Genealogy Research Techniques for Finding Your Free People of Color

Not all people of color were enslaved prior to the emancipation. In fact, many were freed long before that. Researching free people of color can be quite complex. Tracing my own family line (who were free people of color) continues to be a real learning process for me. However, don’t let the challenges deter you from exploring this rich part of your heritage. In this “Getting Started” post, we discuss the manumission process, “negro registers,” and more for tracing your free people of color.

Who are Free People of Color?

[Note: Throughout our post, we will be using terminology that was used at the time the records were created.] A ‘free negro’ or ‘free black’ was a fairly recent status in the U.S. which differentiated between an African-American person who was free and those who were enslaved prior to emancipation. If a person was referred to as a ‘free negro’ or ‘free black’, that meant the person was not living in slavery. It is a fascinating and little know fact that, as Ancestry Wiki states, “one in ten African-Americans was already free when the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter.”

Step 1 for Tracing Free People of Color: Censuses

Sometimes, the story of your ancestors being free people of color was passed on through oral traditions. In my own family, our “line of color” was not talked about. Instead, my first clue was when I found my ancestor in the 1840 population census listed as free. I also found that one woman (presumably his wife) was marked in the column for “free white persons,” but John and the children were marked as “free colored persons” in this census. This was the first step to identifying my ancestor as a free person of color.

Let’s see another example. The 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Censuses included two population schedules. One enumerated free inhabitants, and the additional schedule, referred to as a Slave Schedule, was for making an enumeration of those persons who were enslaved. [We will discuss this further, below.]

If your ancestor appears on the 1850 U.S. Federal Census for free inhabitants, they are considered free, even if their race was listed as “Black.” An example of a Black man enumerated on the 1850 census is shown in the image below. Archibald Giles is recorded as “Black,” but appears on this census for “free inhabitants.” Therefore, he would be considered a free person of color.

If your targeted ancestor does not appear on either the 1850 or 1860 population schedule for free inhabitants, they might have been enumerated on the slave schedules of 1850 or 1860.

freepeopleofcolor_4

1850 Slave Schedule for Henry County, Tennessee. Snapshot via Ancestry.com.

You can check the 1850 Slave Schedule and the 1860 Slave Schedules at Ancestry.com. The 1850 census is also available at Findmypast, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch.

In this example to the left, you will see a portion of the Henry County, Tennessee Slave Schedule for 1850. Notice, only the heads of household or the “owners” were listed by name. Slaves were not named, but rather listed by age and sex under the names of their “owners.”

Step 2: The Manumission Process

Once you have identified that you have free people of color in your family tree, the next step is to determine how they became free. Many free people of color came from families that had been free for generations. This could have been due to a manumission of an ancestor or a relationship between an indentured white woman and a black slave. I make mention of this relationship between races because it is helpful to remember that the status (whether free or enslaved) of the child was based on the status of their mother. If the mother was free, then the child was free. If she was a slave, then the child was enslaved. [1]

Manumission was a formal way in which slaves were set free. There are many reasons why a slave owner may have released or freed his slaves. In some cases, slave owners would free their mistresses and children born to her. In one case, I found the following comment made by the slave owner,  “I give my slaves their freedom, to which my conscience tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me…” And thirdly, it was possible for a slave to obtain their manumission through the act of “self-purchase.”

If the mother was free, then the child was free. If she was a slave, then the child was enslaved. [1]

Private manumission through probate. A private manumission decree could be made in a last will and testament. You can find these manumissions in wills, estate papers, or in probate packets. Many of these county level probate records have been microfilmed or digitized and are easily accessible online.

Sometimes, a manumission in a will would be contested. When this happened, a long paper trail of court documents may have been created. A thorough search of all of these proceedings may offer a wealth of genealogical data and clues.

Usually, manumission papers included the name of the slave owner, the name of the slave, and the reason for manumission. In the case of the slaves of John Randolph of Roanoke [Virginia,] his slaves were not named individually in his will written on 4 May 1819. Instead he stated, “I give my slaves their freedom, to which my conscience tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me, that the circumstances under which I inherited them, and the obstacles thrown in the way by the laws of the land, have prevented my manumitting them in my lifetime, which is my full intention to do, in case I can accomplish it.”[2]

John freed over five hundred slaves, and though each of them was not listed by name in his will, a codicil at the end of the will did name two of his slaves when he asked that Essex and his wife Hetty “be made quite comfortable.”[3]

freepeopleofcolor_1

Record of Arthur Lee purchasing his freedom.

Manumission through self purchase. Self-purchase may seem impossible; however, many slaves were not required to work on Sundays for their masters.[4] On this day, men and women could hire themselves out to do work for others. With frugality, they could save their earnings to buy their freedom or the freedom of their loved ones, though this was very, very difficult.

