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Finding the Last Slaveholder
by Tom Blake
In this, his first article, Tom Blake, Founding Director of the Large Slaveholder Project,discusses the birth of the Large Slaveholder Project, and his incredible success at linking the 1860 slave schedules with the Post-Emancipation 1870 census.

Birth of the Large Slaveholder Project

Genealogists tell us to search for our ancestors backwards, one step at a time. The US census is one way to take ten year steps. For various reasons, some of these census steps can be harder than others. But for those seeking African American roots, the step from 1870 to 1860 is usually the hardest, because almost 4,000,000 African Americans were not named on the 1860 census, but instead were reported as property on the slave census schedules. About one out of every nine African Americans was free in 1860, but the other eight were reported on the census under the name of the person who held them in slavery, giving only the color, age and sex of the slaves.

State indexes for the 1870 census are becoming more available, both in book form and on line. There are CD indexes available specifically to help find African Americans in 1870. (The most extensive 1870 African American CD is from Heritage Quest at Indexes for the 1860 free census have been available for quite some time, but indexes for the 1860 slave census have traditionally been non-existent. In 2001, after having been helped in my research by many volunteers over the Internet, I decided to make indexing some 1860 slave censuses my return contribution to help other researchers.
Image: Cat Island, Bahamas
Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection

Using the Historical United States Census Data Browser, which is a very detailed, searchable and highly recommended database that can found at, I found the 1860 slave census schedules included 393,975 named persons holding 3,950,546 unnamed slaves, or an average of about ten slaves per holder. The actual number of slaveholders may be slightly lower because some large holders held slaves in more than one County and would have been counted in each County. Excluding slaves, the 1860 U.S. population was 27,167,529, with about 1 in 70 being a slaveholder. From the data reported, I estimated that in 1860, slaveholders of 200 or more slaves, while constituting less than 1 % of the total number of U.S. slaveholders, or 1 out of 7,000 free persons, held 20-30% of the total number of slaves in the U.S. I decided publication of slaveholder names beginning with these largest holders would enable naming of the holders of the most slaves with the least amount of transcription work.

The transcriptions of these names and number of slaves held can be found at the Large Slaveholder Site at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb/~ajac. As my transcriptions have continued into more Counties, the minimum number of slaves held by the holders transcribed has gradually been lowered to 20. There are currently 8,395 surname/County combinations and 11,020 individual slaveholder names on the large slaveholder lists, representing a total of 792,219 slaves in 158 Counties (Parishes in Louisiana) in 10 States. This total represents 49.8% (approximately one half) of the slaves that were held in these Counties, and 20.05% (1 out of every 5) slaves held in the United States in 1860. The Counties and Parishes included there had 40.27% (2 out of 5) of the slaves held in the United States in 1860, and almost one half of those were held by the slaveholders listed at the site.

While planning my project, I read several books on African American genealogy and monitored some Internet forums on the subject. There seemed to be much confusion about whether freed slaves took the surname of the former slaveholder on emancipation. What seemed to be lacking in the discussions was any hard data, so I decided to compare the surnames of the large slaveholders in 1860 with the names of African Americans in 1870 and include that information with the transcriptions.

The Large Slaveholder site has been well received, with more than 100,000 visits to date, and has generated much positive feedback. I appreciate this opportunity to have a voice on the pages of the USF Africana Heritage Project website, which should be a wonderful additional resource for family researchers. I look forward to sharing more of what I have learned and learning more by participating.

Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.