Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Limitation of Conducting Slave Era Research Online

There is a current trend that I am seeing on many forums related to slave era research that by only examining vital records, U.S. census and slave schedules that one will be able to identify the slave holding family. Sites like ancestry, footnote, heritage quest, familysearch and others have greatly assisted researchers in having access to various federal and vital records. However, census and vital records can only provide an outline to the lives of our ancestors. Census records are secondary sources, so one must be cautious in taking them as proof regarding age, relationship, place of birth etc. And since the slave schedules only provide age/sex description it is an unreliable document to verify ownership or the identity of individuals. Dee Parmer-Woodtor suggested that the slave schedules may not be entirely accurate as they relate to the number of enslaved individuals a owner may have as well as to their description.

Whereas other records - deeds, court, military service, church and other records can provide a much more in-depth view into the lives of our ancestors. These records should be examined in the post-slavery period first before conducting slave era research. Often they will provide clues to the last slave holding families. For example, a good friend of mine, Reclaiming Kin, discovered a court case in which her ancestors gave a disposition in 1870. The case involved the daughter and brother of the slave owner in which both parties were fighting over the estate. This case began in 1854. The court case included the will, inventory of the personal property (slaves), description of the plantation, etc. This provided my friend with an wealth of information about her enslaved ancestors during slavery and the first few years after slavery.

County records can also provide clues to the surname of the last slave holding family. In 1873, my ggg grandfather Andrew (Andy) Perkins was charged with assault with the intent to murder in Leon County, Texas. Two individuals Joseph A. Evans and Alexander Reed, post a $350.00 surety bond on his behalf. These two individuals also accompanied his to the trial. After researching these two individuals to determine their relationship to Andy Perkins, I discovered that Joseph Evans was the son of Edward Evans, the last slave owner of Andy Perkins. Without examining this record and then doing research on the individuals, I would have never been able to discover the surname of the last slave owner.

Vital records such as marriage records, sometime list witnesses. Usually these witnesses are either family members or friends of the family. And in some cases, they are members of the slave holding family. This was the case when Lucy Dashiell married William Logwood in San Antonio, Texas in 1867. The daughters of a prominent businessman and former slave owner Jeremiah Dashiell, were listed as witnesses on Lucy and William's marriage certificate.

The above examples show that relationships between the former enslaved and the slave holding families continued after slavery. And by examining county records in the post slavery period clues were provided in assisting to identifying the last documented slave holding family.

And once you have completed the post-slavery research and start slave era research, the vast majority of records you will consult will not be online or indexed. These records are usually housed at the county courthouses, state archives and libraries, national archives and other repositories including private collections. Some of the essential records are as followed:

1) Conveyance or deed records
2) Church affiliation records
3) Military service
4) Tax entries
5) Freedman Bureau Records
6) Land ownership (plat map and/or legal description)
7) Personal papers (account books, slave list, diaries, etc.)
8) Estate papers

Some of these records (although very few) may be transcribed and placed online but how does one know if the transcription is correct? Or where the information was acquired? Relying solely on online sources for conducting slave era research will limit one's ability to truly identify and confirm the last slave holding family of one's ancestor.

The internet must be used only as a tool to assist us toward locating and narrowing our search at the state and county levels. It should never be used as a primary vehicle for doing genealogy or slave era research.


  1. I love this, it is so insightful and soulful. To reach beyond yourself in search of self is empowering. Know thyself is what I see in this blog. This gave me inspiration to find out about my people - thank you. Thank you for doing work that many ignore.

    Love ya

  2. I'd like to co-sign on your observation regarding marriage records/licenses. In Mississippi, my state of research, I noticed that the same individual signed on as the bondsman for several Colored marriages in Wilkinson County. I may now have a lead on who could have been the last possible slave owner or at least a planter in that part of the county. Thanks!

  3. thank you so much for sharing this information! i'm hoping to take a research road trip in July of 2014, and your post gives me good information on what records to consider looking at beforehand. thank you again for your post!