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Subject: [Melungeon] The Transition from Slavery to Freedom
Date: Sat, 27 Oct 2001 16:48:07 EDT

The Transition from Slavery to Freedom

– David Thackery At the time of the Civil War, the vast majority of African
Americans were, of course, slaves. As such, they had no legal rights and
could not even claim a legally recognized state of matrimony. Although
records generated after emancipation can be very revealing, genealogically
useful records documenting slave families that were contemporary to slavery
are usually records, both private and public, concerned primarily with slave
owners. The researcher of slave genealogy, therefore, must know the identity
of a slave's owner in order to research the slave. Slave-owning
families—their migrations, births, deaths, and marital alliances—must
therefore be the focus of research before any success can be achieved in
tracing the lives of their slaves. The search for the last slaveowner prior
to emancipation then becomes the most important task. A common supposition is
that emancipated slaves assumed the surnames of their last owners. If this
had been the case in all instances, this critical stage of slave genealogy
would be a less difficult one than it generally is; however, the truth is
more complex, making research more problematic. Although there were many
instances when the common assumption held true, there is ample evidence for
slaves maintaining their own surname traditions, regardless of who their
owners might have been. Following emancipation, a slave did not necessarily
assume a surname, but instead may have taken a name that had been in his or
her family for several generations. A different surname than that of the last
owner could, for example, be that of the owner of a grandparent, so such a
name might be a valuable clue for future research. More studies are still
needed, but it is possible that there were regional patterns in this regard.
For example, a study of a West Virginia county found no instances of
ex-slaves with the surnames of their final owners,2 while studies of Texas
and South Carolina freed people indicate that approximately a quarter to one
third had the surnames of their last owners.3 The signature books of the
Freedman's Savings and Trust also provide evidence of the often confusing and
unpredictable reality behind the surnames of ex-slaves. For example, one
record from the Vicksburg, Mississippi branch names the parents of one Jesse
Taylor as Robert and Nancy Page. A brother is listed as Simpson Roberts.4 The
complex nature of the "surname problem" should be kept in mind as the sources
for African American genealogy are considered. African Americans in the
Federal Censuses
African Americans were enumerated in the census as all other U.S. residents
from 1870 (the first census year following the Civil War and emancipation)
onward. Prior to 1870, however, the situation was far different. Although
free African Americans were enumerated by name in 1850 and 1860, slaves were
consigned to special, far less informative, schedules in which they were
listed anonymously under the names of their owners. The only personal
information provided was usually that of age, gender, and racial identity
(either black or mulatto). As in the free schedules, there was a column in
which certain physical or mental infirmities could be noted. In some
instances, the census takers noted an occupation, usually carpenter or
blacksmith, in this column. Slaves aged 100 years or more were given special
treatment; their names were noted, and sometimes a short biographical sketch
was included. In at least one instance, that of 1860 Hampshire County,
Virginia, the names of all slaves were included on the schedules, but this
happy exception may be the only instance when the instructions were not
followed. Sometimes the listings for large slaveholdings appear to take the
form of family groupings, but in most cases slaves are listed from eldest to
youngest with no apparent effort to portray family structure. In any event,
the slave schedules themselves almost never provide conclusive evidence for
the presence of a specific slave in the household or plantation of a
particular slaveowner. At best, a census slave schedule can provide
supporting evidence for a hypothesis derived from other sources.5 Prior to
1850 there were no special slave schedules for the manuscript census, as
slave data was recorded as part of the general population schedules. In
these, only the heads of household were enumerated by name. In the absence of
any contradictory information, it might be assumed that a family of freed
people enumerated in the 1870 census was living not far from its last owner,
whose surname they also bore. There would, of course, be reasons to dispute
both assumptions. (Knowledge of the Civil War history of a locality could
come into play here; for example, such relative stability would not have
existed in a Georgia county that was in the path of Sherman's march to the
sea.) Even so, this assumption represents one of the more obvious exploratory
lines of research, especially in the absence of any other options. The first
step in testing the hypothesis would be to search for slaveowners of the same
surname in the 1860 slave schedules of the county in which the African
American family resided in 1870. Starting in 1850, another supplemental
schedule, the mortality schedule, listed all deaths within a year before the
regular census enumeration.6 The deaths of blacks and mulattoes, both free
and slave, are recorded in them, even though their names have not been
included in many of the indexes to these schedules.7 The deaths of slaves
were generally enumerated in four fashions: unnamed (as in the slave
schedules), but perhaps with the owner identified; by first name only; by
first name and surname; and by first name with the owner noted. Notes
1. See Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925
(New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1976), 230-56.
2. David T. Thackery, "Crossing the Divide: A Census Study of Slaves Before
and After Freedom," Origins (Newberry Library) 2 (March 1989).
3. Gutman, 245.
4. Freedman's Savings and Trust Signature Books (National Archives Microfilm
Publication M816). Vicksburg, Mississippi, branch, record no. 1288.
5. The use of the slave schedules as supporting documentation is amply
demonstrated in David H. Streets, Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case
Studies (Bowie, MD: Heritage, 1986), although, not surprisingly, their use is
confined to small slaveholdings.
6. See Loretto Dennis Szucs, "Research in Census Records" in The Source: A
Guidebook of American Genealogy, Rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry,
7. A notable exception is found in Jonnie B. Arnold, Index to 1860 Mortality
Schedule of South Carolina (Greenville, SC: the author, 1982). On the other
hand, many of the indexes appearing on the National Archives microfilm
publications of these schedules, as well as those published by Accelerated
Indexing, should be treated with caution. About the Author
Noted genealogist David T. Thackery passed away on 17 July 1998 at the age of
45. A native of Urbana, Ohio, David had a life-long passion for history and
research. As head of the local and family history department in Chicago's
Newberry Library, David dramatically expanded the library's services and
collections in the area of family history, developing one of the nation's
foremost genealogy collections. David was a prolific writer and
bibliographer, contributing articles to major genealogical publications and
compiling some of the best bibliographic sources available for African
American researchers. Editor's Note: This article was excerpted from Finding
Your African American Ancestors, by David Thackery. Other sources covered in
the book include: probate records; deeds and other local records; plantation
records; other records of slave births and deaths; runaway slaves; The Bureau
of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; The Freedman's Savings and Trust;
and military records. Also included are case studies, a selection of slave
narratives from a variety of states, bibliographic information, and an
extensive listing of additional resources for African American research. <A HREF="">;
Finding Your African American Ancestors</A>, by David Thackery, is available from
The Shops @ for only $9.95.

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