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Using Federal Census Indexes
by Tom Blake
"Before Breakfast," Photo by Hampton Dunn
Using Federal Census Indexes to Find an 1860 Slaveholder

If you have followed the path recommended by experienced genealogists, backward one step at a time, and found a former slave on the 1870 census, and if your research has given you some idea of where and by whom that slave was enslaved in1860, you are ready to find that slaveholder on the 1860 Federal census. In fact, you are ready to find the slaveholder on two 1860 census schedules - the free schedule and the slave schedule.

The free census for 1860 is in similar format to the ones for later years, with some variations on the information contained. One particularly helpful piece of information on the 1860 free census is the value of personal property owned by the person. If the census shows the person was a farmer or planter in a slave state and had significant value of real estate and personal property shown, that likely indicated the holding of slaves, which were assigned a value and included in the personal property amount.

The 1860 census was the last one to include a census of slaveholders. For each County (called a Parish in Louisiana), the census taker traveled the County to gather census data on free persons, and he also gathered information from anyone who held slaves, including the number held and number of slave houses, and for each slave, the age, sex, color, and some other information, but not the names of the slaves. This slave information was recorded on a census form known as the slave schedule.

The first census index to use for finding an 1860 slaveholder is the free census index, because it will be most readily available. If you have come this far in your research, you should have developed a working knowledge of free census indexes, in book format and also electronic format (CDs or via an internet subscription site). Indexes for the 1860 free census exist in both formats. The 1860 free census books are published for each State, listing the names of the heads of household alphabetically and giving the County, local area and census page number. These books are readily available at most larger libraries with genealogical collections. For some States, there is also an "every name" index, listing not only the head of household, but every person enumerated. CD indexes have been published in a variety of ways, including multi State versions, and they usually include searching software. The internet subscription service through Ancestry offers the 1860 free census every name index as a complete database which can be searched in multiple ways.

Ideally the person sought will be listed in the 1860 free census index exactly where you expected and with the name spelled exactly as you thought. But as you have probably learned by now from searching for people in later census years, it is not always that easy. You also probably have learned some tricks about name searching. We search for people, not names, but since names are what is indexed, we sometimes have to play name games with the indexes to find the people. You can try different indexes and variant spellings, or search for other household members if using an every name index. An advantage of electronic format indexes is the ability to search in a variety of ways, especially if you experiment with using advanced and diverse search criteria, such as soundex and wild card searches, first name searches, or any other tricks you have learned. The more you work with a particular index database, the better you get at using its strengths and avoiding its weaknesses.

But what if, even after you try all your tricks, the person is still not found where you thought they would be on the 1860 free census? Because of hopelessly illegible names and outright omissions by the index builders, the classic technique is to go through the census pages for the County line by line to see if you can find the missing person. However, unless you are dealing with a sparsely populated County, you may want to consider some other possible approaches first. It could be that the person held slaves in the County, but lived in a different County or even in a different State, so particularly if the name is not too common, you might expand your index search to other Counties or States. You might also skip the free census search for now and look for the person on a slaveholder index.

Once you have found the slaveholder on the 1860 free census, you will want to look for the slaveholder on a 1860 slave census index. For larger slaveholders, try the Large Slaveholder site at, which includes the holders of about one out of five of all the slaves held in the Unites States in 1860, listed on pages for individual Counties and also on an alpha surname index for all County/State surname combinations included in the database.

If the slaveholder is not found on the Large Slaveholder Site, you will need to look for another slaveholder index. The late Ronald Vern Jackson authored or was a lead author of 1850 and 1860 slaveholder census indexes, published by Accelerated Indexing Systems International for all the slave States, but they do not appear to have been widely disseminated. Some of those indexes have been republished in recent years, but again apparently without significant distribution. A search of the library catalog at the LDS Family Search web site did not locate any of the slaveholder indexes, nor were any found with the other census books at the National Archives regional office for my area. These indexes may be available in some larger public library genealogical collections, but they might be kept in closed stack areas rather than in the open area where the free census index books are kept. You may have to ask your librarian.

