By: Paul Heinegg and Ayo Heinegg Magwood

Resources and strategies for tracing your family up to the 1870 brick wall

In honor of Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States, we present this two-part article on researching the ancestry of formerly-enslaved African Americans.

Tracing African American ancestry beyond the “1870 brick wall” is challenging but not impossible. This term refers to the difficulty of tracing the lineage of formerly enslaved families beyond the 1870 census, the first formal record in which most formerly enslaved persons were documented by name. Much like forensic investigators, family researchers must creatively “triangulate” direct and indirect genealogical evidence from multiple sources to come to defensible conclusions about their family ancestry.

All examples are from our genealogy journal article “Tracing an African American family lineage from the 17th to the 20th century: The Kee Family of Northampton County, NC”, forthcoming at The Genealogist, in which we traced an enslaved family lineage of our mother-in-law and grandmother, respectively, back to the mid 1600s.

Part one focuses on sources and strategies for tracing your family “up to the 1870 brick wall” (1865-early 1900s, actually). We also cover the ins and outs of the most common genealogy records to help you get the most out of them. Lastly, we provide examples of how to triangulate evidence from genealogy records to come to defensible conclusions about family genealogy.

Part two will focus on tracing them “beyond the 1870 brick wall.” Be sure to subscribe to our blog to receive part two straight to your inbox.


Freedmen/Slave Cohabitation Records

cohabitation registries
Freeman/Slave Cohabitation Registry
  • Cohabitation records include the couple’s first and last names and (approximate) year of union. In some counties, cohabitation records also include information on the couple’s ages, children, place of birth, and last known enslaver.
  • Cohabitation records are useful for identifying the maiden names of married women, which help researchers identify maternal family relatives. Knowing a woman’s maiden name can also help researchers trace families between the 1870 and 1880 censuses, as some formerly enslaved couples were counted under the wife’s (mother’s) surname in the 1870 census, but under the husband’s (father’s) surname in the 1880 census.
  • Couples registering their union on the same day may be bonded in some way, whether biologically or because they were formerly enslaved in the same household.

Vital Records: Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

marriage certificate
  • Some of the most essential records for tracing ancestors across the “1865 brick wall” are marriage and death certificates that identify the parents of formerly enslaved persons. In some counties, marriage certificates also identify whether the parents were “living” or “dead” at the time of marriage.
  • Cohabitation records did not usually list the names of parents, marriage records did not start identifying parents until about 1870 (depending on the state), and most counties did not start issuing death certificates until the early 1900s. However, mortality rates in the late 1800s were high, and many persons were widowed and remarried at least once. Thus, researchers may be able to find marriage certificates for formerly-enslaved ancestors who remarried in their later years.
  • Keep in mind that the information on marriage certificates was supplied by witnesses (rather than the couple themselves), and on death certificates by informants. Thus, the information on the parents of the couple or deceased individual may be inaccurate or indicated as “unknown.” The relationship of the witness or informant to the ancestor can be an indication of the relative reliability of the information on the document.
  • The names of witnesses and informants can provide useful clues. For example, they can help confirm that the individual in the document is indeed one’s ancestor and not another individual with a similar name and age. Alternatively, witnesses and informants who were previously unfamiliar to the family researcher may turn out to be relatives of the ancestor.
  • The identity of witnesses on marriage certificates can be particularly useful for confirming the identities of widows marrying for a second or third time. It can be particularly challenging to track women across their lives, as their surnames changed each time they remarried, and marriage certificates usually registered the bride’s legal surname rather than her maiden name.

