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Brief History of Slavery in America

Slave market, built in 1762, in Newport, Rhode Island, now home to the Museum of Newport History.
Nearly 75 percent of people who arrived in America from Europe and Africa before 1776 were immigrants in bondage. Those from Africa almost always arrived enslaved. Those from Europe were often convicts, indentured servant apprentices, or became indentured servants to pay for the cost of their ocean crossing. In colonial times indentured servitude as an apprentice was considered the normal way to learn a trade (part of growing up), or a normal option for paying a large debt.[1]

In 1619 a Dutch ship blown off course came looking for fresh water near Jamestown, Virginia. At Jamestown the Dutch sold 20 of the African slaves they had captured from a Spanish ship originally bound for Mexico. These were the earliest known African immigrants to arrive in what is now the United States. It was the custom of that time to free servant-slaves after seven years.[2][3]

Caribbean and Brazilian plantations (95 percent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade) usually grew sugar and few slaves survived there for seven years. In America (five percent of the slave trade) slaves lived longer and had children. In the thirteen British-American colonies a milder climate and better working conditions growing tobacco, cotton, hemp, and indigo allowed slaves to live long enough to be freed. But the institution of lifetime chattel slavery applied to people of African descent was slowly accepted and developed when owners were reluctant to free such valuable labor to compete with their former owners. This form of slavery was formally legalized first in British-America in 1654.[4]

All 13 British-American colonies participated in the slave trade before 1780. In the 1750s a slavery abolitionist movement began and grew stronger. Vermont was the first to abolish slavery in 1777 and by 1804 all individual states north of the Mason-Dixon line had gradually ended slavery. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was a federal law that prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River. Slave labor works best when the assigned task is relatively simple, such as large scale agriculture. Slavery in increasingly industrialized America was becoming too expensive until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. A healthy young adult male slave was worth about two years wages, so most owners considered freeing slaves an economic hardship. The Constitution of the United States permitted the outlawing of the importation of slaves starting in 1808, but the internal slave trade continued until the end of the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited chattel slavery in 1865.[5]

American slavery was particularly hard on African American families. Owners were frequently forced by economics to sell off members of a slave's family. A few slave owners freed some or all of their slaves in the owner's will, but more often ownership of slaves was transferred to the owner's wife or children. In some cases, rather than free a slave as instructed in the owner's will, the slave was sold to help pay debts. A few slave owners allowed their slaves to earn money and purchase their family members or their own freedom. Slave marriages were usually not recorded by civil authorities until after the Civil War in Freedmen's Bureau records. However, occasionally slave marriages are in the plantation, or owner family Bible records.

Slave Records

Receipt for $500.00 payment for a slave.
Example plantation record listing slave birth and death dates.
Finding an African American ancestor who was enslaved almost always means finding the records of the family that owned him or her.

Study the life and records of the slave owner and his family. Your ancestor’s life was inseparably connected with the slave owner. Your ancestor may be listed in records of the slave owner’s property:

  • Tax records. These list slaves and their monetary value.
  • Land and property records. Search for information about deeds, sales, mortgages, or rental transactions of slaves.
  • Probate, estate, and chancery court records These show the distribution of slaves at the death of a slave owner.
  • Plantation records. Account log books give the names of slaves, family relationships, and their assigned tasks. Some records give the slaves’ birth and death dates. They also record when a slave was bought, from whom, and for how much. Most plantation records would be in the hands of the plantation family descendants, or at county or state archives or libraries.

Finding Plantation Records

A few plantation records are listed in a set of user-guide books starting with the title Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War (Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1966). The records described in these user-guide booklets are a microfilm collection of manuscripts held in several major research libraries throughout the South. Parts of the papers from some plantations were once scattered by their donation to many libraries, and this collection now helps gather some of them in a single set. It offers access to selected material from Maryland to Texas in one source.[6] Viewing the user guides online requires Adobe® Acrobat® Reader. Also, a more recent series about slavery in Southern industries has been started.

Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations Collection or Repository[7] User Guide FHL First Film
Series A, Selections from the South Carolina Library. University of South Carolina
  • Part 1: The Papers of James Henry Hammond, 1795-1865
  • Part 2: Miscellaneous Collections

pdf1 pdf2

1534196 1534211

Series B, Selections from the South Carolina Historical Society pdf 1534237
Series C, Selections from the Library of Congress
  • Part 1: Virginia
  • Part 2: Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina

pdf1 pdf2

1534247 1534255

Series D, Selections from the Maryland Historical Society pdf 1534260
Series E, Selections from the University of Virginia Library
  • Part 1: Virginia Plantations
  • Part 3: Virginia Plantations
  • Part 4: Cooke Family Papers
  • Part 5: Ambler Family Papers
  • Part 6: Virginia Plantations

pdf1 pdf2 pdf3 pdf4 pdf5 pdf6

1534274 1534313 1548744 2230021 2230087 2330105

Series F, Selections from the Duke University Library
  • Part 1: The Deep South
  • Part 2: South Carolina and Georgia
  • Part 3: North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia
  • Part 4: North Carolina and Virginia Plantations
  • Part 5: William Patterson Smith Collections

pdf1 pdf2 pdf3 pdf4 pdf5

1549774 1549797 1549813 2230145 2230170

Series G, Selections from the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin
  • Part 1: Texas and Louisiana Collections
  • Part 2: William Massie Collection
  • Part 3: Bank of the State of Mississippi Records, 1804-1846
  • Part 4: Winchester Family Papers, 1783-1906
  • Part 5: Other Plantation Collections

pdf1 pdf2 pdf3 pdf4 pdf5

1549858 1549902 2230190 2330208 2230235

Series H, Selections from the Howard-Tilton Library, Tulane University, and the Louisiana State Museum Archives pdf 1672269
Series I, Selections from Louisiana State University
  • Part 1: Louisiana Sugar Plantations
  • Part 2: Louisiana and Miscellaneous Southern Cotton Plantations
  • Part 3: The Natchez Area
  • Part 4: Barrow, Bisland, Bowman and Other Collections
  • Part 5: Butler Family Collections
  • Part 6: David Weeks and Family Collections

pdf1 pdf2 pdf3 pdf4 pdf5 pdf6

1672254 1672317 1672299 2330278 2230316 2230343

Series J, Selections from the Southern Historical Collections, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 
  • Part 1: The Cameron Family Papers
  • Part 2: The Pettigrew Family Papers
  • Part 3: South Carolina
  • Part 4: Georgia and Florida
  • Part 5: Louisiana
  • Part 6: Mississippi and Arkansas
  • Part 7: Alabama
  • Part 8: Tennessee and Kentucky
  • Part 9: Virginia
  • Part 10: Hubard Family Papers, 1741-1865
  • Part 11: Hairston and Wilson Families
  • Part 12: Tidewater and Coastal Plains North Carolina
  • Part 13: Piedmont North Carolina
  • Part 14: Western North Carolina

pdf1 pdf2 pdf3 pdf4 pdf5 pdf6 pdf7 pdf8 pdf9 pdf10 pdf11 pdf12 pdf13 pdf14

1672791 1672860 1730987 1730772 1731443 1760119 1760148 1760168 1760188 1843384 1841689 1843410 1843460 1843500

Series K, Selections from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library, The Shirley Plantation Collection, 1650-1888 pdf 1844005
Series L, Selections from the Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary
  • Part 1: Carter Papers, 1667-1882
  • Part 2: Jerdone Family Papers, 1736-1918
  • Part 3: Skipwith Family Papers, 1760-1977
  • Part 4: Austin-Twyman Papers, 1765-1865 and Charles Brown Papers, 1792-1888

[pdf1] [pdf2] [pdf3] [pdf4]

1844318 1844336 1844348 1844362

Series M, Selections from the Virginia Historical Society
  • Part 1: Tayloe Family, 1650-1970
  • Part 2: Northern Neck of Virginia; also Maryland
  • Part 3: Other Tidewater Virginia
  • Part 4: Central Piedmont Virginia
  • Part 5: Southside Virginia
  • Part 6: Northern Virginia and Valley

pdf1 pdf2 pdf3 pdf4 pdf5 pdf6

1985945 1986002 1986019 2230363 2330422 2230472

Series N, Selections from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History pdf 2230486
Slavery in Ante-Bellum Southern Industries Collection or Repository[8] User Guide FHL First Film
Series A, Selection from Duke University Library pdf 1841653
Series B, Selection from Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill pdf 1844031
Series C, Selections from the Virginia Historical Society
  • Part 1: Mining and Smelting Industries
  • Part 2: Railroad and Canal Construction Industries and Other Trades and Industries
pdf1 pdf2