As you can see in this example of Arthur Lee, he was able to pay for his freedom and the freedom of his wife, though it took many years. This type of record could be found in a published book, a record listed in notarial books of the county, civil minutes books, or other courthouse holdings. It is important to speak with a knowledgeable person in your targeted area about where you should look. A knowledgeable person may be those working with the local historical or genealogical society, or a head of the local history department of the public library.

Step 3: “Negro Registers”

If you do not find the manumission in a last will and testament, perhaps due to a courthouse fire or other loss, you may have luck searching the county records where your free people of color later settled. Free people of color were often required to register, using their freedom papers, when they relocated to a new area. These types of records are called ‘negro registers’ or ‘records of free negros.’

Newly freed people carried with them their freedom papers which were given to them when they were manumitted. Once they relocated, they would register with the county clerk. They would need to show the county clerk these freedom papers and a record was made in the register. The record may include the name of members of the family, ages, and most recent place of residence.

The book titled Registers of Blacks in the Miami Valley: A Name Abstract, 1804-1857 by Stephen Haller and Robert Smith, Jr. provides the following information about registers of freed people:

“From 1804 to 1857, black people in Ohio had to register their freedom papers with the clerk of courts of common pleas in the county where they desired residency or employment. State law required this registration, and clerks of court were to keep register books containing a transcript of each freedom certificate or other written proof of freedom (see Laws of Ohio 1804, page 63-66; 1833, page 22; 1857, page 186). Few of these registers have survived to the 20th century.”[2]

Though this author says that only a few of the registers have survived, I found some microfilmed registers listing the names of free people of color who had settled in Miami County, Ohio at the local historical society archives. Again, it is important to ask those people who would be most knowledgeable, and in this case, it was the historical society.

In conclusion, we understand that tracing both our enslaved and manumitted ancestors is often a difficult task. We also know there is much more to learn and share for the best techniques to researching these lines. We encourage you to review some of the additional sources below. Please let us know what other resources have been most helpful to you in researching your free people of color in the comments section below. We want to hear from you!

Source Citations

[1] Kenyatta D. Berry, “Researching Free People of Color,” article online, PBS, Genealogy Roadshow,  accessed 1 Dec 2016.

[2] Lemuel Sawyer, A Biography of John Randolph with a Selection From His Speeches, New York: 1844, page 108, online book, Google Books, accessed 20 Dec 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] History Detectives Season 8, Episode 10, PBS, online video, originally aired 29 Aug 2010, accessed 1 Dec 2016.

Additional Reading

Free at Last: Slavery in Pittsburgh,” article and database online, University of Pittsburgh.
John Randolph,” article online, Ohio History Central.
Lemuel Sawyer, A Biography of John Randolph with a Selection From His Speeches, New York: 1844, book online, Google Books.

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gems new genealogy records online

Every Friday, we blog about new genealogy records online. Do any collections below relate to your family history? Please share with genealogy buddies or societies that might be interested! This week: Midwestern U.S. newspapers (Cleveland, OH and Chicago, IL) and records of Pennsylvania coal and canal workers’ and English and Welsh criminals.

CLEVELAND JEWISH NEWS. Technically this isn’t new content, but access to the Cleveland Jewish News is newly free, so it’s new to most of us! You do need to provide your name and email address for free access to 125 years of Cleveland Jewish newspapers. Subscribers have immediate access to all content as it is published; the public can access materials 90 days after they go online.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE ARCHIVE. For a very limited time–during beta testing of its new archive–old issues of The Chicago Tribune are free to search on its Archives website. Click here for their FAQ page or read a more detailed report on the National Genealogical Society (US) blog.

ENGLAND & WALES REGISTER OF CRIMINAL PETITIONS. Findmypast added over 77,000 records to its Registers of Criminal Petitions index to imaged registers of correspondence relating to criminal petitions. Documents usually give the outcome of any appeal and registers note the place of imprisonment.

PENNSYLVANIA COAL AND CANAL WORKERS. Ancestry just posted employee cards and applications from the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company for first half of the twentieth century. “The cards may list name, marital status, occupation, birth date, record date, residence, spouse, nationality, number of children and their ages, citizenship, date range for jobs, who to notify in case of an accident, and pension date. Applications can contain other details, including parents’ names, schooling, employment record, birthplace, and height and weight.”

check_mark_circle_400_wht_14064When searching digitized newspaper sites, remember that the search technology used (optical character recognition) is much less thorough for historical newspapers than modern text, especially for capitalized words. Use creative search terms if searches on an ancestor’s name aren’t productive, like the person’s occupation or death date. Click here to learn more about using Google to search digitized newspaper pages, or read Lisa Louise Cooke’s newly-revised and updated book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, available now both in print and e-book format.

