October 23rd, 2013

Picking Through Plantation Records to Find an Ancestor

Finding African American ancestors has its own particular set of challenges. Because of the nature of slavery, there are few records that can be used for tracing ancestors who may have been slaves. One set of valuable genealogical documents does exist however, and they are plantation records. Plantations were huge commercial operations, usually employing more than twenty five slaves, and often hundreds. The plantation managers organized their work force according to two different systems.

The first system was the task system, which assigned a daily quota of work to each slave. Upon reaching their quota, the worker was allowed to work for themselves, or to pursue recreational or leisure activities. The second was known as the gang system. In the gang system slaves were divided into groups or “gangs”, everyone working at the same job. The gangs were supervised by a person known as a “driver”; often another slave who was in turned supervised by an “overseer.”

The importance of knowing the names of the different systems lies in the fact that different types of plantations used different systems. Rice plantations incorporated the task system, while Tobacco plantations used the gang system. Cotton and Sugar plantations originally used the gang system, but in later years switched to the task system. Knowing what type of plantation your ancestor worked on will help you to understand the system they worked under, and consequently what types of record may be available to them.

The parts of plantation records that have actual genealogical value make up only a small portion of the documentation, but they do contain information that the researcher will find useful. Keep in mind that plantation records are business documents, and slaves were often itemized as inventory. Careful records were kept of items such as clothing and tools that were issued to slaves, and hence the names of the slaves who received them were recorded as well.

Plantation owners also kept daily journals, and often recorded the work that was performed or unfinished on a particular day. These records are very useful for any plantation that used the task system, as remember each individual was assigned a specific quota of work to complete. As property, slaves could also be mortgaged or rented, and sometimes they were insured. Owners were also taxed on each slave they owned, and as such owners kept careful records of such transactions.

Plantation records are also often the only place to find birth records of slaves. When a child was born to a slave it became the property of the plantation owner, and consequently another “item” to inventory. Age would be important if the owner ever chose to sell that child slave, and consequently a birth record would have been created to prove how old he or she was. Owners often kept records of their slaves as a family group, though normally only the mother was listed with her children. As such, male ancestors who were slaves are harder to track down.

Though plantation records may be hard to find, some have been microfilmed and are available at many research libraries. One such collection is the Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolutionary through the Civil War series. A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of these records is available online, and it also yields a ton of information on what you will find in them as well as brief summaries of the Plantation owners and the slaves listed in them. They are downloadable in PDF format, and are an excellent genealogical tool for anyone researching their African American ancestors.

Online Archive Canada hosts an online collection of the Sugar Plantation Records of the Hall Family of Jamaica that dates from 1709-1835, while Sankofa-gen Wiki features a constantly updated collection of free historical and genealogical data concerning American plantations, factories, farms, or manors that used African slave labor. It includes the names of slaves, and is organized by state, county, and plantation.