Search public records, starting with national ones
By Helen Schwab
The U.S. census never listed slaves by name, except in 1860, when census takers were asked to take the first name of slaves more than 100 years old. Of the nearly 4 million slaves counted nationally, about 1,500 were 100 or older, the census shows, and about half of them are named, according to an study: So if you descended from a slave, you may be able to trace your history through the census by finding the names of your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, back to 1870 – but when you get to 1860, their names disappear. Then try the “slave schedules.” In the 1860 and 1850 censuses, these list each slave holder’s name, then list line-by-line the slaves held, noting only age, gender and “color” (B for black or M for mulatto or mixed race). These are organized geographically. Finding an ancestor in the 1870 census might help you track the area where they were enslaved. Sometimes freed slaves took the surname of the slave holder and sometimes rented or bought land nearby. That’s a place to start, by looking at the ancestor’s age and comparing it (minus 10 years) to the age of slaves in the area in the 1860 schedule. You can also find, on microfilm, agriculture schedules keyed to each of those censuses. Those can tell you what grew on the farm or plantation – defined as land with more than 20 slaves. Look closely at wills, newspapers. Slaves’ first names are often given, along with owners’ names, in wills. Newspapers published ads for runaway slaves, which can reveal first names, descriptions, previous owners and locations. The HeritageQuest site (mentioned above) also includes records from the Freedman’s Bank, run from 1865 to 1874 for freed slaves. Freedmen’s Bureau record indexes can be found at This was created in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Documentation ranges from school letters to medical records. Some are on microfilm, though they are not searchable by name. Church records can be significant. Sharon Presbyterian, for example, recorded baptisms in 1850, listing not only the child’s and parents’ names but their owners’; it also listed “colored communicants” by first, middle and last names in 1866. Begin at the church, if it’s still in existence, then work up the denomination’s hierarchy to request records. Genealogical forums include and records are often donated to universities – librarian Johnson says the University of South Carolina and William & Mary have noteworthy amounts. The University of Virginia offers online indexes of some at>southernplantations. Use the index to find the reel you want, then request it through interlibrary loans. It comes to Charlotte’s Main Library for you to view. UNCC’s Atkins Library (as well as state, college and university libraries) has a collection of links and documents and photos. The Carolina Room website’s African-American Community tab leads to online photo albums and a memoir of the Brooklyn neighborhood. Other genealogical sites include, and, plus and
Land records, but because the Carolinas were original colonies, you’ll need to go to state archives and microfilm, much available in libraries, to track land: The Library of Congress has lots of maps, too:
State and county records hold a wealth of facts
If you hit a deadend, try another person in the tree, and understand you’ll need cross-referencing – and luck.
Get started on your
If you have a computer, Internet access and a library card, you can log onto HeritageQuest at and search censuses by name. If you don’t have a computer, go to the third-floor Carolina Room of the Main Library. You can sign on to on the library computers for free. You need to sign in with your library card and have less than $5 in outstanding fines.
The Library of Congress also has historic newspapers you can read online (and search), at
Naturalization records (people from other countries becoming citizens):
Talk to everyone at least twice, and ask for names and dates, family Bibles, heirlooms and photos. Talk to neighbors and nursing home residents. If you have a camera, photograph anything you borrow with the person from whom you’re borrowing it. That will help you correctly return the items and document the connection.
Military service records: Starting with yourself, fill in all the names you can. Gather family photos and papers, from birth and marriage certificates to obituaries and wedding announcements. Pay attention to middle names and places. These get more important the further back you go, particularly if your family used the same handful of names in each generation, and stayed in the same area.
Newspapers, city directories and yearbooks
Family Tree
The Carolina Room’s website
The website is an opportunity to search for ancestors by name, but also by keywords that might turn up relevant news stories. The earliest journal for Charlotte is the Catawba Journal beginning in 1824 (before moving), but the Western Democrat is probably the newsiest: 1853-1868. Also consider searching nearby papers. is a great site, with access to volumes of records. It offers a free trial period, but then it costs $20 for one month. Full access can cost about $400 a year. But you have two ways to look at records for free.
On microfilm at the Carolina Room are more land records, plus such things as pleas and quarter sessions – that’s court minutes – and wills. All can be goldmines.
Bookmark pages or make copies or printouts when you find relevant information. You are likely to return as you learn more.
Interview family members
County records: Birth, death and marriage certificates and relatively recent real estate records are at Land records and deeds from long ago are at (this gives instructions on navigating the site). These are difficult to wade through, but detailed. You’ll find hand-written papers outlining sales and debt payments. (Another resource:
State archives at You can find wills along with Civil War papers (diaries to pension lists) and other military information. Group records, from government agencies to fraternal groups to railroad records, are stored there, plus “private collections” of family papers. Most are on microfilm, with indexes online. Determine what you want, then go to the Raleigh building and request it. Most private collections are held by public and university libraries, such as UNC Chapel Hill’s:
U.S. censuses are taken every 10 years, beginning in 1790. Because the government keeps each census confidential for 72 years, there are 16 available today: 1790 through 1940. A fire destroyed most of 1890’s, but pieces of North Carolina’s survived.
Additional tips for people who might have descended from slaves
Decide how you’ll organize
Graphic by David Puckett
Don’t be discouraged
For people who had Social Security numbers (these began in the mid-’30s), check a searchable Death Index:
Until 1850, the only names listed were heads of households. In the 1850 census, each free person’s name in the household was listed, but slaves, unnamed, were on a separate “schedule.” Beginning in 1870, every person’s name was taken.
Remember: These are lists made by people knocking on doors and asking questions, then handwriting answers. The census taker might misspell a name. Some people gave wrong names or ages. Some people were out of town. Some hid. Some lied. But by comparing censuses to subsequent years’ and other records, you can often get clearer information.
Jane Johnson watched a woman find her family in the quiet, carpeted Carolina Room of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library. This woman, coming into the rich genealogical resource of a room to research her family tree, was a lucky one: On the shelves was a book specifically about her ancestors. That’s not common. As librarian Johnson told a recent visitor to the Room: “It’s a long process. You’re working a puzzle that only belongs to you and your siblings.” But much has changed in genealogical research, and an astonishing amount of information can now be found online, in public libraries and in national archives – and you can get your hands on lots of it for free, if you know where to look. Here’s a guide, with tips, links and specific suggestions for anyone who might have descended from slaves, since those histories can be even more difficult to track.
Get a chart (here’s one good for beginners:) From the Geneaology tab at the top, you can get to manuscript collections (family papers), surname files (meaning files that are in the room that you can look through, cataloged by surname), Civil War rosters, even lists of Mecklenburg cemeteries, mapped, with some burial records that are searchable by name, geography and even funeral home. Librarian Johnson teaches genealogy classes, both for beginners and the more advanced searchers.
Immigration records (ship passenger lists):
It’s crucial to keep track of who said what, and in what document or website you found information. You’ll need to recall it if another record contradicts it. Without a system, it becomes difficult to recall who – or what document – told you Great Aunt Nancy is actually your cousin, not your aunt.
Other records kept by the National Archives and Records Administration (called NARA, it’s got a good beginning here, and lots of additional links: include:
Build a family tree
amount of information can now be found online, in public libraries and in national archives – and you can get your hands on lots of it for free, if you know where to look. Here’s a guide, with tips, links and specific suggestions for anyone who might have descended from slaves, since those histories can be even more difficult to track.
Search public records
Get started on your
uch has changed in genealogical research, and an astonishing
Graphic by David Puckett
State and county records hold a wealth of facts