Monday, February 16, 2009

A webinar, a database, and the forgotten African American Ancestor

There is a brick wall for African Americans when they start researching their ancestry. That brick wall is slavery. On February 24, is presenting a free, one-hour webinar featuring Marjorie Sholes, a professional genealogist who can show you how to identify slave owners and track down your slave ancestors. You can read more about the program and register for it here.

You should know however, that it is possible your ancestor belonged to an overlooked group, known as free people of color. Though their numbers were small, these individuals existed from the days of the early colonies right through to the eve of the civil war.

Some of the individuals were former slaves who had been given their freedom and some descended from African Americans who came to the colonies as indentured servants early in the seventeenth century. When their term of indenture was completed they were free, the same as their white counterparts.

By the last half of the seventeenth century, African Americans were brought to the colonies as indentured servants for life, in other words, slaves. But for some, those among the first to come to this country, there was freedom – for themselves and their descendents.

Just how many of the Free Colored was there? Below are graphs of statistics taken from the 1790, 1820 and 1850 census. As you can see, the percentage of Free Colored remained steady at 2% of the total population. During that same time period, the percentage of slave to total population declined from 18% in 1790 to 16% in 1820 and finally to 14% in 1850.

Would it surprise you to know that some of the largest population of free coloreds resided not in Free states but in Slave states? In 1790, the six states with largest population of free colored accounted for 71.4% of the total free black population.

Below is the chart for the number of slaves that were freed and those that fled, according to the 1850 census.

If your ancestor came originally from the state of Delaware, the chance that they were a member of the free colored class is much better than if they came from the state of Georgia.

Curious how your free African American ancestor might have made his living? Below are the top occupations listed in the 1850 census for Connecticut and Louisiana.

Finally, if you are wondering if you descend from a free person of color, the New England Historic Genealogical Society is featuring their database “Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830.” For the month of February, you may access this database free. Happy Hunting!


Debow, J.D.B., Statistical View of the United States, Compendium of the Seventh Census, 1854, PDF download, Internet Archive, 2009.

Russell, John Henderson, The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865, 1913, PDF download, Google Books, : 2008.

Slave Code for the District of Columbia, American Memory, Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860, Law Library of Congress,, 2009.

Slave State, Wikipedia,, 2009.

Maine 1790 Census, USGenWeb Census Project, Maine 1790 Census,, 2009.

Vermont1790 Census, USGenWeb Census Project, Vermont 1790 Census,, 2009.


Craig Manson said...

Great stuff, Terry. My gg-grandmother and her mother were both free people of color and they appear in the 1850 census of Talbot County, Ga. My wife's gg-grandfather was free in Missouri for a while in the 1840s and 1850s, but somehow was forced into slavery. This was one of the risks free blacks in the South and Missouri had to face.

Apple said...

I grew up and attended school in NY but never knew slavery was once legal here until I found the will of an ancestor. Interesting statistics.

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