Before I left the Genealogy Center in August 2022, I was asked to write an article explaining how to search for enslaved ancestors. The article had to be edited to less than 450 words at the time it was published in Internet Genealogy, volume 17, number 4, the October / November 2022 issue published by Moorshead Magazines Ltd. The article appeared on page 49 as “Researching Your Ancestors’ Slaveholders.”
I was extremely proud of this article, so I am sharing the original article prior to it being condensed to meet a word count.
To start, the Benjamin family can be traced using the U.S. Census collections. Beginning with Silas Benjamin in Perry County, Alabama from 1900 to 1910 and McDowell County, West Virginia from 1930 to 1950, to Willie Benjamin in Perry County, Alabama from 1870 to 1930, and finally to Harriet Benjamin in Perry County, Alabama from 1870 to 1900. The 1870 enumeration is the most critical, where for the first-time following emancipation, those formerly enslaved peoples are identified and named in the United States Census. Though the relationship status between household members is not stated on the 1870 Census, pay special attention to the names, ages, birthplaces, and the location.
Due to a variety of economic and societal factors, many African American families found it difficult to migrate in the initial years following emancipation, and so can be found near their location in the slavery era. Thus, identifying the area of interest from the 1870 Census is critical to assist locating the family in the 1860 Census.
To help bridge the 1870 gap, browse the family’s previous and subsequent pages of the 1870 U.S. Census and note the names of neighbors who were both designated as white in the race column and have an amount recorded under the value of real estate column. In this example, the Benjamin family resided near the Matthews family in an unnamed township in Perry County, Alabama in 1870. A search for the same Matthews family in the 1860 U.S. Census shows their residence as Hamburg, Perry County, Alabama.
Using Ancestry or FamilySearch, a search can be done for the specific location within the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules. For Hamburg, Perry County, Alabama, the Schedules consist of nineteen pages with two columns of slaveholder names and descriptions of slaves, such as age, sex, and color. It is a rarity for a slave to be named in these records.
Taking the known number of males and females and ages for the Benjamin family as found in the 1870 Census, plan to search for them a decade earlier in the 1860 Slave Schedules. Identify the slaveholders who owned slaves with the corresponding number of males and females whose ages match within a set margin.
Within the Perry County, Alabama Slave Schedules, E. F. King owned slaves who matches the search criteria for the Benjamin family. The record index states E. F. King, but the record image shows the Estate of E. F. King, which provides an important clue for our next steps. In order to verify that E. F. King was the slaveholder, deeper research into the King family’s property is needed, and more specifically, probate records for E. F. King’s estate.
Some preliminary research into the King family provided important details such as Elisha F. King was married to Margaret, was the father of Edwin, and had real estate valued at more than $56,000 in 1850 (approximately $1.3 million in 2022 dollars). The Perry County, Alabama collections on FamilySearch yielded Elisha King’s will and a complete inventory of his estate in 1852. The documents confirm the name of his wife and son and identify his slaves.
Elisha King was the slaveholder of the Benjamin family until his death in 1852, when his wife, Margaret, and son, Edwin, became the slave owners.
By tracing the Benjamin family back to the 1870 U.S. Census, we learned the details required to search the 1860 U.S. Slave Schedules for potential slaveholders. In our effort to prove the relationship between the named slaves and their slaveholders, we found the probate records documenting that Elisha King was the slaveholder of the Benjamin family until his death in 1852, when his wife, Margaret, and son, Edwin, became the slave owners.