News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 12, 2008

Genealogy: Searching for slave ancestors requires a strategy

By Tamie Dehler

TERRE HAUTE — Searching for a slave ancestor in the antebellum South involves finding and identifying the slave owner, but where to start? Although it can seem like a “needle in a haystack” kind of search, it can be approached logically and systematically.

One strategy is to locate your freed slave ancestor on the 1870 census. The chances are good that this family member stayed close to the home plantation after being freed.

Next, make a list of all the white families who own property on the 10 pages of the census before and the 10 pages after the page your freed ancestor appears on. These are potential slave owners. Go back to the 1860 census and look up these white families, checking the slave schedules to see if they owned slaves and if these slaves fit the age and gender categories of your ancestor.

For those who match, do more research on the white slave owner. Places to check are his tax records, land and property records (these can list sales or rentals of slaves), wills, probate, and estate records (these would list the distribution of a person’s slaves at his death), and plantation records (often list slaves by name, birth and death dates, family relationships, where and when bought or sold).

One resource of potential value is the Southern Claims Commission Records, 1871-1880, on microfilm series M0087, through the National Archives. These records list claims made by white individuals in the South who declared that their property was taken from them during the Civil War because they remained loyal to the Union. These names are indexed in a book titled “Southern Loyalists in the Civil War: the Southern Claims Commission,” by Gary B. Mills. The index lists the names of the claimants, their county and state of residence, the year and status of the claim, and links it to the commission, office, and report numbers that you will need to look the entire claim record up on the above microfilm. Case files of claimants can include information on slaves they held.

Another resource is “Antebellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War,” by the University Publications of America. These collections are listed by name of slave owner and the county and state in which he lived.

Your freed ancestor’s name and other vital information may be found in Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co., 1865-1874, located on National Archives microfilm roll M0816, Record Group 101. The information in this collection lists intimate information on those freedmen who participated in this banking program, including name, birthplace, residence, age, physical description, occupation, spouse’s name and other family members’ names (parents and siblings).

After the Freedman’s Savings and Trust closed, the Freedman’s Bureau tried to recover the lost money. Information from the field offices can be found in the National Archives, Record Group 105, and is titled “Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.” Part one of this group includes Alabama through Louisiana, part two includes Maryland through South Carolina, and part three includes Tennessee through Virginia, plus the records of the Field Offices of the Freedman’s Branch, Office of Adjutant General, 1872-1878.

See the following Web sites for information on these last two resources:;; and