Resources to Trace African American Slave Ancestry

FamilySearch recently announced it is working with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum to crowdsource the online indexing of 1.5 million Freedman’s Bureau records that FamilySearch has put online.

This is a great resource to start learning about African American slaves in early American history. Is it possible to find out more about these slaves – the actual stories of their individual lives? Can we know what happened to each one?

photo of a slave cabin

Photo: slave cabin. Source: Library of Congress.

In some cases, yes – we can.

There are two key sources for these African American slave stories.

Slave Stories in Newspapers

Some of these black slave stories can be found in old newspapers. GenealogyBank’s 1.8 billion news stories are available – with unlimited downloads – at a nominal monthly or annual fee, making them easily available to genealogists everywhere.

a montage of newspaper articles about former slaves

As the nation grew so did newspapers – and newspapers recorded and preserved our ancestors’ stories.

Enter Last Name

For example, in newspapers we can learn the story of 79-year-old “Uncle Reuben” Taylor who grew up a slave on a farm near Baltimore, Maryland, was freed in 1863, and launched his career over the next 57 years delivering coal in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) 31 December 1920, page 7 tells us that he then retired to live with his daughter in Chicago.

Dig in and find your ancestors’ stories in GenealogyBank’s newspaper vault 1690 to Today.

a montage of newspaper articles from African American newspapers

Note that GenealogyBank also has a special search for our expansive online collection of more than 260 African American newspapers, which contains some of the earliest black publications such as Frederick Douglass’ Paper, an early anti-slavery newspaper by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Access our African American newspaper archive here:

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938

The Library of Congress has digitized and put online the collection of all 2,300+ first-person interviews with former slaves that were conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project from 1936-1938.

a photo of three ex-slaves interviewed for the by the Federal Writers’ Project from 1936-1938

Source: Library of Congress

These one-on-one slave interviews are invaluable.

The typescripts retain the tone of the person being interviewed. Reading the pages, you quickly can “hear” them speaking to you today.

Robert Bryant lived in Herculaneum, Mississippi – here is his story.
Find his story – and the story of thousands of others in this online collection.

ex-slave Robert Bryant's story as told to the Federal Writers’ Project

Source: Library of Congress

Real people. Real stories. Real lives.
These stories give you the opportunity to glimpse the life of a slave – as told one story at a time.

Get to know them – read and experience their stories.

Related African American Slavery Articles:

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Hammet Achmet: Washington’s Waiter & Revolutionary War Patriot

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary presents the fascinating story of Hammet Achmet, who grew up a slave in George Washington’s household, served as a drummer in the Revolutionary War, then became a freedman and drum maker.

Piecing together the life of a patriot from the American Revolutionary War is challenging—but piecing together the life of an African American minority patriot is even more so. That is, unless the person distinguished himself in a special way.

Such was the case with Hammet (or Hamet) Achmet (c. 1752, Africa – 1842, Connecticut), who was captured and enslaved as a young child, and later became something of a celebrity—having served as George Washington’s personal waiter.

George Washington’s Slave & Close Companion

Achmet grew up in the Washington family’s household as a black slave. However, he was later freed, either for serving in the American Revolutionary War, or according to the terms of George Washington’s will.

In his youth, Achmet had the responsibility of holding his horse as Washington prepared to ride. Achmet was affable and the two of them shared a life-long relationship. As an adult, he attended the Washington family at meals. After George Washington’s death in 1799, Achmet was given a lock of the president’s hair, which he kept in a tiny silver box shaped like a coffin. This treasure, along with one of Washington’s waistcoats and a small rapier (dress sword) with the initials G.W., were heirlooms Achmet carefully guarded throughout his life.

As an African American slave he was never taught to read or write, but Achmet was very intelligent. He could speak four or five languages, a useful skill for anyone in early America with its melting pot of immigrants. Although of a diminutive size (4′ 6”), Achmet served his new country faithfully as a Revolutionary War drummer.

In 1900 his life was chronicled in a book by Emilie T. Stedman, whose family knew him personally. Stedman’s book makes for marvelous historical reading and features her original drawings. You can read her book for free online, Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington, here:

photo of the cover of Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington”

In addition to the interesting information about him in Stedman’s book, we can expand our understanding of Achmet’s story with newspaper accounts that chronicle his fascinating life.

