Search billions of records on


February 2013Created by Ian


Research Tips

Undertaking research into the roots of an African-American family is challenging at best. After the 1865 emancipation, former slaves were enumerated by name in Federal censuses, making research from 1870 onwards much easier. Before the end of slavery there are a few types of records that can be searched for clues:

  • The family name. The starting assumption should be that the emancipated slaves took the name of the slave owning family. Using this assumption, one can then use the census records to look for a white family with the same name as the emancipated slave family living very close by within the same county. Further, the federal slave census of 1860 will show whether the white family of the same name owned slaves. If they did, there is a good chance that the emancipated slaves were owned by this white family. Also keep in mind that the emancipated slaves might not have taken the name of their last owner. Sometimes a slave would keep a secret last name of a previous owner that would be passed down to future generations. This was an attempt to remember lost family at the previous owner in a hope to one day be reunited. This secret name was sometimes adopted upon emancipation. Emancipated slaves sometimes took their trade as their last name, "Smith" for example.
  • The family history of the slave owning family. By understanding the relationships and marriages of the slave owning family, it is possible to understand how slaves were given as gifts or passed along in wills. A good understanding of the slave owning family is essential in providing clues in the pre-emancipation years.
  • Local court records. Slaves were valuable property and as such often appear in court records. Such records are sometimes searchable online, but more often a visit to the local records archive will be required. These record provide often the only record of slave names and relationships between slaves.
  • Federal slave census records. These records do not mention slaves by name, but enumerate slaves by sex and age belonging to a specific slave owner. By matching these census records to the 1870 Federal Census it is possible to match individuals to the Slave Schedules in some instances. Click here to see a specific example of using slave schedules to assist in research.
  • Family history. As time goes by, it is more and more difficult to gain access to any stories from slave times. However, old photos and documents, and stories passed from generation to generation are valuable clues that can lead to new clues.

Valuable research yet to be undertaken

  • Surveys of the New Hope and Temple Star cemeteries in Lamar County Alabama. These surveys will help us understand the relationships between family members, discover new family members, and allow current family members to learn the last resting place of their direct ancestors.
  • Surveys of the Marylene cemetery in Shelby County Alabama. This survey may help us understand the relationships between the earliest family members, discover new family members, and allow current family members to learn the last resting place of their direct ancestors. According to the Alabama Burial Index, many of the early Laceys are buried in this cemetery. However, a review of a recent index of burials obtained from the Shelby County Historical Society does not list any Lacey at this cemetery, very likely because their graves are unmarked. More research is required.
  • Search of county records in Shelby, Lamar, Pickens and Jefferson counties Alabama. This may uncover slave names and family groups mentioned in wills etc.
  • Disposal of the estate of General Edward Lacey. General Edward Lacey drowned in 1813 while crossing Deer Creek in Livingston County Kentucky, and as such left no will. General Edward Lacey likely owned slaves that were inherited by his wife and 12 children. Amongst those children are William M Sr Lacey, the father of Jas P Lacey, who moved to Alabama along with about six of his siblings. It might be that papers of General Edward Lacey provide clues as to the movement of slaves from Kentucky to Alabama.