Friday, August 7, 2015

There's More Than One Way to Find an African-American Ancestor

Searching for information about African-American ancestors? Maybe you've looked through TSLA’s numerous collections and research guides concerning African-American resources, but you haven't found anything yet about your family members. You're starting to think that there isn’t anything here for you, but don’t give up! We have some helpful hints.

Portrait of Matilda Franklin, c. 1860s

Let’s use Matilda Franklin (c. 1828 – 1878) as an example. Matilda has two formal portraits and an obituary in our photo database, but other than what is written on the back of the photos and the obituary, we don’t know much about her. The images tell us that she was a former slave and servant of Martha Armfield. The obituary tells us what Matilda did near the end of her life, but nothing before the Civil War.

Portrait of Matilda Franklin and Frank H. Sanderson, c. 1866. Federal census records indicated that Frank H. Sanderson (born c. 1853) was the son of John F. Sanderson (the husband of Martha Armfield’s niece).

If you’ve had no luck with TSLA’s African American resources and your ancestor was a former slave, it may be time to start looking more closely at the family he or she served. For example, Isaac Franklin was Martha Armfield’s uncle from Sumner County. In discovering that her family was from Sumner County, we now have a place to look for records about Matilda.

Matilda Franklin’s obituary, printed March 3, 1878 in the Daily American.

Once you have identified the home of the slave-owning family, there are few places you can look. For Sumner County, we found Matilda listed in:

  • Register of Deeds – Matilda and several other slaves are listed in two deeds of trust and two deeds of requisition. The first of these was in in 1849, where she was listed at the approximate age of 21. Information about her age stayed consistent through the last deed in 1854. The first and second deeds were between John Armfield, Alexander Hanner (trustee), and John F. Sanderson (the husband of Martha Armfield’s niece). The third and fourth deeds were between Armfield, Albert C. Hanner (trustee), and John F. Cage.
  • Probate Records – Matilda, along with 98 other slaves, was listed in the estate of John Franklin (Martha Armfield’s father). In the 1834 estate, Matilda is listed at the approximate age of eight and the names and ages of her six siblings and parents are listed as well.
  • Circuit Court Minutes – Matilda is listed twice more in the estate of John Franklin. In one of these instances, the 99 slaves are listed with their sale prices. Matilda, at the approximate age of eight, is valued at $200.

These are just a few of the county records that you can search. You can also look at federal and special census records, family papers, and in newspapers. You never know what you might find!

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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