The Ancestry internet census subscription does include access to the Accelerated Indexing Systems International 1860 slaveholder indexes for these states: AR, DE, DC, GA, MD, MS, MO, SC, TN, TX and VA. However, the method for subscribers to access the AIS database at Ancestry is not very straightforward and search results may vary in quality. Here is a link describing how to use the index if you are an Ancestry subscriber:

If your research has left you with a likely slaveholder name, but you are in doubt about where the person was enslaved, clues to the 1860 enslavement location can be provided by the location of the former slave on the 1870 census and the birth State shown for the person and for other household members or known relatives. Check the Large Slaveholder site for a page about the County where the former slave is found in 1870. If there is such a page it will contain census information about the extent of change in the number of slaves in the County in 1860 compared with the "colored" population of 1870, which could give indication of whether the former slave might have stayed in the same County. That page will also include names of the large slaveholders in the County. If there is no Large Slaveholder page for the County, the likely slaveholder names can be checked in the free and other slaveholder indexes. If the name is somewhat unusual, then your task could be less difficult, but if it is a fairly common name, you may end up with numerous possibilities.

If your research has left you fairly certain of the location but in doubt about the name of the 1860 slaveholder, check the Large Slaveholder site for a page about the County of interest. If there is such a page it will give figures on the total number of slaves and slaveholders in the County and will list the names of the larger slaveholders. The page will also give information on the extent to which colored persons on the 1870 census index were using the same surname as larger 1860 slaveholders in that County and where those colored persons were located in 1870. If you are just presuming the 1870 surname was the name of the last slaveholder, the surname data will help you check that presumption. You may eventually have the difficult task of going through all the 1860 slave census pages for the County to see if you can find groups of listed slaves that match somewhat with the 1870 families - a difficult task made even harder if there were lots of slaves in the County or if the listing of their ages on the slave census seems particularly unreliable.

If you are in doubt about both the place of enslavement and the name of the enslaver, then you have the most difficult task. You must dig deeper into the information available on your ancestors after the time of slavery to find more clues. You might also explore the presumption that the place of 1870 residence was the place of 1860 enslavement (look at the1860-1870 County migration figures to judge the relative likelihood of that presumption), and the presumption that the 1870 free surname was the 1860 enslaver surname (consider surname matching information from the Large Slaveholder site if available). Be careful about following presumptions too far; that time might be better spent on digging for later clues. Perhaps the most useful reason for pursuing a presumption is to eliminate it from further consideration. For example, if your ancestor was found in New Orleans in 1870, but tradition says he was a field hand under slavery, then he was likely not enslaved in New Orleans. Or if your ancestor has an unusual surname in 1870 and lived in a rural County of low migration, and there is no slaveholder in that County in 1860 with that surname, then it is not likely your ancestor took the name of an 1860 enslaver.

The Large Slaveholder site, though it indexes only slaveholders holding about 20% of the slaves in the US in 1860, has some advantages over the AISI books. It is internet accessible for free; has a combined index for all included States and Counties; is browseable by County; concentrates on those who held the most slaves; includes any information enumerated about trusts, estates, etc.; includes Plantation names if given; includes the number of slaves; includes statistics on County population and migration by race; and includes surname matching data for 1860-1870. The Ancestry subscription also lacks the above advantages of the Large Slaveholder index, except that Ancestry is also searchable by surname across State lines and is browseable by County. However, Ancestry requires a fee and has some States omitted, though it also includes some State slaveholder indexes for 1850 (a list of the States and years of slaveholder indexes available at Ancestry is at

A census index is a tool to help find people on the census. Census records give us a partial report on people at a given place and time. Locating a person on a census also gives us a time and place around which to search for more detailed records and reports on the person. But it is not necessary to find a person on a census in order to search for other records and reports on that person in that time and place. People were missed on censuses and on indexes, but they still may have left other records and reports of great interest and value.

Tom's Note: Since this article was written, has now made available to subscribers on line a slaveholder index to the 1860 slave census. Though this is a wonderful new resource, it does have its deficiencies and should be used as a further part of above search methodology, rather than as a substitute.
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.