The U.S. Federal Census – Population Schedules

inconsistencies in ages
  • The transcription of censuses on genealogy search engines can be quite unreliable. Researchers can try searching for alternative spellings of surnames, for different individuals in the same household, for extended family members who might be counted in nearby households, for known neighbors, and on both Ancestry and FamilySearch. Researchers may even have to resort to read through the entire census for the appropriate township, page by page.
  • Census takers occasionally failed to identify the surname(s) of household members whose surname(s) differed from that of the head of household. This appears to be particularly true for stepchildren born before the couple married. Given the high mortality rates and thus high remarriage rates of the time, researchers cannot assume that all children listed in a household on the census are the biological children of both the husband and wife. Children in the household who were born before the couple were married will usually carry the surname of their mother’s widower. In the less likely event that the child’s mother was not married when the child was born (“illegitimate”), then the child will carry the mother’s maiden name.
the term mulatto
  • A lack of diligence on the part of census takers can also complicate the identification of ancestors who were working as domestics or farm laborers in White households. For example, we found that some Black individuals counted in White households were registered as “white.”
  • The presence of a “married” female head of household (without a husband in the household) suggests that the husband is working as a farm laborer in another household, or even in an institutional work setting in another county. Meanwhile, the children of women working as live-in domestics in other households (or who have joined the Great Migration to the North or West) can often be found in the household of one of her relatives.
  • The names of neighbors on a census can also provide useful clues. For example, the presence of relatives (or of individuals who were formally enslaved with the husband or wife) in nearby households can also help confirm the identity of the family. In addition, the surnames of neighbors can provide clues to the wife’s maiden name. And in a couple of cases, we realized that a neighbor was the father of an “illegitimate” child.
  • African American families who are listed next to White households with large farms (indicated by the real estate value listed on the census) may be sharecroppers, and the neighboring White farmer may be their former enslaver or one of his sons. This was probably more common in 1870 than in 1880.
  • Tracing formerly-enslaved ancestors from the 1880 census back to the 1870 census can be particularly challenging. For one, the 1870 census enumeration was particularly spotty, and some households were missed entirely. This was particularly true for farm laborers (and farmers) who worked in two in more locations and had temporary residences at one or both. The census for a given township was often conducted on several different days over several months, and some of these families slipped through the cracks. On the other hand, a few families with more than one residence were counted twice. On a few occasions, we found that children had been double-counted, first at their own home, and then at the home of a relative on a different date.
formerly-enslaved person surnames
  • Another reason that locating formerly-enslaved ancestors in the 1870 census can be challenging is because the surnames of many formerly-enslaved persons remained in flux for about a decade after the abolition of slavery. For example, some families were counted under the wife’s maiden name in the 1870 census, but under the husband’s surname for subsequent censuses. Similarly, some adult children who had been enslaved with their mother by a different enslaver than that of their father were counted under their mother’s maiden name in their first census, but under their father’s surname for later censuses. When available, family researchers will be able to identify the wife’s (mother’s) maiden name in Freedmen/slave cohabitation records. Researchers may also be able to guess the wife’s maiden name based on the surnames of neighbors in the 1880 census, as families often lived in proximity to extended family members.
inconsistencies in spelling
  • Your ancestors may be listed by various variations of their first, middle, and nicknames on different documents. Names may be spelled differently from record to record, as they were often spelled phonetically the way they sounded (with regional accents) to the writer.
  • The use of nicknames was (is) common in the South. Examples include Ellick (Alexander), Polly (Mary), and Sukey or Sookie (Susan). “Double names” such as “Sally Mae” are also common. In addition, individuals were often known by their middle name.
  • Common abbreviations for first names include Ja. for James, Wm. for William, and Jos. for Joseph.
  • A double “ss” was written with an elongated single “s” that looked like “p.” Thus, the name “Jesse” often looks like “Jepe.” When unsure about a letter in a handwritten word, look for that same letter in another word in the document that you know.

The U.S. Federal Census – Agricultural Schedules

1880 census agricultural schedule
black land ownership
  • The Agricultural Schedules, one of the non-population schedules of the U.S. census, were taken in 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. They provide information on number of acres of land, farm value, and farm earnings. The 1880 census specifies how much of the land was owned versus rented or sharecropped (“rents for shares of products”).
  • Ancestors counted as “farmers” (vs. “farm laborers”) in the 1880 Population Schedules should also appear in the 1880 Agricultural Schedules. Ancestors who owned (rather than rented or sharecropped) land may also have had wills, estate probate records, and land deeds.
  • Note that the Agricultural Schedules, which were administered by the U.S. Federal Census Bureau (the same agency that administers the Population Schedules), are distinct from the agricultural censuses that are administered by the Department of Agriculture. The latter are restricted to those who have been granted special permission from the Dept. of Agriculture because of privacy concerns.
  • The names of farm operators on the Agricultural Schedules are listed in the same order as they are in the Population Schedules (skipping over households that did not own, rent, or sharecrop land).
  • Just like on the Population Schedules, the names of neighbors on the Agricultural Schedules can similarly help confirm the identity of ancestors. In addition, they can help researchers locate missing or poorly transcribed land deeds and tax records.
  • Very few of the Agricultural Schedules have been filmed. The National Archives has a guide to the location of the non-population census Schedules by state. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the name of the ancestor’s state. Many are only available through state archives.

