you located for Sam, Dinah and Sutton, an index of slaveholders in 1860 may direct researchers to look for slaves in an individual’s household in earlier census records. If you have information on slave owners from around 1860 as well, you may want to check if your ancestor has been documented in this project.

Forums, Message Boards and Listservs

AfriGeneas has a number of forums, including one on slave research and another on surnames and family research, both of which are relevant places to post your findings. There are also message boards on Ancestry.com, including one specific to slave information. This particular message board is fairly active, so your post may be seen by a number of people. There is also a message board specific to African Americans in Virginia, which is another good place to post your information. Genforum is another website for genealogical message boards that has a topic section for African-American research that also gets a lot of traffic. The forums are searchable, so your entry would show up if someone searched for any individual names in your post.

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