Research strategy for the descendants of slaveholders (real and adopted)

To those of us who are descendants of slaveholders (SHs) or are adopting a slaveholding institution, get ready for the toughest genealogy you are likely to encounter — and the most rewarding. Rarely will your work offer so much value to so many.

It will be valuable to the extent you make it available. Document what you find, publicly posting your work to aid others, using online tools like Ancestry.com.  Or do your work privately in a product that allows GEDCOM exports, and add your SH name to our BKP Research Directory, so others can find you. (See The Beyond Kin Project and FamilySearch  for a note about incompatibility with this one environment.)

Recommended research strategy

First, become familiar with the Beyond Kin Project documentation techniques, starting with The Beyond Kin method: an introduction. Then begin the steps below.  We have posted the strategies in a recommended order, but do not be alarmed if some steps have to be reordered. Some will be quick and some will take a long time. Some will have to be skipped, given your specific situation. It’s an organic process.

Step 1

Choose your starting point.

Whether you are a descendant or an adopter, you need to pick a time, place, and ancestor to begin your journey.  For your first foray into this more difficult form of genealogy, we recommend you try to find an ancestor for whom records might be plentiful. The more of the following circumstances you find, the better this prospect will be:

  • You have family records — diaries, letters, family histories, business records — or have access to such.
  • The ancestor lived in a county that has never burned.
  • The ancestor lived near enough to your current home for easy research access.
  • The ancestor held slaves in 1850.
  • The ancestor died and left a will that was probated before the Civil War began.

Step 2

Document the basics of your SH family.

If you have not already done so, you will be thoroughly documenting this family as you go. But you will want at least the basic family structure of your ancestor, including birth, death, and marriage dates of the ancestor, spouses, children, and parents.

Step 3

Search the 1850 and 1860 slave censuses for your ancestor, extracting the data on EPs.

Examine the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules/censuses to locate and document your ancestor’s EPs, which you will find listed by age, sex, and race (mulatto or black).

Step 4

Compare the SH’s 1830 and 1840 federal census slave tallies against the 1850 and 1860 slave censuses.

Try to determine what mismatches in these census records might tell you. Has an EP died, or been born, manumitted, or sold? If the SH only became old enough to have his own family in the 1850s or 1860s, try to find his parents. Do the number of EPs they owned in the 1830s or 1840s decrease at the same time their son’s EPs appear? Then perhaps he inherited them. Let these censuses and their variations raise questions for further research.

Step 5

Examine the Orphans’s & Probate Court Records of applicable counties for clues.

Some of the records of interest might be scanned and searchable through Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, and other resources. Begin your search with online sources, but know that nothing can replace a visit to the courthouse in your ancestor’s county. You might find mentions of your SH and EPs in court minutes, estate files, wills, inventories, final settlements, deeds and tax records.

Begin with wills and estate inventories for your SH ancestor. They tend to be the most fruitful sources of the names of EPs. They will usually offer a valuation, which can tell you something of the EP’s age and skill. Sometimes, the listing will provide hints as to which EPs are married and which are children of a particular mother. A will also identifies who the SH intends to inherit each EP.

Step 6

Examine other sources of information, public and private, published and unpublished.

  • Search for private records from your family papers. Plantation business records, personal diaries and letters, and memoirs might be in the hands of descendants or in archives at the state, county, or local level.
  • See if a history of the SH’s family or transcriptions of their records has been published.
  • Examine church and cemetery records, starting with the church and cemetery of the SH.
  • Read the local newspapers of the time and place, if available.
  • Check genealogical publications in the localities of interest. (For those who are seeking ancestors in Alabama, many of these publications are in the process of being digitized. See Alabama Ancestry Project.)

Step 7

Search the 1870 census for potential post-emancipation matches with your ancestor’s EPs.

Begin by assuming your SH ancestor’s EPs took the SH family’s last name — at least temporarily. Search the 1870 U.S. Federal Census – the first federal census to list the former EPs in their own households with last names. (In some states you may find them in state censuses as early as 1866.)

See if there are viable options in the post-war censuses to match some of the EPs you have been able to name as your ancestor’s Beyond Kin. If you are confident you have a match, fill in the details for the EP in your tree.

Step 8

Check FamilySearch’s death record collections to see if parents are listed on death records for your 1870 freedmen.

At the following site: type your state and the word “death” in the “Filter by Collection Name” field. If you find a promising collection of death records, search for your ancestor’s name.

View FamilySearch death collections

Many of these death records also include the names of the deceased person’s parents or other family members. By this method, you might be able to take your family back another generation before you even begin to search slave and freedman’s records.

Step 9

Check the Freedmen’s Bureau Records.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records might offer details about your Beyond Kin’s  life after emancipation, and could even offer a reference to his or her SH’s name. Most Freedmen’s Bureau records are available on microfilm through the Family History Libraries, but you’ll want to start with those that have been scanned and indexed by FamilySearch.

View digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records

To search some subsets of the records, visit:


For general information about this set of materials, go to:

Background and use of the Freedmen’s Bureau records.

Step 10

Consider DNA as a research option.

As you begin to locate descendants of your ancestor’s EPs, DNA may offer confirmation or refutation of the various hypotheses you might have about parentage among the people.

Step 11

Get training from experts.

Check with genealogical societies and archives in your localities, state, and region for advice on training. For those in the Southeast, our BKP cofounder Frazine Taylor offers group and private training on African American genealogy.

For every soul a story, a family, a name