African American Heritage

Records relating to American Slavery and the International Slave Trade

As the repository of the permanently valuable, noncurrent records of the Federal Government, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) only holds records that were generated by the various agencies and institutions of the United States Government, or from activities that were under direct Federal jurisdiction. During the antebellum period, "slaveholding" and "slave trading" were officially considered matters of private property and private enterprise and were not under the direct jurisdiction or regulation of any agency of the Federal Government (outside of legislation prohibiting the trans-Atlantic importation after 1808). Consequently, most records relating to slavery and slaveholders are held at local and state repositories—not at the National Archives.

Keep in mind that "legally" the enslaved  were considered part of their "owners" property, and any documentation of their lives will be scattered among the records of the estate and business transactions of their "owners." So researchers of individuals who were enslaved must determine where various property records of the owners are held. These types of records are usually held on the county level in each state. The relevant documentation typically consists of items such as probate records, vital records, tax records, and other types of documents found in the court order books and county deed books (such as bills of sale, deeds of gift, mortgages, records of importation and manumissions). Once you identify the location of the owners’ records, you will be able to find whatever documentation exists on the subjects you are researching.

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Anti-Slavery Fair Invitation, 1846 (NAID 6883567)

The records at the National Archives that relate to the formerly enslaved and former slaveholders are mainly from the years of the Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877). These were the years that the Federal Government had its most direct contact with the formerly enslaved and slaveholders. These records consist primarily of military records documenting formerly enslaved soldiers and sailors serving in the US Colored Troops or the Union Navy, the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) that assisted the formerly enslaved during Reconstruction, the Records of the Freedman’s Saving & Trust Company (the Freedman’s Bank), and the Record of the Commissioners of Claims (the Southern Claims Commission). None of these records are directly related to the sale and holding of slaves during the antebellum period, although they can sometimes reveal information pertaining to those matters.

Other than the Civil War and Reconstruction era records mentioned above, the other records that provide some personal details on slaves and slaveholders are the Records of the US District Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851-63 (Record Group 21 and 217). These records pertain only to the enslaved and slaveholders in Washington, DC, and the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia between the years of 1851 to 1863. Most of these records have been digitized and are now available on the genealogy research websites, FamilySearch, Fold3, and Ancestry.  


The records referenced in these pages highlight some of the records pertaining to slavery that are available at the National Archives. Information is arranged by government branch. Records at the National Archives cover national legislation relating to slavery and the international slave trade, Federal agencies that provided aid and assistance to formerly enslaved persons, individuals that served in the military in some capacity, and court cases relating to freedom seekers or fugitive slaves, purchases of ones own freedom, people illegally engaged in the slave trade, and enforcement of slavery laws.

For further insight, see Walter B. Hill Jr.'s Prologue article on this topic.