I found the ship my slave ancestors were on. What now?


Dear Professor Gates:
I would like help finding the parents of my slave ancestors Edward Wright and Adeline Boston (or Benett, we think). Both of them, my third great-grandparents, were shipped to Savannah, Ga., on separate dates on a ship called the Calhoun.
Edward Wright was born in Essex County, Va., circa 1836 and died circa 1887 in Savannah, Ga. A slave, he was shipped from Charleston, S.C., by his owner, Howell W. Hollister, on Nov. 27, 1851. His wife, Adeline, was born in Rockingham, N.C., circa 1829 and was shipped from Charleston on the Calhoun on July 24, 1854, by the same owner.
Edward and Adeline’s children, who were all born in Savannah, were Sarah, born circa 1855; Emily (Emma), born April 1858, died October 1904; and Clifford, born circa 1862. Clifford was female.
We’d like to learn about Edward’s and Adeline’s parents in Virginia and North Carolina. Who were they? —Dori L. Brown

It appears that your third great-grandparents were brought to Savannah during what is known as the second Middle Passage inside the United States between the end of the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War. As covered in the 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro column, several hundred thousand enslaved African Americans were relocated during the domestic slave trade.

As for learning more about them, we’re impressed with the amount of information you have already gathered, given that locating information about enslaved African Americans is always challenging. For instance, you already know the name of the ship that transported your ancestors to Savannah. If you hadn’t, you could have checked the shipping-news columns of contemporary local newspapers, as the historian David Eltis suggested in an email when we consulted him about your query.

We did dig up a few more leads that can help you find Edward’s and Adeline’s parents; in addition, we found some resources that can help many who are seeking answers about their enslaved ancestors in Virginia and North Carolina.

Checking Freedman’s Bank Records

It appears that you may have already checked the Freedman’s Bank Records for documents related to Edward Wright and his family. The Freedman’s Savings Bank, which was established to assist emancipated African Americans after the Civil War ended, was in operation between 1865 and 1874. These records are available online through Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.

Among these records are applications for Edward Wright, husband of Adeline, and their daughter Sarah Wright. Edward Wright’s application is dated Dec. 31, 1866, and is application No. 299. The name of his “master” is H.W. Hollister, and his place of birth is listed as Essex County, Va. His children Sarah, Clifford and Emily are listed on his application, and it is also noted that his occupation was saddler. The application also includes a line for the names of an applicant’s parents, although it is left blank on his application. Edward’s daughter Sarah Wright’s application is also dated Dec. 31, 1866, and the application number is 298. It is noted that she was 11 years of age when the application was filed, and her birthplace was Savannah.

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