The joy of researching your family history is a goal profusely sought by many. Data from some of the largest genealogy providers underscore the popularity of the pastime.

Ancestry has more than 3 million paying subscribers and FamilySearch recently reported more than 3.5 million people contributed information to the FamilySearch Family Tree in 2019. But one group systematically faces more roadblocks than others when trying to uncover their past.

African-Americans are not always able to easily trace back more than a few generations, thanks to what author Kenyatta D. Berry calls the “1870 brick wall.” Prior to emancipation, enslaved individuals were not systematically enumerated in the US federal census by name. The first census to do so was the 1870 US census, as it was the first one to take place after the Civil War.

“If your ancestors were listed in the 1860 U.S. Census, they were more than likely free people of color. If they are not listed in the 1860 Census, then they were enslaved,” said Berry, host of Genealogy Roadshow. “The key to slave ancestral research,” she says, “is finding the last owner.”

Here are some tips for researching African American heritage into the years before emancipation:

Start from the present and work backwards

Before digging into records, start with phone calls to and conversations with your relatives, especially the elder generations. Get first and last names for every family member you can, plus information like where they were born and which cities, if any, they moved to. Ask them to share information they may know or have heard about their grandparents and ancestors. If possible, record what they are sharing with you – whether by taking notes or recording it so that you can revisit the information later. For a lot of people, surnames tell us a lot about who we are, including where we came from. That’s not always the case for people who have enslaved ancestors since the surnames used were often in flux –  surnames were created from scratch as an act of newly-established independence, were taken on from former enslavers, or came about for other reasons. So the subject of surnames of formerly enslaved individuals is complex

Compile the information you’ve gathered into a family tree and then you can start digging into some vital records.

Research vital records

Documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, are usually filled with biographical details that aid in reconstructing family trees. Names of parents, dates & locations of births, names of close family members – these are just some of the tidbits that can be gleaned from vital records and can be used to verify a lot of the information provided to you during phone calls to older relatives who may have gaps in their memory. A limitation of vital records lies in the fact that most states did not routinely require residents to register births, marriages, and deaths until the early 20th century, well after the time of emancipation.

Search the Freedmen’s Bureau records

Researching vital records can lead to uncovering the surname for emancipated relatives. This is really important information because it means you may be able to locate ancestors in records maintained by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. The Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records are an enormous trove of data that documented in great detail the transition from slavery to freedmen in post-Civil War America. The records document the work of the Bureau from 1865 through 1872, but includes information that dates back prior to the establishment of the Bureau. You’ll find information like full names, names of former slaveholders and their plantations, labor contracts, census reports, marriage, and medical records. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of FamilySearch International, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the California African American Museum, and thousands of hours from indexing volunteers, many of the Freedmen Bureau records are searchable and accessible via the website for a project called #DiscoverFreedmen.

Copies of bureau field office records are also saved on microfilm and can be viewed at the National Archives Building in Washington DC, plus regional archives in several states; rolls of microfilm can be ordered for a fee. There is a helpful, downloadable brochure here.

Research slave-holding families

Enslaved individuals were considered property and it was fairly common for slaveholders to deed, will, and/or rent enslaved individuals to other family members. Developing a thorough understanding of a slaveholder’s family tree will help you better research their record for possible details of the individuals they enslaved. According to Berry, the exchange of slaves between family members was sometimes documented in wills and other types of estate papers.  Additional records to consult include tax records, deeds, bills of sale, and more. These records can be found in libraries and courthouses in the regions where your ancestors resided. Consulting the 1860 and 1850 US Slave Schedules – listings of slaveholders with indications of the numbers, age, sex, and race of the individuals they enslaved. While in most cases the enslaved were not listed by name, close analysis of the listings may yield clues into family structures and relationships.

Researching enslaved family members, while often challenging, is not impossible. Admittedly, the search may be more exhaustive than you may initially have considered; yet, with determination, perseverance, and consultation with experts in the field, you may uncover details that help enrich the understanding of your family’s past.


For more tips on researching your African American roots, we suggest consulting Kenyatta Berry’s book, The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Research Genealogy.