The U.S. Federal Census – Mortality Schedules

  • Mortality schedules list people who died in the 12 months prior to the U.S. census.

U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards (1917-1918)

colored troops in world war 1
  • Draft registration cards can be useful as they provide the exact dates of birth for draftees, which is information that is often unavailable elsewhere for this generation. When they specify the draftee’s relationship to the person of contact, then they also provide proof of relationship to the draftee’s mother, wife, or father.

Court Records: Wills and Estate Probate Records

  • Wills and probates were administered at the county level. (Estate) probate records are court records documenting the distribution of a deceased person’s property to their heirs. Wills and probate records are important because they usually identify the relationship of the (surviving) heirs to the deceased person: wife, child, etc. They also document the year and approximate month of death of the ancestor, and usually provide a detailed description and valuation of an ancestor’s property.
  • The omission of the name of a person who was assumed to be a family member of the deceased can also provide a clue. This usually indicates that either the presumed heir had already died, or that they were a stepchild rather than a child.

Deeds: Land, Property, and Bills of Sales

land deed
  • A deed is the written legal document transferring ownership of property. Deed books contain a variety of records relating to property, not just land. Deed books might contain mortgages, leases, the sale or manumission of slaves, bills of sale, powers of attorney, indentures, adoptions, livestock brands, wills, apprentice papers, tax lists, and other miscellaneous documents (FamilySearch).
  • Deed books also include land divisions among heirs, which like estate divisions, provide invaluable evidence of parent-child relationships.

Crop Liens, Sharecropping Contracts, and Chattel Mortgages

crop lien
  • The crop-lien system was a credit system that became widely used by cotton farmers from the 1860s to the 1940s. Merchants provided cash advances, farming supplies, and merchandise to sharecroppers and tenant farmers in exchange for a lien on their crops. The merchants sold the crops, recouped their loan and hefty interest charges, and returned anything left over to the farmer. If the sale of the crop did not cover the cost of the loan, then the indebted farm signed a chattel mortgage in which he mortgaged his personal property (such as mules and furniture) to the merchant.
  • Crop liens signed by two or more farmers together suggest a close relationship between the debtors, as they involved a potentially life-altering joint financial risk. The joint crop liens we found involved either a parent and adult son or son-in-law, or a set of siblings and brothers-in-law. For example, the crop lien pictured provided further confirmation of our suspicion that Austin Kee was Hardy Kee’s father.
  • Most of FamilySearch’s crop liens and chattel mortgages are not indexed, but you can access them through FamilySearch’s full text search feature.

U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau Records

  • The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (often called the Freedmen’s Bureau) was created in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War to supervise relief efforts including education, health care, food and clothing, refugee camps, legalization of marriages, employment, labor contracts, and securing back pay, bounty payments and pensions. This collection consists of an index and images of records relating to census lists, arrival and departure registers, transportation records, some birth, death and burial records (FamilySearch).

Historical Newspapers (NewspaperARCHIVE)

  • Particularly in smaller towns and after the turn of the century, researchers may occasionally be able to find their ancestors in historical newspaper articles. Ancestors who owned land will probably at least appear in a notice of the estate settlement. The names of landowning ancestors may also appear in a notice of land sale, either of their own land or land adjacent to their property. Researchers may also find obituaries and notices of applications for marriage certificates.

State and County Archives

  • State and county archives (such as the State Archives of North Carolina) often have access to records not available on public genealogy search engines. These records are increasingly available online on their websites, but otherwise, one can usually pay for a staff member or associated researcher to find, scan, and send you the documents of interest for a fee.


