There is a now general consensus among everyday U.S. inhabitants that records for ancestors of “black people” are nonexistent, a belief strongly felt by U.S. inhabitants who identify all kinds of ways (i.e. White, Black, African-American, Latino, Native American, Asian – the “races/ethnicities”).
So, I decided to help you out in your pursuits. But, you’ve to want to know actual history in order to appreciate the resources I am going to share with you.
1. Not all nonwhites in the U.S. were slaves. This is extremely important. Blacks owned slaves in the U.S. So did Indians. So did Louisiana Creoles who were GDCL (gens de couleur libres). Slavery was an economic enterprise. Anyone who wished to make some great money and quickly, before 1860, purchased a slave, two or hundred and had them do the work. Similar to the way we enjoy wearing nice cotton t-shirts today, which are manufactured for us to be comfortable in sweatshops all over the world where people make $1/day.
And Blacks were not the only slaves. So were Indigenous peoples (in the Anglo U.S., it was expressly forbidden in Spanish colonies, which included all regions west of the Mississippi River) and many Europeans were indentured servants, with no legal rights, whatsoever.
2.Take care not to essentialize slaves, their origins or to assume you understand anything about them simply because they were enslaved. Not all slaves arriving from Western Coastal and Interior Africa were dark-skinned. Many arrived with fair skin already, signaling a more complex phenotypical sub-Saharan Africa than researchers and common inhabitants imagined. Dr. Shmarka Keita, an evolutionary biologist at Howard University has compelling empirical biological research on this very topic.
3. Because slaves were legally considered movable property, detailed inventories of slaves exist in all civil records. In other words, when a slave was donated, transferred, purchased, sold, there is a civil record of that transaction in the Clerk of Court’s office of a courthouse, someplace. The key is to know enough about the geographic location of the person(s) in question and go do an exhaustive search in the conveyance records of the Clerk of Court’s office at that Courthouse.
4. When slaveowners perished, intestate or testate (without or with a Will and Testament), a succession was opened at some point. A succession simply details all assets (property) and debt owned by the deceased. If the deceased owned slaves, then the slaves will be inventoried with the rest of the property (immovable and movable).
In Louisiana, it has always been custom for the following information to be provided on slaves inventoried: Name, descriptor (hue of the skin), age and value.
Now, these successions are useful for everyone, actually. They also will traditionally list all legal heirs (collateral or direct) to the estate. In other words, the children, grandchildren or siblings, nieces or nephews of the deceased who are the heirs of the assets of the deceased.
On occasion, we miss a person or two in census records and sacramental records (baptisms, sepultures, marriages). This is where a succession becomes very important legitimating an individual’s lineage.
5. In Latin Louisiana, that is, Louisiana of Catholic and Latin culture, all slaves were catholicized, even if the owners were protestants or faithful to some other religious body. This was written in the Louisiana legal code (called the Napoleonic Code, but is the exact same as the legal code for the rest of Latin America, including Québec in Canada).
So, if you know a city or region where an enslaved ancestor may have lived, a good place to begin your search would be the sacramental records of the Catholic churches around before 1861.
In Louisiana, the slave records for the Dioceses of Lafayette, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Natchitoches, Bâton-Rouge and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, have all been published and printed in book form and can be found in libraries in those parishes and regions. They are public record.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans, which encompasses all Louisiana catholic parishes, just recently published online originals of the sacramental records during the Spanish period (1764-1803) on their website. They are the originals and it was during the Spanish period, so the documents are virtually all written in legal, colonial Spanish.
6. For Louisiana, civil and parochial documents were written in French, Spanish and English, depending on the region of the state, the point in time and the colonial régime.
So, during the first French period (until 1764), all documents are in French.
Many civil parishes continued to write legal documents in French during the Spanish period (only New Orleans and its immediate environs were required to draft all documents in Spanish) and also well into the 20th century (e.g. St. Martin Parish).
Note that after 1812, the year Louisiana was officially annexed as a state (between 1803-1812 it was a U.S. Territory), the Notary Public, Mayor, Sheriff and his/her linguistic origins would determine in which language he or she drafted a document. I’ve a Last Will and Testament (not an oligraphic one, where the individual literally writes his own last will and testament) dated 1941 in St. Martin Parish for Auguste AUGUILLARD from Grand-Bois that was written in French.
For these reasons, you need to learn to read the legal jargon on Louisiana French and Louisiana Spanish.
7. Also pertaining to Louisiana, Historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall researched and compiled data on all slave ships entering Louisiana and all civil slave transactions from 1699 to 1820.
Important to note here, in Louisiana, the French and Spanish gave as many details as possible on their slaves, including the original name of the slave (which are often useful in determining whether the slave was a Muslim, or not, as is the case for Senegambia), the Nation and Kingdom of origin of the slave, physical descriptors (hues of the skin).
So from Hall’s database, we’ve useful information for studying resettlement patterns of slave in Louisiana, based on the period of time and the colonial régime. From that data, all sorts of interesting studies can be effected.
8. For a more broad civil search for the Western Hemisphere pertaining to slaves, a team of historians and others, for whom I have immense respect, have launched the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database.
9. The decennial and colonial censuses offer a glimpse of hope as well. These are accessible in libraries throughout the U.S. on microfilm gratis. However, I highly suggest subscribing to ancestry.com which allows you, through your subscription, to view and print as many census reports as you desire.
Prior to 1860, for each decennial census, it lists only Free persons (irrespective of “color” – race did not appear on a U.S. census until 1920) and specifically and exclusively the name of the head of the household.
From that household, it will name, depending on the census year, the amount of slaves in the household.
10. If you are not curious enough, do not have time for or cannot stomach the research on your own, you can hire someone to accomplish whatever your goals are.
Pertaining to Louisiana families, I have research on over 400 families (free and enslaved, irrespective of race).
Check my database.
If you are from Louisiana, you are sure to recognise some or many of the families.
The beauty of it all, you do not have to do the research.
I’ve already done it for you.
VIRTUAL SLAVE DATABASES AND REPOSITORIES
The Archdiocese of New Orleans Slave and GDCL Online Database (Gratis)
Legal Jargon in Louisiana
Physical descriptors in Louisiana
Transatlantic Slave Trade Database (Gratis)
Louisiana Slave Database (Gratis)
Louisiana Secretary of State Vital Records Database
TRANSLATIONS AND TRANSCRIPTIONS
Christophe Landry (French and Spanish to English) at firstname.lastname@example.org
Louisiana Genealogy by Christophe Landry
BIO-CULTURAL ORIGINS OF AFRICA