African American Slave Trade: Ships & Records for Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers and other online resources to learn more about the African slave trade in early American history.

Throughout the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade, an estimated 12 million Africans were captured in their homeland and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic, on more than 35,000 voyages, starting in the 17th century* The African Diaspora scattered Africans throughout the Caribbean and Americas. The first slave ship to land in Colonial America went to Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. Eighteen years later, the first American slave ship, Desire, sailed out of Massachusetts. This forced migration caused the displacement, torture, enslavement and murder of many Africans.**

African slaves brought to the Americas were part of the “Middle Passage,” a voyage that began in Europe, stopped in Africa to unload supplies and pick up enslaved human cargo, and then traveled to American ports on the eastern coast to trade that human cargo for goods that were then shipped back to Europe.

History of the African Slave Trade in Early America and the United States Infographic (Note: the article continues after this infographic.)

History of the African Slave Trade in America

This troubling part of American history—and important part of African American history—can be uncovered and explored with patient historical research, including searching in old newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

Laws Slow—but Don’t Stop—the African Slave Trade

It would seem that the African slave trade to America would have been stopped by a law passed by the U.S. Congress in March 1807 that stated:

“That from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.”***

Genealogy Tip:

Read more about U.S. legislation in the 1800s regarding slavery in GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents section which contains The American State Papers and more.

However, the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves and a similar law passed in the United Kingdom didn’t end the practice of the slave trade. Slave ships illegally continued to bring their human cargo to U.S. ports, and American newspapers continued reporting on the occasional capture of a slave ship into the 1840s. (Two ships, the Wanderer and the Clotilde, are reported to have brought slaves to the United States well into the 1850s.) As with the passage of most laws, those who would break the law don’t end their criminal deeds; instead a black market thrives.

Slave Advertisements in Newspapers

Eighteenth-century newspapers found in GenealogyBank’s archives report of the comings and goings of slave ships, when the African slave trade was still legal. From advertisements to shipping news articles, researchers can find mentions of slave ships, names of their captains, and descriptions of the people on board.

In some cases advertisements for the upcoming sale of slaves included information on the ship they would be arriving on. In this example from a 1785 South Carolina newspaper, Fisher & Edwards advertise that the ship Commerce, under Captain Thomas Morton, will be arriving from Africa’s Gold Coast with “upwards of 200 prime slaves” for sale.

ad for a slave auction, South-Carolina Weekly Gazette newspaper advertisement 6 August 1785

South-Carolina Weekly Gazette (Charleston, South Carolina), 6 August 1785, page 3

An earlier South Carolina advertisement proclaims that the slaves aboard Captain Buncombe’s ship Venus are “mostly stout men.”

ad for a slave auction, South-Carolina Weekly Gazette newspaper advertisement 17 July 1784

South-Carolina Weekly Gazette (Charleston, South Carolina), 17 July 1784, page 4

Slave Ship “Shipping News” in Newspapers

Articles under “Shipping News” or “Marine List” headlines are a good place to start searching for information about slave ships, crew, and cargo.

In this example from a 1799 New York newspaper, we see updates on various ships including information about deaths on ships. We also see that the Gurbridge and Mary were bringing slaves, and to whom they were being brought.

shipping news, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 31 July 1799

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 31 July 1799, page 3

Where to Find Records on the African Slave Trade & Slave Ships

  • After exhausting your research in newspapers, learn more about a particular slave ship by consulting the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database website, which houses information about slave ships from 1514 to 1866.

The National Archives (NARA) houses resources that can assist in your research:

African American Slave Trade Infographic Research Sources:

These online websites can be helpful, but research on the name of a slave ship should begin with historical newspapers. It’s in their advertisements and news articles that you will find mentions of the slave ships’ cargo, crew, and destination.

You are free to share the History of the African Slave Trade in Early America and the United States Infographic on your blog or website using the embed code below.

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* The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces. Accessed 23 February 2014.

** “March 2, 1807.” This Week in History, March. http://www.peacebuttons.info/E-News/images/peacehistorymarch.htm. Accessed 23 February 2014.

