10 Databases for Researching Enslaved Ancestors

Black man using laptop in library

Hill Street Studios/Getty Images 

Enslavement presents a major obstacle for anyone tracing Black American lineages. Because enslaved people were treated as property, records that can help Black American families research their genealogy are often difficult to come by. These online databases and record collections are valuable resources for anyone navigating the challenge of researching formerly enslaved people.

01
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Digital Library on American Slavery

Digital Library on American Slavery
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This free resource hosted by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro includes digitized details about enslaved Americans from thousands of court and legislative petitions filed between 1775 and 1867 in 15 different states. Search by name or petition, or browse by subject. It is important to realize, however, that not all extant legislative petitions relevant to enslavement are included.

02
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Large Slaveholders of 1860

Large Slaveholders of 1860
Tom Blake

Tom Blake has spent many years identifying the largest enslavers on the 1860 U.S. census and matching those surnames to Black American households listed in the 1870 census (the first census to enumerate formerly enslaved people by name). He estimates that these large enslavers held 20% to 30% of the total number of enslaved people in the United States in 1860.

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Records of the Southern Claims Commission

Records of the Southern Claims Commission - Barred and Disallowed
Fold3

The records of the Southern Claims Commission are a rich source of details on Black Americans in the southern U.S. both during and after the Civil
War
. They include names and ages of formerly enslaved people, their places of residence, names of enslavers, and manumission records. The records also provide information about conditions faced by free Black people and a great deal of first-person background on the experiences of Black Americans in the Civil War era.

04
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Slavery Era Insurance Registry

Slavery Era Insurance Registry
California Department of Insurance

Although based on the website of the California Department of Insurance, both the "List of Slaves" and "List of Slaveholders" include the names of formerly enslaved people and enslavers throughout the United States. Similar resources may be available from other states as well—search for "slave insurance registry" along with a state name. One good example is the Illinois Slavery Era Insurance Policies Registry.

05
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American Slave Narratives - An Online Anthology

American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology
University of Virginia

A project of the University of Virginia, this database includes a sampling of some of the 2,300+ interviews and photos of formerly enslaved people taken between 1936 and 1938 with first-hand accounts of their experiences.

06
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The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
Emory University

Explore information on more than 35,000 voyages that forcibly transported over 12 million African people 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+ African people taken from captured slave ships or from African trading sites.

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Unknown No Longer

Unknown No Longer
Virginia Historical Society

This project of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture includes the names of enslaved Virginians that appear in unpublished documents in the museum's collections. In some cases, additional details are available, including family relationships, occupations, and life dates. While the database is focused on Virginia, it does include the names of some individuals who lived outside the state.

08
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Slave Biographies

Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network
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 enslaved people 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 enslaved people in Maranhāo from the mid-eighteenth century through the early nineteenth century.

09
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The Texas Runaway Slave Project

Texas Runaway Slave Project
East Texas Research Center

The Texas Runaway Slave Project (TRSP) began in December 2012 at Stephen F. Austin State University. The collection includes advertisements, articles, and notices regarding fugitives from slavery from more than 10,000 Texas newspaper issues published prior to 1865, documenting more than 200 individual enslaved people. Similar resources are available in other locations, such as The Geography of Slavery in Virginia, a digital collection of advertisements found in 18th and 19th century Virginia newspapers.

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Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th & 19th Centuries

Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries
University of Pittsburgh

The University of Pittsburgh hosts an online exhibition of "freedom papers" and other documents which tell the story of enslavement and the murkiness of forced indenture in Western Pennsylvania.

It Takes a Village

A number of projects and websites exist to document records of enslavement that aren't easily located. Slave Deeds of Buncombe County, NC is a compilation of documents that records the trade of enslaved people within the county. The Iredell (NC) Register of Deeds and Court Ordered Slave Sales found in St. Louis Probate Court Records both host similar lists of records.

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 data culled from a wide variety of records.