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African American Land and Property

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African American Genealogy Wiki Topics
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Beginning Research
Original Records
Compiled Sources
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Finding Aids
Example slave register page from Nelson County, Virginia.
Example page from "Register of free negroes" of Nelson County, Virginia.

Online Records[edit | edit source]

Record Types[edit | edit source]

Deeds[edit | edit source]

Enslaved people were treated as chattel (property) and thus any transaction involving them may be listed as a deed in land and property records of the county or state. This could include bills of sale, deeds of gift, chattel mortgages (when the enslaved person was used as collateral for a promissory note), marriage contracts (when the wife was bringing enslaved persons into the marriage), estate settlements, quit claim deeds, etc. Sometimes slaves were bequeathed or sold as part of the probate of an estate and this transfer or sale may be listed as a deed mixed in with probate records.

Registers of Slaves, Registers of Freedmen, and Manumission Papers[edit | edit source]

By the time of start of the Civil War in 1861 about ten percent of African Americans were free. Most free African Americans carried their own papers, but these could be stolen. In order to distinguish between slaves, runaways, and free African Americans, many counties or states in the upper South, and border states kept one or more sets of registers or papers. Some had registers of slaves. Some kept registers of blacks, freedmen, "free men of color," or "free Negroes." Some kept copies of manumission papers of people freed from enslavement. To find these kinds of registers or papers look in county courthouse records. They are most likely found in the court papers, or among the land and property deeds, or occasionally in probate records, or even with taxation records. Sometimes these kinds of records are found at state libraries, archives, or historical societies.

Benjamin Joseph Klebaner. American Manumission Laws and the Responsibility for Supporting Slaves. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography ( ): 443-453.

Slave Trade Registers[edit | edit source]

The Constitution allowed the outlawing of the importation of slaves to the United States after 1808. Between then and the Civil War the internal slave trade became an important business in the Southern United States. Most states regulated the slave trade. A few kept records of slave traders and their businesses. Look for such business registers at state libraries, archives, historical societies, or county courthouses.

Freedmen's Bureau Land[edit | edit source]

After the Civil War former slaves were promised free land and a mule. They rarely received the land and were lucky to receive a mule. For more information about records of this type of land see the Freedman's Bureau Wiki page.

Homestead Land[edit | edit source]

After the Civil War many African Americans took advantage of the Homestead Act to obtain almost free federal land in return for occupying and improving it. The application papers for this federal farm, mining, or timber land contain genealogical information and clues. Only about 40 percent of people who applied for homestead land finished the process and received the land patent. Those that finished have been indexed. The homestead index is available on the Internet. For more details see the Wiki article Land Patent Search.

Homestead applications for the 60 percent who never finished are available at the National Archives, but a researcher will need to find the legal description of the land they started to homestead in order to find the application papers. There is no index to homestead applications that were not completed.