Genealogists who are trying to learn more about ancestors who were slaves run into difficulties not faced by other genealogists. It isn’t likely that vital records, such as birth certificates or marriage licenses, exist. It turns out that probate records may hold some information about your ancestors who were slaves.
Probate records are documents that list the personal property of a specific individual. The probate record might also include wills, inventories, estate distributions, and other related documents. When slavery was happening in America, slave owners considered their slaves to be property. That can be a harsh concept to cope with while thinking about your ancestors.
The result is that slaves were often listed by name in wills and probate records. Often, people who were enslaved were listed by their first names. Sometimes, a surname is included as well. The purpose was to enable the property owner to differentiate between the slaves he owned in order to clarify things during a property transfer.
Genealogists may be able to pair the first name of an ancestor with the surname of the person who registered the probate record. Knowing that information could help you to find more information about your ancestor on other probate records, in the census, or on other documents.
Some probate records included much more information than first names. There could be a list of ages next to the names. You may discover that an ancestor was born in Africa instead of America. That information could lead to discovery of where in Africa the ancestor came from.
There might be notations regarding infirmities of individuals on the probate list, or a list of their skills. In some cases, slaves were listed in “lots”. There is potential to track the individuals in a specific “lot” from one estate to another, and perhaps to the location they later lived after being freed.
Where can you find probate records? Ancestry.com added more than 170 million pages of probate records to their collection in 2015. Genealogists can use the search engine on the Ancestry.com page to enter the name of an ancestor. Another option is to choose from the multitude of “included data collections” and start your search there.
In addition, Ancestry.com has an official U.S. Wills and Probate Records collection. The website gives some simplified information about what a probate record might consist of. The examples are specific to the 1900s, but may still be useful as a starting point for understanding the basics about probate records.
Image by Michael McCarthy on Flickr.
Related Articles on FamilyTree.com:< Return To Blog