If you do African American genealogy, you’ve no doubt heard about the “brick wall” of 1870. That’s the year of the first post-Emancipation U.S. federal Census. Before 1870, we have to rely on records from the era of slavery, when the majority of African-Americans were treated as property. It’s hard to think about, and it’s hard to find records.
In a previous post I wrote about some basic strategies for African-American genealogy in western Maryland. In this post I’m going to discuss Census records before 1870, and also some of the similar or substitute records that list African Americans in western Maryland before the Civil War. If your ancestors (or the people you’re researching) aren’t named in the Census, what other lists might they be named in? One fact to keep in mind is that in western Maryland, by 1850, approximately half of the recorded black population was free. If you had African-American ancestors in this region before the Civil War, there’s a fifty-fifty chance they’re in the 1850 or 1860 Census.
U.S. Federal Censuses
You can access the Census at a number of online sites; in my opinion the best is Ancestry.com. It’s expensive to buy an Ancestry subscription, but both the Washington County and Frederick County public library systems offer free access in the library (check with them for details). There are also other online sites that provide access to the Census.
When you use the Census, it’s important to understand a few things about it. First, the U.S. Federal Census was taken every ten years, starting in 1790. Second, it did attempt to count every single person—except Native Americans—every time it was taken. Enslaved people were counted in every Census, from 1790 to 1860. However, slaves were never named; they were always listed under their enslaver’s name. Free people of color, on the other hand, were treated pretty much like whites in the Census, every year.
Third, the format and questions of the Census changed almost every Census year. From 1790 to 1840, only the head of each household was named; in those years all the people in a household were counted and grouped by certain criteria (sex, age, color, freedom status, etc.) which varied by year. Because of this format, these early Census returns are of very limited value for information about anyone except heads of household. But note that if your ancestor was a head of household (black or white, female or male), he or she should be in the Census in these years.
1850: More Coverage and Slave Schedules
In 1850, the Census underwent a big change. For the first time, every free person was supposed to be listed by name in the returns. Although this is wonderful if you’re researching free people, it’s no help at all if you’re looking for enslaved people. But another 1850 innovation, the Slave Schedule, is somewhat helpful. In 1850 and 1860, the Census Bureau created separate returns, call Slave Schedules, counting all enslaved persons.
In these documents, each slave “owner” is listed by name, and then his or her slaves are listed—not by name, but by age, sex, and color (either “black” or “mulatto,” i.e., mixed race). I find the Slave Schedules are mainly useful for (1) helping to confirm the location of enslaved people I’ve already found in other records, and (2) gathering information about enslavers and slaveholdings. (If you’re new to using the Slave Schedules, don’t make the mistake of reading the slaveholder as “black.” The demographic information for the first listed slave will be on the same line as the slaveholder’s name, but it doesn’t describe the named person.)
Did you know that Maryland took a census in 1776? And that it named enslaved people? Only parts of this census survive, but those fragments have been published. The only surviving lists for Washington County are for Elizabeth Hundred, i.e. the Hagerstown area. They include the names—first names only—of 79 “Negroes.” This document has been published and is available online in Maryland Records: Colonial, Revolutionary, County and Church, from Original Sources, by Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh (Baltimore, 1915), in facsimile. For the rest of the state of Maryland, the surviving parts of this census are published in 1776 Census of Maryland, by Bettie Stirling Carothers (Silver Spring, 1986); it’s out of print but can be found in local libraries and secondhand.
In 1832, Maryland took a census of free African Americans. These records are published in Free African-Americans of Maryland, 1832, by Jerry M. Hynson (Westminster, MD, 2007). This book is out of print but widely available secondhand, as well as in libraries.
Some Other Census-like Sources
In addition to census records, state and county governments compiled other records of African Americans. In Washington County, the 1803-4 tax records included the number of enslaved persons in each household, by age, sex, and monetary value. These records are available via Whilbr, a wonderful collection of online sources maintained by the Western Maryland Regional Library.
Another time when officials recorded African Americans was when free people of color (either ex-slaves or freeborn) applied for the “freedom certificates” that the law required them to have. Washington County kept books (known as “registers”) recording these, from the early 1800s onward. Many of these records, numbering in the hundreds, are published in a book by Marsha Lynne Fuller, African American Manumissions of Washington County, Maryland (Westminster, MD, 1997). Fuller has also listed here many other individuals whose manumissions (documents granting freedom from slavery) were recorded in the county land records. This book is essential for anyone doing African-American history or genealogy in Washington County. Additional freedom certificates are available online in manuscript form; MD Genealogy has a nice introductory page about the freedom certificates with links to the registers at FamilySearch.org (where you need to register for a free account). For neighboring Frederick County, almost 4000 manumission records have been published online by Richard H. Smith, Jr. In the future I plan to blog about the freedom certificates and land records as sources for black history. [This paragraph was revised on June 7, 2019.]
Finally, after the Civil War, the state of Maryland invited former slaveholders to list the slaves they had owned on Nov. 1, 1864, the date of Emancipation in Maryland. These statistics were far from complete at the time, and unfortunately the records from Washington County are lost. Images of the Frederick County records can be found on the Maryland State Archives website. More conveniently, they’ve been transcribed by Richard H. Smith, Jr. in Commissioner of Slave Statistics Record, Frederick County, Maryland, 1864 (Woodsboro, MD, 2012).
Using Census Records
When you work with the Census or similar records, you need to be both cautious and confident. Cautious, because there are often mistakes in the Census. Confident, because you can often ignore apparent inconsistencies. For example, a person’s age or birthdate (or marriage date) may vary from one Census to the next. This is normal, and for formerly enslaved people it often reflects a lack of birth records or lack of exact knowledge. And remember that Census information was recorded by the Census-taker. He (or, in the twentieth century, she) often got information from just one person in the household, or sometimes even from neighbors.
Similarly, the spelling of a person’s name—or even their actual name—may vary from year to year, or from one record to another. This is perfectly normal in nineteenth-century records. Some of my ancestors are Amts and others are Ampts. One woman I’ve researched, Letty Ann Warfield, also appears in various records as Lettie, Lettia and Lydia. This isn’t really surprising. When you consider that Letty and her family couldn’t read or write, there’s no real difference between Lydia and Lettia.
Whenever possible, you should look at the photographic image of the actual record, not just the “print” version. Sometimes mistakes are made in transcribing the handwritten information into the database. For instance, one Census database indexed one of my Amt ancestors as “A-r-n-t”. Another reason to look at the image of the original is that there’s more information on the original return.
Missing from the Census?
Finally, having worked with these records for a while, I have a strong sense that the free black population of Washington County was under-represented in the Censuses. This isn’t surprising. African Americans had little reason to trust the state or federal government. They probably saw no advantage and many potential pitfalls in letting the Census-taker record their names and other details. Or, as working families, they simply may not have been home when the Census-taker came to call. If your ancestors aren’t recorded in a particular Census, that doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t live in the place you’re looking for them. It’s very possible that the Census missed them that year.
Nevertheless, the Census is a goldmine of information for genealogists. African-American genealogists can claim the Census—and similar records—for the rich veins of ancestral knowledge they can reveal.