Local Histories Found in New and Updated Genealogical Records

Search through new and updated genealogical records and histories galore. We are covering the world this week, reaching places we haven’t touched on before. Search records from familiar collections in Canada and the U.S., then check out what’s new in Russia and Ghana.

dig these new record collections

Canada – World War I

We know many of our readers have ancestry from Canada and we want to point your attention to the holdings at the Library and Archive Canada. This repository has many digital collections online and even includes a portrait portal with over 4 million images!

genealogy for Canada

Today, we shine a light on just over 330,000 files now available online in the Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database.

The Soldiers of the First World War database is an index to the service files held by Library and Archives Canada for the soldiers, nurses, and chaplains who served with the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force.) Each box of service files holds approximately 50 files and envelopes. The individual’s name and service number or rank, if an officer, is written on each envelope. This database was organized by entering the name and number found on the outside of each of these file envelopes.

When the attestation papers and enlistment forms were digitized from the Attestation Registers (RG 9, II B8, volumes 1 to 654,) the images were linked to the database. Tip: When searching by name, be sure to look for alternate spellings as well.

The original paper documents can no longer be consulted, so your only option is to view these records digitally. For those items not yet digitized, you can order a copy from the Archives. As we mentioned, not all the documents have been digitized, but are are being done so regularly. Check back often!

United States – State and Local Histories

Findmypast has updated their United States, State & Local Histories collection and now holds 332 digitized books of state and local histories in PDF format. These histories come from Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

You can narrow your specific search by publication year, title, county, and state, or search by keywords. These books often add clues and hints to the lives of our ancestors. You may also come across a biographical sketch of your ancestor which may hold key information you have been looking for.

Additionally, a sister collection titled United States, Family Histories may also prove fruitful. This collection contains over 930,000 images taken from 3,926 family histories and genealogies from all 50 states and several locations overseas. These PDF records can be searched by publication year, title, county, and state, page number, and key words. The publications emphasize tracing the descendants of the early, colonial immigrants to the United States. If you have a targeted ancestor that falls into that category, you will want to check these histories thoroughly.

United States – New York – Histories

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record is the second oldest genealogical journal in the U.S. This week, Volume 27, Issue 2 (January 2016) of this publication is available at Findmypast. You can search or browse to find possible hints and clues to aid you in your research.

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record is a quarterly publication, published since 1870. It publishes compiled genealogies that are documented, transcriptions of original records, and much more. To further learn about the NYG&B and their society, click here.

You might also be interested in the NYG&B’s quarterly review titled The New York Researcher. Formerly known as the NYG&B Newsletter, The New York Researcher has been published since 1970. Volume 147, Issue 2 (Summer 2016) of this publication is available now at Findmypast.

You will enjoy instructive articles on genealogical research techniques and New York resources, profiles of repositories, and profiles of genealogical societies across the State of New York.

Russia – Church Records

FamilySearch has digitized more than 2 million records in their collection titled Russia, Tatarstan Church Books, 1721-1939. Though these records are not indexed yet, you may find images of births and baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials performed by priests of the Russian Orthodox Church in the republic of Tatarstan. These records were acquired from the state archive in that province.

Places are identified by their historical name and jurisdiction when it was part of the Russian Empire. If you are unsure of the history of your targeted location, remember what our Google Guru Lisa says…”Just Google It!”

The collection covers records from 1721 to 1939. These records are written in Russian, but remember that FamilySearch offers a helpful cheat sheet of common words and their translations!

There may be some restrictions on viewing these records. Whenever possible, FamilySearch makes images available for all users. However, rights to view images on their website are granted by the record custodians. In this case, the Russia, Tatarstan Church Books, 1721-1939 images can be only be viewed online at a Family History Center near you, or the Family History Library.

Ghana – Census

FamilySearch has also added the Ghana Census, 1984. This population census for Ghana is a complete enumeration of the 12.3 million people residing in Ghana as of midnight March 11, 1984. The census is divided into 56,170 localities. According to the government of Ghana, a locality is defined as any “nucleated and physically distinct settlement.” Localities may include a single house, a hamlet, a village, town or city. In some areas of the Upper West and Upper East Regions, these localities are based on kinship groups. Only those individuals, including foreign visitors, who were present in Ghana on March 11, 1984, were included in this census.

There have been some records lost in Ghana and so not all localities are available. Important: Be aware that the printed date on the census enumeration form usually says 1982, but this census was formally conducted in 1984.

The 1984 Ghana census may hold the following information:

  • Detailed address of Ghana Census 1984the house
  • Name of town/village
  • Full name of members present on census night
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Gender, age, birthpla
    ce, and nationality of each individual
  • Level of education
  • Occupation
  • Employment status
  • Names of visitors on census night
  • Names of members absent on census night

 

 

NGS 2019 – Booth #700 Genealogy Gems

National Genealogical Society Family History Conference May 8-11, 2019 St. Charles, MO Genealogy Gems Booth #700 Schedule of Booth Activities Check this page again before you go for more specific information and schedule. Sign up to receive our free ebook Prize...

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