1850 Slave Schedule, Coosa County Alabama
In this season of the ongoing genealogy television programs, many of us enjoy looking at the many records shared with the featured guests. We all watched recently the episode on Finding Your Roots, in which a slave document was shared, reflecting the estate of an ancestor affiliated with featured guest, Derek Jeter. The episode generated much discussion in genealogical circles on the use of slave schedules. Some find the documents to be useful and others are frustrated by the limitations of the 1850 and 1860 Federal slave schedules, and rarely use them for their own research.
Because there are such feelings about slave schedules and their value in the African American genealogical process, I thought I would address some of them here.
How can one properly use the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules when exploring family history?
From the earliest census years, slaves were counted but it was not until 1850 and 1860 census that two interesting census forms were developed and used to document the number of people enslaved. These schdedules provided a) a numerical count of the numbers of persons enslaved, b) information about the person who was the official slave holder, or owner of record, and c) notations about the enslaved individuals, regarding gender, age and complexion.
However for many African American genealogists--the one thing that could take them farther back in time is missing. The names of the slaves. Sadly--page after page contain nothing more than simply the name of the slave holder, and his human "property." This provides no glimpse of the families by name, during those years. So for many genealogists, it is felt that Slave Schedules provide nothing.
But they do hold some value, and it has to be understood that though limited, these records may still be useful in the research process.
What Slave Schedules Provide:
1) Names of slave holders during those census years. (see image above)
2) Numbers of enslaved people held within a specific geographic region
3) Useful glimpse at the size of the slave holder's estate
Partial list of slave owned by James W. Jeter, Coosa County Alabama, 1850
Ancestry.com. 1850 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.
4) Composition of real property, with the number of slave houses.
In the case of James W. Jeter, it can be seen below that he had 10 slave houses on his estate. That provides an idea of the size of his property and the number of enslaved men an women to work on the estate and maintain it.
1860 Slave Schedule, reflecting slaves owned by James W. Jeter, Coosa County Alabama
Ancestry.com. 1860 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.
Top of 1860 Slave Schedule provides a column to count runaways
As seen in this full shot of the Jeter estate from 1860, no runaways were listed.
What Slave Schedules Do Not Provide:
1) Names of enslaved men, women, children.
2) The total number of every slave held by that particular slave owner. Slaves were bought, sold, traded, rented and deeded continually.The numbers of people held as chattel changed and depended upon the circumstances within a household, an estate, or the presence of auctions for slaves being brought into a community. The total numbers reflect those in bondage only on the day that the count was made.
So, in the case of James W. Jeter in Coosa County Alabama, a total of 41 people were held in bondage on the Jeter estate, and they lived in a total of 10 houses on the grounds.
3) No specific slaves are reflected on slave schedules and thus are not easily identified. Even if the age of a person on a schedule is exactly 10 years younger that the targeted person appeared in the 1870 census, slave schedules do not pinpoint specific individuals with certainty.
4) Schedules do not reflect data pertaining to the lives of slaves. No occupation, or special skills can be gleaned from slave schedules.
5) Slave schedules do not provide an overview about the quality of their lives, nor how they were treated.
How to Use Data From Slave Schedules
Though these documents are limited, they can still be a part of the family narrative. The size of the estate, the number of houses on a slave holder's estate and whether or not there were fugitives or runaways still associated with the estate can be gleaned and when speaking about the persons enslaved, one can share this data with family as part of the story.
Here are some basic rules and precautions to follow.
1) Report What is Shown. Data collected should be studied and analyzed and then told without embellishment.
2) Stick to the Evidence. When sharing the record of enslaved people on the slave schedule, stick to the evidence. Though one "might" be the targeted ancestor, with no name listed, there is no evidence.
3) Avoid Assumption. A person found in the 1870 who was 25, is not guaranteed to be the nameless person on the 1860 slave schedule whose age is listed as 15.
4) Avoid invention. The slave schedule can be a tool and can provide some useful information about the composition of the population held in bondage, in terms of demographics. The ages of fellow slaves, the number of houses their quarters consisted of can be useful information. However, beyond that kind of data, no definitive statements can be shared without supplemental records to tell the story.
It is our responsibility as researchers and genealogists to tell the story accurately, and to maintain the integrity of our research by providing the evidence to support that which we share.