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Using Records about Slavery in the Southern Historical Collection: Searching in Materials

This tutorial is meant to orient and direct users to materials that document the history of slavery in the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Special Collections Library.

Searching in Materials: Identifying Information

Close reading each document is one way to ensure that you don't miss an important clue. Unfortunately this can be very time consuming. The section below provides some helpful hints on skimming documents and training your eyes for specific keywords and hints. Transcribing documents is also a way to familiarize yourself with the more intimate details of each piece of evidence. You can transcribe by hand or use a word processor. Check out the National Archives' Transcription Tips for guidance on interpreting 18th and 19th century handwriting, which includes writing conventions and common abbreviations used during this particular historical period.

Names of the Enslaved

When our archivists describe collections, they rarely transcribe all of the names of the individuals who were enslaved. A "ctrl-f" or "command-f" search for a specific name will only result in names that an archivist found and decided to include in the online finding aid. It doesn't necessarily mean that the name does not appear in the documents in the collection. Also remember that all of our collections are not digitized. It's wise to start with a "ctrl-f" or "command-f" search on the finding aid page, but you will likely have to move deeper into the physical collection to do a close read and transcribe. 

Consider the following when searching for enslaved individuals in SHC Collections:
  • The following terms may be used to describe an enslaved person during the period of slavery and reconstruction: slave, Negro (although rarely capitalized), servant, girl, boy, colored, hand(s).
  • Enslaved people were often referred to by only their first name. This can sometimes be an indicator that the author of the document is referring to a person who was enslaved.
  • Collections that document the reconstruction era (1865-1877) may provide surnames of formerly enslaved men and women or provide more identifying information (age, place of birth, etc.). Many people who were enslaved entered into sharecropping arrangements with their former owners. These records may be described as: sharecropping agreements or contracts; tenant agreements or contracts; labor contracts with tenant farmers, freedmen or formerly enslaved people. See the Key Terms section for an example.
  • Many people who were enslaved were illiterate. On official documents and contracts that they were required to sign, illiterate people often provided “his mark” or "her mark" in place of signing their name.
  • In letters written by enslaved people, the authors typically referred to the people who owned them as "mistress"; "miss"; "master"; or "mister." They sometimes referred to their enslaved relatives or friends as "aunt"; "uncle"; or "cousin." "Uncle" or "aunt" were often used to refer to elderly enslaved people.
Use the following tricks, specifically when tracing enslaved individuals through large collections:
  • Start building the names of the enslaved community. Use these names to trace individuals in census and post-emancipation records. Census records are organized geographically, with households listed near each other. 
  • Look for nicknames or alternate spellings. 
  • Collections that document both slavery and post emancipation years, especially those with the sharecropping or tenant farming records, hold the potential to connect individuals from enslavement to freedom. Begin your search with these post-emancipation documents and work backwards in time.