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Researching African American genealogy can be challenging, particularly as you work through records from before the Civil War. The good news is that wonderful resources are becoming more accessible all the time.
If you are tracing African American ancestors in records after 1870, your research path looks like the research path of any United States-based family line. Begin with yourself and your immediate family. Work back using standard records, such as censuses and vital and land records.
The Transitional Period
For many people tracing African American genealogy, the period during and right after the Civil War is key. In 1860, nearly 4 million enslaved individuals lived in the United States, representing just under 13 percent of the population.
Here are some records to look for in this important period that can help you understand your ancestors’ lives and possibly help you locate the names of the slave owners so you can push their lines back further:
African American Genealogy Before the Civil War
Tracing enslaved ancestors prior to the Civil War often requires you to explore new types of records. Enslaved people were considered property and so were not included by name in most records before emancipation in 1863. Census records, which theoretically moved from only including heads of the households in 1840 to including every name starting in 1850, did not record the names of slaves. Even the slave schedules kept with the 1850 and 1860 censuses typically only include information on enslaved individuals by sex and age—although there are a few exceptions. Continue reading from FamilySearch