How to Find Slaves and Slave Owners
One helpful record for individuals interested in tracing their enslaved African American ancestors is the U.S. federal census slave schedule. These schedules, completed in 1850 and 1860 along with the regular population census, list slave owners by name, with a statistical count of their slaves. Slave schedules were generally used in the Southern slave-holding states and the records still exist for Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.
What to Expect
Slaves themselves were rarely enumerated by name—identified instead by race (“black” or “mulatto”), age and gender—which can make it difficult to identify an ancestor in these lists without correlating the information with other records. Each slave owner was also asked about slaves fugitive from the state (not yet captured or returned), the number of slaves manumitted or freed during the year, and whether any slaves were deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic. If a slave was imprisoned, it was noted along with the conviction date. The 1860 slave schedule added a question about the number of slave houses.
There are a few exceptions to slaves not being identified in the slave schedules by name. Slaves over the age of 100 were generally recorded by given name. There were also a few counties that listed slaves by name; examples include 1850 Utah County, Utah; Bowie County, Texas; and Scott County, Tennessee; as well as 1860 Hampshire County, Virginia; Boyd County, Kentucky; Washington County, Tennessee; and the 2nd Ward in the City of St. Louis, Missouri.
Slave Schedule Research Strategies:
- Begin by identifying the former slave(s) in the 1870 census, as well as white property owners living nearby.
- Next examine the 1860 population census and slave schedules for the county in which the individuals were living in 1870. Are there any white slave-holding families with the same or similar (e.g. Ihly / Early) surname? Look at their slaves first.
- If you don’t find candidates with the same surname as your family look at next at slave owners on the 1860 population census and slave schedules who lived near your ancestors in 1870. Family units are easier to identify than individuals—if the enslaved children were young enough you will likely find them on the same farm or plantation as their mother. The father, or older children, might be living elsewhere, however.
- If neither of the two prior strategies identify any likely candidates it is possible that either the newly freed individuals or the slaveholding family moved away from the area following the Civil War. Consider expanding your search.
- Compare the number of slaves owned by a slaveholder in 1850 and 1860 to determine whether the owner acquired or lost slaves between the two census years. If so, a record may exist (e.g. probate court, deed, etc.) which details the transaction(s) or, possibly, the death of a slave (e.g. mortality schedule).
- Correlate 1850 and 1860 slave schedules with the 1850 and 1860 mortality schedules to find named slaves identified with a particular owner.
- Are slaves for a particular owner named in descending order by age? If not, consider that they may be grouped by family.
- Approach answers to age and color (black or mulatto) with an open mind, as many slaves and their owners did not know their true age, and skin color may have been open to interpretation by the enumerator.
Where to Access US Census Slave Schedules