An African American Drummer in the Revolutionary War

Many people today assume that a drummer’s duties were easy during the Revolutionary War—but the music corps, including fifers, drummers, and other musicians, toiled for long days with complicated assignments. Several guides still exist which describe their schedule and music. (See link at the end of this article.)

Up before dawn, the war musicians signaled the wake-up, or “Reveille,” by playing “The Drummer’s Call.” If the troops were going on march, this musical selection reverted to one called “The General.” Because they never knew if the enemy was listening, these easily understood auditory signals reduced the need to call out orders to the troops.

The military musicians had to learn at least a dozen routines because each separate activity, from Roll Call to Assembly, had its own special composition. There were even unique sets for officer activities, and a special one for the Retreat, during which the men received their evening’s orders.

drawing of a drum and swords from Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington”

Illustration: from Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington.” Credit: Library of Congress.

Drummers accompanied or led the troops to battle, acting much like modern-day cheerleaders at a pep rally. Imagine having to focus on playing your music correctly, avoiding injury, and inspiring the trembling soldiers to face the enemy with determined energy! Being a drummer during battle was no easy task, and Achmet performed his responsibilities as well as the best of them.

Achmet Receives Revolutionary War Pension

After the Revolutionary War, Achmet applied for and received a pension (S.38107). His first request was done as a resident of Connecticut on 28 June 1818.

In his pension application, Achmet stated that he had served under Capt. Throop in Col. Return Jonathan Meig’s regiment, and signed the statement with his mark. Supporting statements were made by veterans who remembered seeing Achmet at the Valley Forge Winter Encampment; Phillipsburg, New Jersey; the Battle of Stony Point, New York (16 July 1779); and elsewhere. One wrote this about Achmet:

I saw the same little black drummer who is now before me, marching with said division of said army.

The pension was eventually granted on the basis that Achmet was an invalid (or too frail to work).

The Drum Maker

Once Achmet was a free man, he made his living manufacturing drums and toys, and selling used shoes to a gun factory.

text from Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington”

From: Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington.” Credit: Library of Congress.

Some remembered that Achmet would wear his old uniform, and his persistent drumming was often heard. He liked to recount stories about the dinners and grand company held in “Massa Washington’s mansion,” and sometimes showed off the president’s waistcoat.

Hammet Achmet’s Family Life

Achmet’s first wife was named Jane (c. 1774 – 1827), by whom there was a child. Jane was much younger than her husband but died before he did.

Their marriage was sometimes a rocky one, as we can infer from this historical newspaper advertisement in which Achmet is warning the public not to trust his wife, stating that he will not pay any more of the debts she incurs!

ad placed by Hamet Achmet warning he would not pay his wife's debts, Middlesex Gazette newspaper advertisement 5 July 1821

Middlesex Gazette (Middletown, Connecticut), 5 July 1821, page 3

When Jane sensed her impending death, “she prepared her shroud and mourning for her husband and granddaughter.” This obituary noted she was a professor of religion (meaning a type of preacher, not to be confused with a professor at a school).

obituary for Jane Achmet, Middlesex Gazette newspaper article 2 May 1827

Middlesex Gazette (Middletown, Connecticut), 2 May 1827, page 3

Achmet’s second wife, whose name might have been Ann, was Caucasian with darkened skin.

text from Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington”

From: Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington.” Credit: Library of Congress.

They married at the Methodist parsonage. This young bride had a temper, and after one fight she cut off Achmet’s curls while he slept—a serious affront, as this was rarely done.

Here is Stedman’s drawing depicting Achmet’s cottage.

drawing of Hammet Achmet's cottage, from Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington”

Illustration: from Emilie Stedman’s book, “Hammet Achmet, a Servant of George Washington.” Credit: Library of Congress.

A Colorful Personality

Stedman’s book provides many details about Achmet and recounts fun anecdotes, including how he responded when asked to join Phineas T. Barnum’s Circus.

To learn the answer, read the story here:

Achmet’s Obituary

When Hammett (or Hamet) Achmet passed away, this same obituary appeared in numerous newspapers.

obituary for Hamet Achmet, Boston Courier newspaper article 5 December 1842

Boston Courier (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 December 1842, page 3

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