Getting to grips with the 1850 & 1860 Slave Schedule census – Part 1

If you’re an African American, the chances are you will come up against Slave Schedule census records for 1850 and 1860.  Precious few African Americans can avoid them.  While these census records offer some challenges, it needn’t mean your ancestral search has to end with them.  If you can trace your ancestors to 1870, depending on their age, there is a very strong likelihood that you can find them in one or both of these Slave Schedules.

For instance, let’s say that your ancestor Joe Bloggs appears on the 1870 census (let’s use census returns for Wythe County, Virginia  as an example) as a 43 year old black male. There are some good clues here for you to work with:

  1. Year of birth:  If Joe Bloggs is 33 in 1870, that would make his birth year around 1837/36.  Age and birth years aren’t always recorded accurately in census records, but they do give you a ball park.  If you have to choose two people with the same name in the same county, Joe Bloggs with a birth year of 1820 won’t be the person you’re looking for.
  2. His age:  he would be 33 years old in 1860 and 23 years old in 1850
  3. His race: he is cited as ‘black’ and not ‘mulatto’.  While this factor isn’t always consistent across census years, it’s still a good clue to keep in mind.  You will come across people sharing the same name.  Any difference between them will help you eliminate people in your search.
  4. The county: If you find that your ancestors were living in the same country between 1920 back through to 1870, then that county is more than likely where your earlier ancestors came from too.  While there were those in the South who left their birth counties after the Civil War, many stayed.  And oftentimes, they stayed in the area where they were born.

So let’s say your Blogg ancestors lived in Whythe County, Virginia from 1920 through to 1870.  So given a choice between two Joe Blogs with similar ages but one lives in Wythe Country and the other one lives in King William County –  the chances are the one in King William County is not the person you’re looking for.

So these are clues worth bearing in mind when we reach the year 1860. The census for 1860 was the last of its kind.  Your ancestor will appear in what’s called a Slave Schedule.   Slave censuses listed slave owners by name – and slaves by gender, colour (Black or Mulatto are the only two signifiers) and age. Slave name very, very rarely appear.

Here’s an example of a Slave Schedule:

If the names of slaves aren’t given on the census, then how do you find your ancestor?  You use the four clues given above, some simple math to calculate ages, and a bit of detective work.

More on the detective work bit in the next post!

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