African American Sites to Break Brick Walls

Genealogy has become very important to a lot of people; they want to know more about who their ancestors are. Most African American researchers can get most of their ancestors to 1870 but then they start hitting brick walls. Here are some tips (in no particular order) on trying to get beyond that 1870 census:

  1. While you are in the 1870 census, look for others with the same surname in the same locale you are in. These names may prove helpful in the future as they are probably related. But, when you research slave history, I have been told that the last name a lot of African Americans were given were the surname of the plantation owner. So, the person with the same last name may not necessarily be from YOUR family. And along those same lines, YOUR ancestor's brother or sister could have a different last name depending on where they lived.
  2. As mentioned above, the last name, very rarely the first name, would have changed with a move from plantation to plantation. One incident I came across was this name change due to a marriage within the Rice plantation household. The daughter of Mr. Rice married into the Dunne Family in the Birmingham, Alabama area. She was given slaves to take with her when she moved. Therefore, the slave name changed from Rice to Dunne. As I did the genealogy for this family, I would find part of the family with the surname of Rice and the other Dunne.
  3. Do not assume your ancestor was a slave. There were free blacks at this time; I had a couple families in the South that were free that came from Maryland.
  4. Check out the Military Records. Did you know that African Americans found in all the wars beginning with the American Revolution? The trick is to find the paperwork associated with your ancestor. When researching the Civil War, do not just check out the basic Civil War links, but remember the United States Colored Troop link as well. (
  5. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands ( was established by the War Department on March 3, 1865. Its primary function was to supervise all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen. It assumed custody of abandoned or confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, Border States, District of Columbia, and Indian Territory. Sometimes, within these documents, family or previous residence, maybe even the plantation they lived on would be mentioned. (For more on this topic visit Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.
  6. The Freedman's Bank ( is another source that might prove helpful. The Freedman's Bank Savings and Trust Company was chartered in 1865 with the primary object to assist former slaves and African-American soldiers with their new financial responsibilities. In theory, this bank was to be a permanent financial institution for savings deposits and provide a place, safe from swindlers, to deposit money. However, mismanagement and outright fraud caused the bank to collapse in 1874 adding another tragedy to the legacy of pain endured by many African Americans. When these families went to sign up, records were made on them that sometimes included family names, descriptions, former plantation homes, war history and more. So, while it was a tragedy that this endeavor failed, the records that were developed are a gold mine to their descendants.
  7. Research the census records before 1870 in the area your ancestor's lived and the surrounding counties. See if their surnames match with a white family of the same name. That family might be the family your ancestor's were slaves at. Spend some time researching this family and see if they have any records that might prove helpful to you. Was there a marriage where a dowry was listed? If your ancestor went with this daughter, they may have been mentioned. Unfortunate and painful as it is, slaves were listed as property. Check out the property records, wills, and their business transactions; property meant money and so paperwork was usually kept.
  8. Do not neglect the newspapers. Tim Pinnick has written a wonderful book on Finding and Using African American Newspapers ( When a slave escaped, a mention in the newspapers giving a name and description were listed in the areas where the slave lived. Directly after slavery was abolished, many African Americans put ads in the papers looking for their family and friends. Tim's book will give you insight on how to locate these newspapers.
  9. While researching, keep in mind that a lot of African Americans married and went to live with the Native Americans. In some instances, the Native Americans also had slaves. Do not limit the search for just African American, errors in race are documented so look for your ancestor's name without listing the race if a brick wall exists.
  10. Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database ( It has over 35,000 slaving voyages that forcibly embarked over 10 million Africans for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. It offers researchers, students and the general public a chance to rediscover the reality of one of the largest forced movements of peoples in world history.
  11. Slave Insurance ( was kept on some slaves. The Slave registry gives the slave names, county, other identifying information, name of slaveholder, the county of slaveholder, and who the policy was submitted by. Kentucky, for example, lists many counties with slave names.
  12. Lastly, but very important, pay attention to the stories that were handed down. While the stories may have been added or taken away from during the years, they may have some vital information in them to give you clues on your family. Sometimes, for Native Americans and African Americans, these family stories are the key to discovering your ancestors.

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Written by


January 17, 2018
Wesley is the founder of

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