Slavery presents a huge obstacle for anyone tracing African American lineages. Because slaves were treated as property—in some cases listed after livestock in estate inventories and other records of property—evidence that can help put African American families together is often difficult to come by. These online slave databases and record collections are a great resource for anyone navigating the challenge of slavery research.
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
This free resource from hosted by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro includes digitized details about American slaves from thousands of court and legislative petitions filed between 1775 and 1867 in 15 different states. Search by name, search by petition or browse subjects. It is important to realize, however, that not all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery are included.
Tom Blake has spent many years identifying the largest slaveholders on the 1860 U.S. census, and matching those surnames to African American households listed in the 1870 census (the first census to enumerate the former slaves by name). He estimates that these large slaveholders held 20-30% of the total number of slaves in the United States in 1860.
While not a record group with a focus on slavery or African-Americans, the records of the Southern Claims Commission are a rich source of surprising details on African Americans in the southern U.S., including names and ages of former slaves, their places of residence, names of slave owners, slave manumissions, slave ownership of property, conditions faced by free blacks, and a great deal of first-person background on what it was like to be an African American both during slavery and after the Civil War.
California Department of Insurance
University of Virginia
A project of the University of Virginia, this database of slave narratives includes a sampling of some of the 2,300+ interviews and photos of former slaves taken between 1936 and 1938 with first-hand accounts of their experiences.
Explore information on more than 35,000 slave voyages that forcibly transported over 12 million Africans to the Americas, including North America, the Caribbean, and Brazil, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. You can search by voyage, examine estimates of the slave trade, or search a database of 91,000+ Africans taken from captured slave ships or from African trading sites (Note: the database of slave names can also be searched on African Origins. Because North American markets absorbed less than 4% of all slaves carried off from Africa, the bulk of the content is not focused on the North American slave trade.
Virginia Historical Society
This ongoing project of the Virginia Historical Society will eventually include the names of all the enslaved Virginians that appear in their manuscript collections (unpublished documents). In some cases there may only be a name on a list; in others more details survive, including family relationships, occupations, and life dates. Some of the names appearing in this database may be individuals who lived outside of Virginia; found, for example, in plantation records kept by Virginians who moved to other states.
Unknown No Longer does NOT contain names that may appear in published sources at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) or in unpublished sources located in other repositories. This database is focused solely on slave names found in the unpublished collections of the VHS.
Michigan State University
Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network is an open access data repository of information on the identities of enslaved people in the Atlantic World. Phase one of the multi-stage project expands on the work of Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, freely available on the Afro-Louisiana History & Genealogy
site, including descriptions of slaves and their manumissions found in documents of all kinds in all jurisdictions of French, Spanish, and early American Lower Louisiana (1719–1820). Also included is the Maranhão Inventories Slave Database (MISD), which includes information about the lives of about 8,500 slaves in Maranhāo from the mid-eighteenth century through the early nineteenth century.
East Texas Research Center
Since the Texas Runaway Slave Project (TRSP) began in December 2012 at Stephen F. Austin State University, runaway slave advertisements, articles, and notices have been culled and indexed from more than 10,000 Texas newspaper issues published prior to 1865, documenting more than 200 individual slaves. Similar resources are available in other locations, such as The Geography of Slavery in Virginia
, a digital collection of advertisements for runaway slaves and servants found in 18th and 19th century Virginia newspapers.
University of Pittsburgh
The University of Pittsburgh hosts an online exhibition of "freedom papers" and other documents which tell the story of slavery and the murkiness of forced indenture in Western Pennsylvania.
It Takes a Village
A number of projects and websites exist to document African-American slaves in traditional records where they aren't otherwise easily located. Slave Deeds of Buncombe County, NC
is a compilation of documents that record the trade of people as slaves within the county; an ongoing project of government officials, teachers and students from the area. The Iredell (NC) Register of Deeds
hosts a similar list of slave deeds culled from their record books, and research by Miel Wilson contributed to this database of Court Ordered Slave Sales Found in St. Louis Probate Court Records
. The Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans
presents a different type of example, launched by Fordham University to engage public support in creating a database to identify and document burial grounds of enslaved African Americans, most of which are abandoned or undocumented.
Search for a worthy project in your area of interest, or consider starting one if one doesn't already exist! The Afrigeneas Slave Data Collection also accepts user contributed slave data culled from a wide variety of records.