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Juliet's Genealogical Gems

Gleaning Information from Slave Schedules
By Juliet Culliver Crutchfield, Ed.D.

Slave schedules are a valuable source of information for those with an interest in African American genealogy. This article provides insights into their use by looking at instructions given to census enumerators and a sample slave schedule.

The Seventh and Eight Censuses of the United States, i.e., 1850 and 1860 are arranged by state, thereunder divided into free and slave schedules. The slave schedules give the name of each slave's owner, with a listing of slaves by age, sex, and color. Slaves over 100 years may be listed by name.

Microfilm copies of schedules are available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., its regional archives in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Fort Worth, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, state historical archives, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. They may also be found in some local and research libraries.

Marshals and Assistant Marshals were given detailed instructions on how to take the slave census and these instructions are valuable in understanding slave schedules.[1] The first column of the slave schedule lists the full name of the slaveholder. If a slave was owned by more than one person, the name of at least one owner was required. If a corporation or trust estate was the owner, the name of the trustee or corporation may be indicated. The second column shows the number of slaves. The number of the slave was entered, even if the slave was temporarily absent from the area. The owner was the person who employed the slave or on whose plantation the slave worked. The purpose of column two was to obtain the number of slaves, rather than the number of owners. The third, fourth, and fifth columns indicate the age, gender, and color of the slave. The sixth column reveals the number of fugitives from the state. This column included slaves who fled during the year and had not returned, been captured, or held for return. The seventh column displays the number of slaves manumitted or freed during the year. If an owner did not possess slaves on the first of June, no entry was made. The eighth column lists deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic slaves. If a slave was imprisoned, that information was recorded, along with the conviction date. The ninth column, an additional column for the 1860 slave schedule, shows the number of slave houses.

Understanding slave schedules is made easier when the researcher makes note of the number of slaves owned by an individual. Streets states that millions of slaves lived either as the sole Black inhabitant or in a small unit on small farms scattered throughout the slave states.[2] Genovese asserts that only half of the slaves in the South lived on “plantations” with twenty slaves and only one-fourth of the slaves lived on large plantations with fifty slaves.[3] 

To complicate matters for the researcher, slaveholders may not have lived on the land. They may have lived in another county or state. Some slaveholders employed an overseer or manager and the census taker may have reported the person who lived on the land and managed it as the slaveholder. Similarly, the administrator of an estate may be listed as the owner of the slaves.

Other difficulties for the researcher are age, color, and multiple slaveholders. The age given may be an estimate, as many slaves and their owners did not know the correct age. The color of the slave had a great deal to do with the perception of the enumerator and may not have been the true color of the slave. [As a digression, this researcher has found many fugitives from the state to be mulattos and wonders if a mulatto had a greater chance to escape slavery than others did. For example, the escape of William and Ellen Craft was facilitated by Ellen’s light skin. The couple masqueraded as slave and master to escape bondage. Ellen convincingly played the role of a white slaveholder traveling with a slave.[4]] Lastly, it is a problem for the researcher, when a slave was owned by more than one person and the surname being studied is not recorded on the slave schedule.

A popular strategy used in the study of slave schedules is to compare the number of slaves owned by a slaveholder in 1850 and 1860 to determine whether the owner acquired or lost slaves between the two census years. This strategy should be coupled or complemented by information on the owner in the federal census for those years. If the slaveholder acquired or lost slaves, there is the possibility that a record of the transaction is extant. 

The 1860 Madison County, Mississippi Slave Schedule, page 114,[5] is the example for this article.[6] The date of enumeration is August 3, 1860.  Line 12, on the left side of the schedule, shows that the owner on the previous page has slaves living in nine slave houses. On the left side of the page, line 13, the researcher will find slaveholder Clanton. He owns twenty slaves. Clanton's slaves appear to be grouped by age in descending order. Unfortunately it is unclear whether the groups are for family units. The researcher should look at the entire slave schedule for the county, as a slaveholder may have slaves scattered throughout the county or there may be other slaveholders in the county with the same surname.

Slaveholder Cheek has one Black female slave at line 15 on the right side of the schedule. This female slave is deaf and dumb. Other slaveholders enumerated are Luckett with twelve slaves, Cheek with twenty-two slaves living in five houses and Culipher with one slave.

Lines 33 and 34 read "Minor Heirs Est. Greenwood Mrs. S.A. Luckett, Guardian." There are a number of slaves for this estate continuing on the next page. Information on these two lines serves as a clue to the researcher to look for probate and guardian records. Mrs. Luckett’s maiden name may yield a lead.

Although it is a great deal of work, the researcher should study the collateral relatives of the slaveholder. Collateral relatives consist of the families of spouses, brothers, sisters, and cousins. The researcher should look at such members of the slaveholder’s family because a slave may have been passed from one family member to another. In addition, one should look at neighboring slaveholders, as some slave families were separated and lived on nearby or adjoining plantations.

There is a table at the bottom of the slave schedule that provides total figures. The information includes the total number of owners, houses, male and female slaves, and fugitives, along with numbers on those manumitted, deaf and dumb, blind, insane, and idiotic. Although Assistant Marshal Nickols had sloppy handwriting, the researcher will notice that this page has a total of forty-eight male slaves and thirty-two female slaves. These tabulations and the sometimes-random notes left by the slave counter should not be missed.

Although slave schedules do not identify slaves by given or surname and may contain errors and omissions, they must not be overlooked. Slave schedules can be interpreted by corroborative information gleaned from tax lists, federal census records, deeds of gift, mortgages, Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company records, and the records of private institutions and individuals. Other corroborative information includes probate court records, which may contain the name of a buyer, and a bill of sale. These records may list the name and value of the slave. Frequently an analysis of a slave schedule in conjunction with such other records will reveal information that would not be found if each record were analyzed separately.  Thorough slave research involves the examination of a variety of records, as no single record will reveal all. True family history research is not just a matter of completing a family tree, but of tracking down information and analyzing it. It is connecting a variety of data into a plausible conclusion. Thus slave schedules play a supplementary or supporting role in a family historian’s research.


[1] Instructions to the Marshall and the Assistant Marshall were taken from U.S. Department of Commerce, 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions 1790-1900 (1989), p. 23.

[2] David H. Streets, Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case Studies. (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, 1986) p. 2.

[3] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made. (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), p. 7.

[4] William Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. Louisiana State University Press. 1999.

[5] The page number was written on the schedule by the enumerator. In some cases there is a hand written number and a stamped number. The researcher should make note of both numbers.

[6] This article has been written so that the 1860 Madison County, Mississippi Slave Schedule may be viewed separately from the article. Links have been provided when reference is made to the slave schedule. For example, when the article refers to line 12, the highlighted text reading line 12 is a link to the image.

Copyright ©1999 by Juliet Culliver Crutchfield, Ed.D.   Reprints require approval by the author. 

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