African American Heritage

Introduction to Research and Links to Resources

Pre-Civil War Records:
African American historical research can be undertaken in both military and civilian records; however, the documentation is scattered through a variety of correspondence of government and private citizens and government reports. One's success in researching African-American ancestry in the years prior to the Civil War will depend largely on what one's status was, slave or free. Slave records are difficult to locate and found rarely at NARA.

In Census records, from 1790-1840, only names of the head of household were provided, along with the number of slaves. In 1850 and 1860, the Federal government took a supplemental slave census, giving the slave owner's name, and the number of slaves by gender, age, and a designation of black or mulatto. The names of all free blacks were included in the 1850 and 1860 census. Beginning in 1870, the census listed the names of all African Americans. (See Census Records).

Military Records
Since the time of the American Revolution, African Americans have volunteered to serve their country in time of war. Federal records document this from then to modern times. Records of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 are filled with the services of African Americans. In addition, the Papers of the Continental Congress cite numerous sources around the discussion of slavery and slaves serving in the military. The Civil War was also no exception—official sanction was the difficulty. The compiled military service records of the men who served with the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War number approximately 185,000, including the officers who were not African American. This major collection of records rests in the stacks of the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). They are little used, and their content is largely undiscovered.

Genealogy Notes

document thumbnail On April 19, 1866, former slaves Benjamin Berry Manson and Sarah Ann Benton White received an official marriage certificate from the Freedmen's Bureau, officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

Find out more in Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony: Freedmen's Bureau Marriage Records


More Genealogy Notes

Post-Civil War:

In the post-Civil War years, genealogy research for African Americans follows the same path as for others, i.e. in use of census, military, and land records. But in addition, the National Archives has records from three post-Civil War Federal agencies which are invaluable for the study of black family life and genealogy. The records were created by these agencies:

  • the Commissioners of Claims (Southern Claims Commission)
  • the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company
  • the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau)

These records are an extremely rich source of documentation for the African American family historian seeking to "bridge the gap" for the transitional period from slavery to freedom, and may provide considerable personal data about the African American family and community. For example, these records may contain information about family relations, marriages, births, deaths, occupations, places of residence, names of slave owners, information concerning black military service, plantation conditions, manumissions, property ownership, migration, and a host of other family-related matters. Read more about researching in these records.


Links to Resources

"Harriet Tubman", Portrait by Robert Savon
National Archives Identifier 559120
Item from Collection H: Harmon Foundation Collection, 1922 - 1967

For more information about African-American research and accessing the records at NARA, see:

See Also:

Historical Documents

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