[film] [film]

Series D, Selections from the University of Virginia Library
  • Part 1: Mining and Smelting Industries
pd1 [film]
Series E, Selections from the McCormick-International Harvester Collection [pdf] [film]
Indexes

Use the index by Jean L. Cooper, Genealogical Index to the Guides of the Microfilm Edition of Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War ([Bloomington, Ind.]: 1stBooks, ©2003)FHL 973 D22cj Book to identify each collection with material about a given family name (usually owner, sometimes slave) or plantation name, and locate microfilms of the papers with that family name, or plantation name. The items indexed include deeds, wills, estate papers, genealogies, personal and business correspondence, account books, and slave lists. These are indexed in six separate lists:[9]

  • Location (alphabetical by city or county)
  • Location (alphabetical by state)
  • Plantation name
  • Plantation name (alphabetical by state)
  • Surname
  • Surname (alphabetical by state)

To use the above indexes you need to know either the location (slave's home town), the name of his plantation, or the slave owner's name. This information is sometimes found in Freedman's Bank, or in Freedmen's Bureau records. Only about 15 percent of freed slaves used the family name of former owners.

For a competing index of the same ante-bellum plantation records see Marie Taylor, Family History Library Bibliography of African American Sources As of 1994 (Salt Lake City: U.S./Canada Reference, Family History Library, 2000)[FHL Ref Book 973 F23tm; Fiche 6002568]. This book is digitized and available online. It is alphabetical under the county or state where the plantation was located, the name of the plantation, or the name of the owner. It also cites many other sources beyond the ante-bellum plantation records.

For plantation records not found in the above set, search state and local historical societies, libraries, archives, museums, and

  • Sankofagen Wiki is a growing collection of free genealogical and historical data about American plantations, farms, factories, or manors that used African slave labor including slaves' names. Arranged by state, county, and plantation.

Registers of Slaves, Registers of Freedmen, and Manumission Papers

By the time of start of the Civil War in 1861 about ten percent of African Americans were free. Most free African Americans carried their own papers, but these could be stolen. In order to distinguish between slaves, runaways, and free African Americans, many counties or states in the upper South, and border states kept one or more sets of registers or papers. Some had registers of slaves. Some kept registers of blacks, freedmen, "free men of color," or "free negroes." Some kept copies of manumission papers of people freed from enslavement. To find these kinds of registers or papers look in county courthouse records. They are most likely found in the court papers, or among the land and property deeds, or occasionally in probate records, or even with taxation records. Sometimes these kinds of records are found at state libraries, archives, or historical societies.

Slave Trade Registers

The Constitution allowed the outlawing of the importation of slaves to the United States after 1808. Between then and the Civil War the internal slave trade became an important business in the Southern United States. Most states regulated the slave trade. A few kept records of slave traders and their businesses. Look for such business registers at state libraries, archives, historical societies, or county courthouses.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Internet site contains references to 35,000 slave voyages, including over 67,000 Africans aboard slave ships, using name, age, gender, origin, and place of embarkation. The database is about the slave trade between Africa, Europe, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States.

Online Resources

Slaves and Slavery Resources

Other Sources

  • Beginning United States Civil War Research gives steps for finding information about a Civil War soldier. It covers the major records that should be used. Additional records are described in ‘Louisiana in the Civil War’ and ‘United States Civil War, 1861 to 1865’ (see below).
  • National Park Service, The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, is searchable by soldier's name and state. It contains basic facts about soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, a list of regiments, descriptions of significant battles, sources of the information, and suggestions for where to find additional information.
  • Louisiana in the Civil War describes many Confederate and Union sources, specifically for Louisiana, and how to find them.. These include compiled service records, pension records, rosters, cemetery records, Internet databases, published books, etc.
  • United States Civil War, 1861 to 1865 describes and explains United States and Confederate States records, rather than state records, and how to find them. These include veterans’ censuses, compiled service records, pension records, rosters, cemetery records, Internet databases, published books, etc.

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