*** “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States, From and After the First Day of January, in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight.” The Avalon Project. Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/sl004.asp. Accessed 23 February 2014.

10 Famous African Americans in 18th & 19th Century History

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate February being Black History Month, Mary searches old newspapers to find information about 10 African Americans who achieved notable “firsts” in American history

So rich is the history of persons of color, that when GenealogyBank asked me to research historical African American accomplishments, it was difficult to narrow the choices.

As a result, this article focuses on just a few famous African American women and men of the 18th and 19th Centuries. This list includes transformational leaders, authors, inventors and the people behind many of the “firsts” in American history. At the conclusion of this article, follow the links to further broaden your knowledge of these famous African Americans, as well as other notable people who could not be featured in this short piece.

For researchers of Black history who know these earlier achievers as household names, take this handy quiz—which you are welcome to share with others.

For everyone else, read on to learn more about these individuals, with information gleaned from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

quiz about 10 famous African Americans from the 17th and 18th centuries

1) Benjamin Banneker (9 Nov. 1731 Baltimore, MD – 9 Oct. 1806 Baltimore, MD)

Early newspapers described Banneker as “a noted Negro mathematician and astronomer”—but he was also a farmer, clock-maker and self-taught scientist. In addition, he was the first African American to author an almanac.

Banneker was chosen to assist Major Andrew Ellicott with his project to survey the borders of the District of Columbia. Known to be a voluminous writer of letters, Banneker became involved in the movement to establish the colony of Liberia in Africa. He was never enslaved, as his parents, Mary and Robert, were free.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Banneker.)

article about Benjamin Banneker, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 29 August 1926

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 29 August 1926, page 64

2) James Derham (1757 Philadelphia, PA – 1802)

Although he did not hold a degree, James Derham became the first African American man to formally practice medicine, a skill he learned during the Revolutionary War while serving with the British under his master, Dr. George West. Derham was fluent in French, English and Spanish. As someone taught to compound medicines, he was an early pharmacist. His medical business in New Orleans, Louisiana, reportedly earned him $3,000 per year.

This 1789 newspaper article presented a biography of James Derham.

article about James Derham, New-Hampshire Spy newspaper article 3 February 1789

New-Hampshire Spy (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 3 February 1789, page 120

In this 1828 newspaper article, a local New Orleans doctor expressed his admiration for James Derham’s medical knowledge:

‘I conversed with him on medicine,’ says Dr. Rush, ‘and found him very learned. I thought I could give him information concerning the treatment of diseases, but I learned more from him than he could expect from me.’

article about James Derham, Freedom’s Journal newspaper article 14 November 1828

Freedom’s Journal (New York, New York), 14 November 1828, page 2

3) Jupiter Hammon (17 Oct. 1711 Lloyd Harbor, NY – before 1806)

Hammon was an abolitionist, the first published African American poet, and is largely considered to be one of the founders of African American literature. Enslaved by the John Lloyd family and never emancipated, he was allowed to write and even served in the American Revolutionary War.

One of his poems, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries,” was published as a broadside (i.e., a paper printed on a single page).

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jupiter_Hammon.)

article about Jupiter Hammon, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 April 1924

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 April 1924, page 6

For more information about his life, see: Authentication of Poem Written by 18th Century Slave and Author, Jupiter Hammon (Cedrick May, University of Texas at Arlington).

4) Absalom Jones (1746 Delaware – 13 Feb. 1818 Philadelphia, PA)

Born into slavery, Absalom Jones was a noted abolitionist who became the first ordained African American priest of the Episcopal Church, in 1795. Early newspapers depict him as an articulate and educated man, who worked to establish a free colony of former slaves in Africa. In the Episcopal Calendar of Saints, 13 February is celebrated as “Absalom Jones, Priest 1818.”

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absalom_Jones.)

article about Absalom Jones, Amherst Journal newspaper article 26 September 1795

Amherst Journal (Amherst, New Hampshire), 26 September 1795, page 3

5) Jarena Lee (c. 1783 Cape May, NJ – unknown)

A noted Evangelist, Jarena Lee was the first African American woman to publish an autobiography.

portrait of Jarena Lee

Portrait: Jarena Lee. Credit: Library of Congress.

