Information available to help in African American Genealogy Research prior to 1870.

I am in a “not so good mood” because of something I read today on another blog. So I will make this a short response. It is not a good to tell people that there are “no records” if you are doing African American research prior to 1870. It is also not good to tell African Americans basically the only way you can research your ancestors before 1870 is to use DNA. This is not true. Now I enjoy dealing with DNA, but the genealogical research (paper trail) is the love. It’s the challenge and I do not have to take a test to prove I am related to someone else. We should know by now, if you chose to accept the history of slavery in this country. We understand how this all worked. I am not trying to prove anything to anyone. But as a teacher and one to share what I know…I could not let this go, regardless of your intent to “help” African Americans out in finding our ancestors. It is what you said prior too, which now just deletes everything else you might of said later in your blog. The point is now moot when you set the stage right out the gate. We, as researchers are not stupid. Please do not help African Americans at the same time you are putting us down.

So let’s think about what is available for you, as an African American seeking your ancestors prior to 1870. I will simply make a list and be happy about it. Murphy’s tips is to always follow the “money, land, water, the community and the faith of the people”. Folks that have been in my classes you know this and heard it 100+ times. You will find something. Here is just a few sources of information I can think of off the top of my head, it is by no way an exhausted list:

  1. Bureau of Refugees and Freedmen and Abandon lands. (RG 105) Federal records collected at Field offices throughout the south right after the Civil War. (1865-1872, (labor contracts, marriages, letters, rations and transportation information and more)
  2. Wills, yes, Wills cover a lot of things and have lots of information within them. If your ancestor was previously enslaved, they might of been sold to settle the estate of the deceased. Or maybe they were gifted to a relative after the death. If there were free, where were they and what were they doing.
  3. Look at the 1870 Census, the Federal Population and “other schedules”, if they make it to 1870, you already are aware they were alive prior to 1870. So to the site and see what other schedules are available during the time you are researching. Sometimes you will have to jump to 1880 census to find information to help resolve something that happened in 1870 and prior to 1870.
  4. View any vital statistic records-birth, death, and marriages (also the Bureau)
  5. Research everyone in the household in 1870, if free, don’t forgot the 1860 and prior census. Research all of the children, pull their death and marriage records and see if there is any information about their parents. Who were the neighbors…is family near?
  6. If your ancestor was enslaved, be mindful, you have to research the Slave Owner. Locate the property, the farm or plantation, they have files like inventories of their property, bill of sales, property taxes, personal property taxes, labor contracts, letters, bibles, oral history, and possible descendants. Property, yes, locate where the equipment and animals are at-you will find your people there if they were enslaved.
  7. Do not be afraid to seek out the Slave Owner family descendants. They might be willing to share information. If not, research them just as if they were your family and they might really be your family. Please do not be scared, we are not asking them for anything that will change who they are. We just want information about our family members. Is there any published articles or books about the Slave Owners? What is the community history? Check out the libraries, universities, and historical societies, etc. “Go local” to the community where they lived. Check out the communities around them as well.
  8. Do you know if you ancestor served in at the military? Where they free or enslaved? Where they a USCT, body servant, a cook, etc. Seek out military records.
  9. African Americans do have names prior to 1870. Look at the Slave owners records, see if there are any court cases involving the slave owner, land or chancery records?
  10. African Americans are listed on records prior to 1870. Follow the $$$$$$$
  11. There is context before emancipation in the 1860s and the first census in 1870. There is a myth about 1870, yes, we will see names of our formerly enslaved ancestors, but “Massa” has them listed in his records by names. Slave owners counted each baby born and each baby that died. Know the law! $$$$
  12. Researchers do have an idea where to look for records-there is so much teaching going on. Folks can attend MAAGI ( or tune in to BlackProGen Live on youtube (, read the blogs, join genealogy groups and historical societies.
  13. African Americans will have to see the White American records to assist in the research-why? The Whites 1. created the laws and 2. they created the records. If my ancestor was enslaved, I will go to where they were enslaved at. Find the enslaver and they records.
  14. Get a genealogy buddy to work with. Read, Listen to the webinars, join the Facebook genealogy groups, if your county or state is not listed, you should start one.
  15. Know that if you build it, they will come. Listen to the whispers. Your ancestors will guide you to them.

Know your roots, they are long and strong!

Thank you, familytreegirl!

About familytreegirl

Shelley Murphy, aka “familytreegirl”, a native of Michigan residing in Central Virginia, Shelley has been an avid genealogist for over 25+ years researching the Davis, Marsh, Goens/Goins/Goings, Roper, Boyer, Worden, Cureton, and Murphy family lines. She is a Coordinator and faculty for the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute (MAAGI), presents Genealogy 101 workshops at the local community college, state and national genealogy conferences. She holds a Doctorate of Management in Organizational Leadership and works as an adjunct professor for Averett University. Murphy is known for her inspiring and interactive “Getting Started” Methods and Strategies for genealogy research, “Time and File management” along with interesting problem-solving methodology lectures. Shelley currently has 20+ publications with Charlottesville Genealogy Examiner and the Central Virginia Heritage, a publication of the Central Virginia Genealogical Association. She is an instructor for the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute (MAAGI). Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership, Adjunct Professor, Professional Genealogist. Volunteers for American Red Cross as a Disaster Services Instructor, facilitates financial education workshops for the last 8 years, and former licensed Real Estate Broker
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8 Responses to Information available to help in African American Genealogy Research prior to 1870.

  1. Trisha says:

    Yesterday was an emotional day for me as well because of the first sentence of that blog post. I have been researching my African American ancestry for almost 10 years now. My family has lived in Arkansas since the late 1700s. In the beginning of my research, I knew some of their names but was intimated to start researching because I didn’t think I would find anything. At the time I only had Alex Haley’s research as a model, but my family didn’t have an oral history like his. But I decided to start researching how to research African American ancestry by reading books like Black Roots by Tony Borroughs. I joined AAHGS so I can be around like minded genealogists like yourself that I could learn from. My love of African American history blended with my passion for genealogy, helped me to learn how to find records of my ancestors. Since then I have been able to trace my ancestors and their slave holder back to 1740 Virginia, and I have been accepted into a lineage society dedicated to honoring enslaved ancestors, the Sons and Daughters of the US Middle Passage.
    I started my blog to encourage people of all the possibilities of researching genealogy. African American history is complicated to say the least. But when people make statements about us having no records, names, or context prior to the emancipation is completely outrageous. And I will continue to use my voice to correct them and let them know that we do have records, names, context, and lives throughout the history of this country. I will continue to share my stories of how I am researching my African American ancestry with the hope that I can encourage someone or help someone learn some information. Thank you for your dedication to our genealogy community.

  2. Eilene Lyon says:

    Thanks for sharing all these great resources. The March NGS quarterly had an excellent article that put such records to use.

  3. kristin says:

    I read that too and it irritated me no end. I have also solved mysteries with newspaper articles and obituaries. Not to mention oral history, both from my branch of the family and cousins stories. I have never soved a DNA match without a paper trail.

  4. g johns says:

    Great lists, places, directions to look into for everyone!
    Thank you !

  5. This is a great list of resources…I’m going to add it to my personal toolbox and to the one on the library site that I maintain (I’m also the library’s genealogy tutor)…and I’m so sorry about that other blogger. I don’t know the post in question, but even that line you mentioned proves how ignorant they are.

  6. nada62 says:

    Way to go, Shelley! We’re all in this, together, and we know what is and isn’t. Continue the work. Let’s keep on keeping on!


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