African-American Genealogy: Getting past 1870

African-Americans face unique challenges while conducting genealogy research.  While the process is largely the same in the early stages, when researchers hit the year 1870 things can become difficult.  This is true for African-Americans all over the United States, not only the South.  Many families came north during The Great Migration from 1920-1970s.  This is particularly true for Mansfield, Ohio, as many African-Americans came here looking for work.  The black population of Mansfield numbered only 123 persons in 1900, by 2010 that number has grown to 10,592 or 22.1% of the population.

African-American Population 1900-2010 (U.S. Census Bureau)
Year Total African-American percent
1900 17,640 123 0.7
1910 20,768 105 0.5
1920 27,824 249 0.9
1930 33,525 910 2.7
1940 37,154 938 2.5
1950 43,564 1,083 2.5
1960 47,325 4,374 9.2
1970 55,047 8,316 15.1
1980 53,927 8,653 16.0
1990 50,627 9,179 18.1
2000 49,346 9,695 19.6
2010 47,821 10,592 22.1

The first step for family research, regardless of ethnicity, is to write down what you already know.  Start with yourself, parents and grandparents.  After this find records to back up the information.  This can include census and vital records, including birth, death and marriage certificates.  For many conducting African-American research, the first step is getting to 1870.  Begin with the 1940 census, the most recent census we have access to, and use the information contained there, like name, address, birthplace and other individuals living in the house to work backwards.

Once you get to 1870 things become trickier.  Going beyond 1870 usually requires finding the name of a slaveholder.  Many of the family history details were not recorded for enslaved men, women and children, including birth, death and marriage, but families after emancipation often stayed in the same area.  It’s important to look at the 1870 census at neighboring families, particularly white families, and those with the same surname.  After emancipation, former slaves sometimes adopted their former owner’s name.  Also note the place of birth listed on the 1870 census.  If another state is listed than the one they lived in, try to determine how they made it there.

If you are able to find the slave owner, or a possible slave owner, continue by searching records of ship manifests, property records, will and probate records, manumission and emancipation records and newspapers.  This may take advanced research and an understanding of the history of the times, but can turn up valuable information if the sources are read carefully.


Ads such as this would appear in newspaper in the North and South


Example of a “Manifest of Slaves”


Freedman’s Bureau record

Finally, DNA tests are available which can trace your family back to where they originated.  While this won’t go directly back to a homeland, it will connect you with distant family members and cousins across the globe.

Below are records that mention slaves or slave holders. From

Property and probate records

Search property and probate records associated with slave-owning families. You’ll typically find these records in the county where the slave owner lived or in the Tax, Criminal, Land and Wills collection on If the slave owner died before the end of the Civil War, estate inventories may list enslaved individuals by name, age, and family group. Slaves were considered property, so you may find transfers of ownership included in deeds of gift or trust, records of sale, and court records in county archives. Plantation records may also include details on slaves who lived there, although these records are not widely available. Look for them in university archives and occasionally at state historical societies.


An 1807 law that banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the United States as of January 1, 1808, also required masters of vessels transporting slaves in coastal waters to provide a manifest detailing their slave cargo when leaving or entering a port. Ports of departure or arrival stretched from Baltimore, Maryland, to Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, and manifests could list a person’s name, age, height, gender, port of destination, and name of the slave owner or shipper.

Military records

In 1863, President Lincoln authorized the use of African American troops in combat during the Civil War. More than 175,000 men served the Union as U.S. Colored Troops, and military service records are available for many of them on Records for Buffalo Soldiers, the first African American peacetime troops, may also include the names of former slaves.

Emancipation records

Former slaves may also be found in collections of manumission and emancipation records. You will find collections for Washington, D.C., and Illinois on and others at county archives. Use the map at the bottom of the Search tab on to get a list of all records available for the location where your ancestor lived.

Freedmen’s Bureau records

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 to supervise and manage matters relating to refugees and freedmen. Browse through the Bureau’s records or search the records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (also known as the Freedman’s Bank — note the spelling difference between the bank and bureau), which was created for former slaves and their dependents.

To learn more about the Freedman’s Bureau go to


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