The earliest mention of Jarena Lee in a newspaper was in 1840, when she was listed as a member of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society from Pennsylvania.

article about Jarena Lee, Emancipator newspaper article 29 May 1840

Emancipator (New York, New York), 29 May 1840, page 18

Another report from an 1853 newspaper mentions Lee involved in a discussion about the Colonization Society.

article about Jarena Lee, Liberator newspaper article 9 December 1853

Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 December 1853, page 195

6) Mary Eliza Mahoney (16 Apr. 1845 Dorchester, MA – 4 Jan. 1926 Boston MA)

After working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first African American woman to be accepted into nursing school, at the age of 33. It took 16 months, after which only 3 of the 40 applicants graduated. By 1908 she had co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Ada B. Thorns. She went on to be an active participant in other nursing organizations, along with holding titles as a director. When women gained their voting rights in 1920, Mahoney was the first woman in Boston to register to vote. Several prestigious nursing awards are given in her honor.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Eliza_Mahoney.)

article about Mary Eliza Mahoney, Milwaukee Star newspaper article 13 July 1968

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 13 July 1968, page 5

7) Judy W. Reed (c. 1826 – unknown)

Judy W. Reed is often hailed as the first African American woman to hold a patent, for her dough kneader.

illustration of Judy Reed's dough kneader

Illustration: Judy Reed’s dough kneader. Credit: United States Patent & Trademark Office.

Not much is known about her life, but this 1900 newspaper article reports that she and several other women received their patents in 1899.

(Note: Google patents reports that they were earlier. See: https://www.google.com/patents.)

article about Judy Reed, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 11 June 1900

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 11 June 1900, page 5

8) Alexander Lucius Twilight (26 Sep. 1795 Corinth, VT – 19 June 1857 Brownington, VT)

Twilight was a licensed Congregational minister, a teacher and politician. In 1823 he became the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree when he graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. He also became the first state-elected official when he joined the Vermont General Assembly in 1836.

(See: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/twilight-alexander-1795-1857.)

article about Alexander Twilight, American Repertory newspaper article 28 August 1823

American Repertory (St. Albans, Vermont), 28 August 1823, page 3

9) Phillis Wheatley or Phillis Wheatley Peters (8 May 1753 Senegambia, Africa – 5 Dec. 1784 Boston, MA)

Hailed in this 1773 newspaper as “the ingenious Negro Poet,” Phillis Wheatley was the first African American female poet to be published.

article about Phillis Wheatley, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 7 May 1773

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 7 May 1773, page 3

Captured at the age of seven in the present-day regions of Gambia and Senegal, Africa, Phillis found herself enslaved by the John Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write. At the age of 20, this talented woman published Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was showcased in America and England. After the death of John Wheatley, she was emancipated and decided to marry John Peters. The family struggled financially, and after Peters was sent to prison for debts, Phillis became ill and died at the young age of 31.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phillis_Wheatley.)

article featuring a poem by Phillis Wheatley, Boston-News Letter newspaper article 13 May 1773

Boston-News Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 May 1773, page 4

10) Harriet E. “Hattie” Adams Wilson (15 Mar. 1825 New Hampshire – 28 June 1900 Quincy, MA)

Born to an African American “hooper of barrels” and a washerwoman of Irish descent, Hattie was raised by her parents until her father died. As a young girl, she found herself abandoned and bound out as an indentured servant on the farm of Nehemiah Heyward, Jr. After completing her indenture, she worked as a seamstress and servant. Some of her other occupations were: clairvoyant physician, nurse and healer. In 1851 she married Thomas Wilson, an escaped slave and lecturer. He soon abandoned her, but later returned to rescue her and her son from a poor farm.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_E._Wilson.)