In this section, we provide examples of how we triangulate information from several sources in order to come to reasonably-certain conclusions about family genealogy.

Example 1: Tracing a family from the 1880 census back to the 1870 census.

Using the following clues, we were able to conclude that “Alexander and Eliza Vassor” in the 1880 census were identical to “Ellick and Eliza Grizzard” in the 1870 census, despite the notable inconsistencies in ages.

  • “Ellick” was a common nickname for Alexander at the time.
  • Both couples have sons named Durham and Fagan.
  • In the 1870 census, the couple is living with single daughter Caroline; in the 1880 census, a married Carolyn is living next door.
  • (We later found a bill of sale for a “Negro man Ellick” sold in December 1857 by the administrators of Henry Grizzard’s estate to James Vassor for $575.)
1870 census
1880 census

Example 2: Tracing a woman through several marriages.

Using the following clues, we were able to conclude that “Jane Kee,” who married John Deloatch in 1873, was identical to the “Jane Deloatch” who married William Pearson in 1877. While any one of these clues alone would have been insufficient to come to this conclusion, the combination of these clues is fairly conclusive. (Note the frequency with which women were widowed at the time.)

  • Jane’s mother was identified on the marriage certificates as “Ann E. Kee” on the 1873 certificate, and as “Eliza Vassor” on the 1877 certificate. According to the Northampton Cohabitation registry, Eliza Kee married Ellick Vassor/Grizzard in 1858 (when Jane was about four years old).
  • Both marriages took place in the home of Elic/Elix Vassor, Jane’s stepfather.
  • One of the witnesses at both marriages was John Sykes, Jane’s brother-in-law (the husband of Jane’s sister Carolyn).
  • One of Ellick and Eliza Vassor’s neighbors in the 1880 census was a widowed “Jane Pearson.”
jane kees 1873 marriage to john deloatch
jane kee deloatchs 1877 marriage to william pearson

Example 3: Tracing an ancestor’s journey to land ownership

Our ancestor James Tann Kee was counted as a farm laborer in the 1870 census, but as a farmer in 1880. The term farmer indicates that he was a “farm operator” who either owned, rented, or sharecropped his own land.

We then knew to look for him in the 1880 census agricultural schedules. The names of farm operators on the Agricultural Schedules are listed in the same order as they are in the Population Schedules (skipping over households that did not own, rent, or sharecrop land). The schedules revealed that in 1880, James sharecropped 55 acres of tilled land and 50 acres of woodland or forest land. He cultivated 20 acres of cotton, 25 acres of Indian corn, 20 acres of cow peas (probably intercropped with the corn), and two acres of apple orchard. He also had 15 pigs and 25 chickens.

Looking through the land deeds for that county, we found an 1893 deed in which James purchased 50 acres of land from the Gumberry and Jackson Railroad and Lumber Company for $125. We also found a deed for the 1910 division of his land among his heirs.

1870 census versus 1880 census
1880 census agricultural schedule
land deed two
Paul Heinegg - Headshot

Author Bios

Paul Heinegg


Paul Heinegg is a genealogist with 35 years of experience. He was identified as “the world’s expert on the Free Black population in the United States” by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., and as “the leading authority on early African American families” by FamilySearch and

Paul is the recipient of four major genealogy awards, and has authored three books and four journal articles. These publications include the origin and family history of over 1,100 African American families that were free in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware during the colonial period (

Paul has also traced the ancestry of an enslaved family back to the mid-1600s in a journal article that meets rigorous genealogical standards.

Contact him at for genealogy research services. Visit his website at

Ayo Heinegg Magwood - Headshot

Ayo Heinegg Magwood

Author and Genealogist

Ayo Heinegg Magwood is Paul’s daughter and is the founder of Uprooting Inequity LLC and the author of two book chapters and a journal article on teaching pedagogy. She is also co-author (with her father) of the genealogy journal article “Tracing an African American family lineage from the 17th to the 20th century: The Kee Family of Northampton County, NC.”, forthcoming at The Genealogist.