How Far Back Can You Go?

4 June 2012

Most of us know only the people who were/are living during our lifetimes. But how far back can we go?

1880 Census Card - LESLIE family

For most African Americans, it is absolutely possible to trace families back to 1870. That was the year of the first Federal census that recorded African Americans as people (rather than property), with surnames and families. Unless your ancestors were “in motion,” or not responsive to the census (for whatever reasons), their names will be on this census. Beyond this, recent developments in historic research have made it possible for many people to go all the way back to the arrival of their ancestors into America from Africa and/or the Caribbean.

But wait…. therein lies a major challenge. For African Americans, there is a big brick wall when it comes to names. None of us had European names when we arrived in America. Further, the name you now call your own may have been through some changes before it got to you. Officially, slaves were known only by first names. If there were an associated surname (family name), it would be that of the “master.” It was only at Emancipation that we were able to choose a surname that we and future generations would be known by. We chose all kinds of names. It could have been the name of the first slaveholder; the last slaveholder; someone whom we admired; the place we were born; a significant historical figure (i.e., Washington, Jefferson); even a name we just “fancied” because it sounded good. Many people changed the name that was recorded on the 1870 census to another name when they were enumerated in 1880.

We will talk more about census records later. Right now, what you need to know is that it is possible to get back past 1870, but it takes a lot of effort and many people will be disappointed. You can always take a shortcut if you have the money to hire a professional genealogist. But most of us can’t afford that. So, we just have to struggle along. Know that there are records and that more and more are being discovered and coming online every day.

Every researcher relies on standard public records likes birth, marriage and death certificates and military records. These records are useful for everyone. However, for African Americans, our information is often found in property records because, as slaves, that’s what we were. That means wills and deeds can be very important to us. Enslaved people were often used as collateral for loans and were passed on as inheritances when people died. Other records that are especially useful include slave schedules, Freedman’s Bank records and Southern Claims Commission records. The Freedman’s Bank was a savings bank and development program for newly emancipated slaves. The Southern Claims Commission was formed to make restitution to people who provided supplies to the Union army during the Civil War.

The lesson here is that it IS possible to go back… way back… but you have to proceed with great determination and creativity.

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for



2 Responses to “How Far Back Can You Go?”

  1. Wonderful information in blog post! I have also been able to find ancestors in Freedmen labor contracts. In the labor contracts, only the first names are listed. I however was able to find my ancestors because family members were listed together and known geographic location. Old sources that I reviewed years ago and review now with new found information has added pieces to my puzzle. I plan to revisit some of the sources listed in the post for missed information.

  2. This is a great post. I can go back to 1820 with some of my African American/Free People of Color, but many others I can only go as far as 1870.

    I probably need to go to the location of where my ancestors were slaves and look at some documents.

    Thanks for posting this.

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