The online Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is a go-to resource for determining old U.S. county boundaries.
How to find county boundaries with the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries in three steps
1. From the Atlas home page, click on the state of interest from the national interactive map.
2. From the state page, click on View Index of Counties and Equivalents. This will show you all current and past county names.
3. From this page, click on your targeted county. You’ll find a timeline of that county’s boundary changes.
Use the timeline to discover what county your ancestors belonged to at any given time. Perhaps you’ll discover you should actually be looking for an ancestor’s marriage record or probate in a parent county, one that existed there before the current county, or in a successor county later carved out of this one.
Google Earth Bonus: The Atlas of Historical Boundary Changes state pages include downloadable maps compatible with Google Earth and Google Maps. If you are not using Google Earth for genealogy yet, watch Lisa Louise Cooke’s free video to see how and why you want to use this amazing 3D map of the world for your family history! You can learn more about downloading the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries files to Google Earth in Lisa’s book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Learn More about Using Interactive Maps for Genealogy
- Illuminating Time-Lapse Videos Show Our Changing World
- Historical Maps of New York City and More Now Free Online
- Family Maps and Migration Routes Traced with New Tech Tools
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.
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. 
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. 
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.”
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.”
Manumission through self purchase. Self-purchase may seem impossible; however, many slaves were not required to work on Sundays for their masters. 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.”
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 Kenyatta D. Berry, “Researching Free People of Color,” article online, PBS, Genealogy Roadshow, accessed 1 Dec 2016.  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.  Ibid.  History Detectives Season 8, Episode 10, PBS, online video, originally aired 29 Aug 2010, accessed 1 Dec 2016.
Do you want to revitalize your genealogy energy, boost your online research skills, and better organize your many family history discoveries? Join Lisa Louise Cooke at the “Reinvigorate Your Research” all-day seminar in Denver, Colorado, hosted by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Colorado.
Genealogists seem to face some universal challenges. Like, how to research online more effectively and efficiently. How to organize what you find (especially when discoveries are spread across various websites and in paper files). Knowing which technology tools to invest in, and how to master them. Genealogy and technology expert Lisa Louise Cooke can help you with all these challenges–in person, in fact, at this upcoming all-day event in Denver, Colorado.
Organize Your Genealogy, Revitalize Your Research
Here’s what you’ll want to know about this event:
What: “Reinvigorate Your Research with Lisa Louise Cooke:” Annual All-Day Seminar by JGSCO
Where: Jewish Community Center, Social Hall, 350 S. Dahlia St, Denver
When: Sunday, October 15, 9:00 am – 3:30 pm (doors open at 8:00 am for registration)
Hosted by: Jewish Genealogical Society of Colorado
Registration: Register online by October 9, 2017
BONUS: Cost of admission ($20 members/$35 nonmembers) includes continental-style breakfast, snacks, and a Kosher buffet-style lunch.
How to Organize All this Genealogy Stuff! Save yourself future frustration and disappointment by putting a solid genealogy organizational plan in place for all the types of items that will be coming your way.
- Organizing All This Paper! The Physical Items Organization System
- Organizing All That Genealogical Data! The Family Tree Data Organization System
- Organizing All These Digital Files! The Digital Organization System
- Organizing All that Web Information! The Online Notetaking System
Google Search and Google Books: Tools for Every Day. Discover Google search tools and new ways for using them to solve the genealogical challenges you face. Learn the secrets of getting more than you ever imagined from the largest online collection of digitized books–Google Books. With 25 million books, many of which are digitized and fully searchable, Google Books should be the first place to which you turn as you climb your family tree. Learn how to make the most of this goldmine chock full of historical data with little-known techniques.
Time Travel with Google Earth. Get ready to experience old historic maps, genealogical records, images, and videos coming together to create stunning time travel experiences in the free Google Earth program. We’ll incorporate automated changing boundaries, and uncover historic maps that are built right into Google Earth. Tell time travel stories that will truly excite your non-genealogist relatives! You’ve never seen anything like this class!
Future Technology and Genealogy: 5 Strategies You Need. Envision your genealogy as technology speeds ahead into the future. There are five key strategies that you can employ right now that will make the ride easier and the results more exciting than ever. Discover the paradigm shift that will make it easy to find the right technology for your needs and learn how to capitalize on how technology is changing the flow of information.
Bring Lisa Home with You
I’m sorry if you’ll miss this event–Lisa’s seminar attendees always leave with a new list of strategies they can’t wait to try. (I’ve actually seen people sneak onto their devices during her presentations and start trying the apps, search strategies, and tools she’s talking about. It’s like they can’t wait after she shows them what’s possible.)
You can bring Lisa home with an annual Genealogy Gems Premium membership. Premium members have exclusive access to a packed archive of video classes–including a new class on Google Books and an entire series to help you organize your genealogy “stuff.” You also get ongoing tips and inspiration in her monthly Premium Podcast (and access to all past episodes). It’s the most affordable and consistently high-quality, tech-forward genealogy education around. And you can start trying her tips any time you like.