Much has been written about the study of slavery in American Genealogy and rightly so. It’s a huge if not proud chapter in American history. But the question this calls to mind for me is, “what about the slave owners?” They belong to families, have decendents, they are part of history and as such have a story to tell. Who were they?
The first step in answering this question is identifying them by name. I recently came across a couple keys in the Censuses that can help identify slave owners. Put together you can make a pretty good argument that the person in question owned slaves.
Personal Property in the 1850 & 1860 Censuses
Personal property values (non-real estate assets) are captured in many US Censuses. It’s typically the column immediately to the right of “Real Estate Value.” Generally speaking, it can be a terrific window into the relative wealth of your ancestor. I always scan the personal property value column (and the real estate value column) on the full page on which my ancestor is listed to see how they compare to the others in the neighborhood. More often than not they are on par with their neighbors.
The 1850 and 1860 Censuses, too, have information on the personal property of the resident. However, because this is the era of slavery, the values can be rather illuminating. Know that slaves were a very large investment, ranging in price from approximately $100 / person to well over $1,000 / person. Even a small farm with a few slaves – let alone a large plantation – will have significant personal property assets vested in their slave popluation.
Slave Owning Households in the 1860 US Census
In the above example, William E. Bradfield, John R. Keller, and William H. Price each had personal property well into the thousands of dollars ($4,800, $8,800, and $8,000) on par with or at least 50% of the value of their real estate. No farm implements or livestock could be valued at such a large amount. It seems probable that they have slaves.
We can contrast the first Census extract with the one above. Here in the same county and township, John Hogue owns $1,500 in real estate and $200 in personal property. Morgan King doesn’t own any real estate and has $400 in personal property. Relatively speaking, their assets – particularly their personal property assets – are far less that the first group of settlers. It seems likely that they don’t own slaves.
Slave Schedules for the 1850 & 1860 US Censuses
The other tool – and probably most often referenced for finding slave owners – are the Slave Schedules. In 1850 and 1860 the Federal Government conducted a census of all households to determine the number, age, race and sex of all slaves. Note they didn’t capture the names of the slaves; except on the rare occassion. But like the pre-1850 US Censuses they capture the demographics of the slaves, i.e. one, male, age 25, Mulatto, per household.
The households in the slave schedules are simply identified by the head of household. (see above) Of course, they are organized by township, county, and state just like the rest of the Censuses, and they are enumerated in the same order as the full census, with neighbors next door to neighbors, which makes comparing the slave schedule to the full census super easy. You can see in the above that William E. Bradfield, John R. Keller, and William H. Price, indeed did own a number of slaves each – eleven, ten, and eight – respectively.
Putting the Evidence Together
The challenge, then becomes determining if the “John Smith” listed in the slave schedules is your “John Smith.” Using both the census records with the property values and the slave schedules with the slave count per household where housholds in both are enumerated in the same order, you can make a pretty solid case that the research subjects are slave owners. Bonus – you can garner a reasonable estimation as to the size of their holdings and general wealth.
If there is a chance that there is a slave owner in your family tree, here is a simple way to tap into tap into that story. Start with the census records as we often do, and see where the road leads you.