Friday, June 13, 2008

Research Tip: Slaves and Slavs in the U.S. Census (and how to tell the difference!)

"No census taken between 1790 and 1860 contains even one slave's name."

Harriet C. Frazier, Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them, 1763-1865, (McFarland & Company: 2004), p. 12.

Most genealogists will not find this statement particularly surprising. We all know that, except for a very few free blacks, African-Americans were not enumerated by name in the federal census until 1870. The only problem with this bit of conventional wisdom is that it isn't true!

In fact, a number of slaves are listed by name in several states in several census years. To find them, put the word "slave" in either the first name or the surname search box in your Favorite Commercial On-line Research Website (you know who I mean!).

Searching "slave" as a first name, and leaving the surname box empty, yields several census results. Of course, there are the 1850 and 1860 Slave schedules, but these don't list the slaves by name. Then there are the Mortality Schedules for 1850-1880, but again these don't list the slave's names . There are names on these schedules, but they are the names of slaveholders (although there are several instances where the names of slaves appear--see for example, the 1860 slave schedule for Oglethorpe County, Georgia, 1860 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2004. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Eighth Census of the United States, 1860. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1860. M653, 1,438 rolls). Where are there names of slaves? Patience, Grasshopper, patience.

In the 1840 census of Nansemond, Virignia, there is a person described as "Demsey of Stallings (slave)". However, there appear to be at least two "free colored persons" living in this household, so it is not entirely clear that "Demsey of Stallings" really is a slave. I should note that on this census there are several individuals listed thusly "(first name) of _______." They are all "free colored persons."

In the 1820 census of St Mary's County, Maryland, there is a person described as "Slave Backey of Boutte." Examining the document, it appears that there are three or perhaps four individuals in the household and they all appear to be slaves. Even so, I would understand if someone felt that this example seems a bit ambiguous.

So try this: put the word "slave" in the surname box and leave the first name box empty. Now on the 1840 census, there are a number of persons, mainly in Mobile, Alabama, with the apparent surname "Slave." But notice how they all have the same middle initial: "A"! So it's not "Nancy A. Slave;" it's "Nancy, a slave." You can tell this by noticing that there are no marks or numerals in the corresponding columns for "free white people" or "free colored people." The household seems to be enumerated just in the "slaves" columns. Thus there are at least 13 slaves named in the 1840 census of Mobile, Montgomery County, Alabama. And there are several others around the country: "Delilia, a slave," and "James, a slave" are found in Knox County, Tennessee, while "Shedrick, slave" resides in Loudon County, Virginia. "Franky, a slave, owner unknown," was counted in Wake County, North Carolina. [Can a person be a slave if their owner is "unknown"?].

The 1860 census has several bondpersons listed in Wilmington, North Carolina, including "A Mute Slave."

Searching "slave" as a first name and separately as a surname yields a treasure trove of results other than federal census records. There are state census records. And moreover, there are birth, death, and even marriage records for slaves in a number of states. Many of these records name slaves. And they reveal much about the social brutality of slavery. Search for the word "slave" as a surname in the database "Rockingham County, Virginia Births, 1853-1857," and you'll see what I mean.

Searching for the word "slave" as a name also results in quite a few immigration and passenger records for African-Americans prior to 1860. For example, on 12 June 1820, Michel Allain arrived at the Port of New Orleans from Cuba with "his slave, a black man named Louis," according to's New Orleans Passenger Lists, 1820-1945.

Tina Turner's Great-Grandfather was a Slave, But What's Slav Got to Do With It?

One thing to be careful about is that "Slave" may in fact be a legitimate surname or at least a transcription of a legitimate surname. It appears that a number of people from the Baltics and other eastern European states were either named or referred to as "Slave." So you can be sure that Slave Dimitriss who arrived in New York on 21 April 1910 from Southampton was not a former African bondman. But records can be tricky. How can you with great confidence tell a slave from a Slav?

First, look at the geographical area to which the record refers. Slaves tend to be found in the South; Slavs, not so much. Slavs generally are found in northern cities; Slaves, not so much. Then look to the time period. Slaves are generally so referred to prior to 1865; Slavs generally later than that. Look at first names as a clue. If there is a place of birth or race listed in your record, that's a clear giveaway.

Of course, for every rule, there is the ambiguous case. So for example, what's up with 18 year-old Ellen L. Slave of Waterbury, Connecticut, enumerated on the 1860 census of New Haven County, Connecticut? Answer: we could take a guess, but we really don't know without more. Or how about the "Slaves" of Edmonson County, Kentucky on the 1860 census? Well, this is probably just a transcription error.

"Slave" also turns up as a surname from the United Kingdom, especially Ireland and Scotland.

Other Searches

Other non-standard searches to find African-Americans include searching the word "Negro" as a first name or surname or the word "colored" as a first name or surname. These searches yield information that when combined with other information may help identify pre-1870 African-American ancestors. For example, a search on the word "colored" results in over 100 records in's St Louis City Death Records.

The Last Word

We've seen that it is not true that slaves did not appear by name in the census until 1870. We've also learned that a number of records can be accessed by racial description in a name search. That, of course, is because of the way records were kept in a different era. And speaking of racial descriptions in a different era, some of you may be wondering the same thing I was wondering. I'll get to that in the next post.

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