Harriet is credited with writing the first African American novel published in the U.S. Although copyrighted, “Our Nig: or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, was published anonymously in 1859 and rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982. Although a work of fiction, the book is thought to describe her life as an indentured servant. I couldn’t find any early newspaper articles to document her life or her novel, but I did find several recent articles discussing her work—including this one from 1982.

article about Harriet Adams Wilson, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 15 November 1982

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 15 November 1982, page 6

For more information, see: African American Registry.)

Additional African American Research Resources

For more complete biographies on these and other noteworthy African Americans, see:

Find Your Ethnic Ancestors with Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides some search tips and advice to help you research your ethnic ancestors.

Are you searching for your ethnic ancestors and not having much luck finding information about them? Historical newspapers are a great resource for this type of family history research because they are the great equalizer. Whether for good or bad, depending on the time period, your ancestor could have been mentioned in the newspaper.

But, finding an ethnic ancestor isn’t as easy as conducting a singular search and then you’re done hunting your heritage. No, sometimes tracing your ethnic roots takes a little more than entering a name in a search engine. Consider the following tips to enhance your ethnic ancestry research.

GenealogyBank's search page for its African American newspapers collection

Search in Ethnic Newspaper Collections

Often when we are doing newspaper research we focus on a specific newspaper that we know existed in the city where an ancestor lived. But the reality is that there could have been multiple newspapers that reported on an area. In the city where I live, there are at least three major newspapers reporting on our area—and that’s not counting the numerous community and ethnic newspapers that also report our local news.

Ethnic communities often had their own newspapers, making them a valuable resource to trace your immigrant ancestry. Because of possible immigrant and racial prejudices, you may have a better chance of finding news about an ethnic ancestor in an ethnic newspaper than a generic area newspaper. For this reason, make sure that you don’t limit your search to just one newspaper. For each place your ethnic ancestors lived in the United States, look to see what ethnic newspapers existed for that time period.

a graphic promoting GenealogyBank's French-language newspaper collection

GenealogyBank houses various special ethnic newspaper collections and foreign language newspapers:

GenealogyBank houses various special ethnic newspaper collections and foreign language newspapers:

a list of GenealogyBank's German American newspapers

Because GenealogyBank is constantly adding to its online collections, it’s important to check back often with the GenealogyBank Blog or the Newsletter Archives section of the website’s Learning Center. Click here to search GenealogyBank’s complete newspaper title list.

How to Search for Your Ancestor

How do you search for an ancestor? The first obvious way is to search by your ancestor’s name. As you do this search, don’t forget all the possible combinations and misspellings of your ancestor’s name. Obviously if their name is terribly misspelled you could miss articles that document their lives. Keep a list of variations of their name and try each and every one. This list should be an active document that you add to as you find new “interesting” way to spell your ancestor’s name. Also, try searching on your ancestor’s name using wildcard characters such as an asterisk. See our other post about ancestor name research for additional tips.

a graphic promoting GenealogyBank's Hispanic American newspapers collection

In addition to their name, what other ways can you search for an ancestor? Instead of searching on an ancestor’s name only, combine your name search with various keywords and keyword phrases with dates. (A keyword or keyword phrase may be something like “railroad,” “St. Mary’s Catholic Church” or “Victoria Middle School.”)

In fact, on GenealogyBank’s search page you do not have to search with an ancestor’s name at all. You could focus your ancestor search on just keywords and dates. You can even exclude certain keywords from your ancestor search in order to narrow down your results.

GenealogyBank's search page for itsHistorical Newspapers collection

Think about alternative ways to search for an ancestor, like the name of an event, the name of the school or church they attended, or the name of their occupation. Even searching the names of their associates might help to uncover articles where they are mentioned. Make a timeline of the events they participated in and consider using some of those events as keywords for your search.

Get to Know the Newspaper

Probably one step we all tend to skip in our genealogy research is learning more about the resources we use. By learning more about that resource, you can better learn how to search it.

How do you get to know a particular newspaper? Take some time to read it, page by page, during the time period your ancestor lived in that area. What columns existed? In what sections are community members mentioned? What community groups are regularly discussed? Can you find specific news articles on certain days? What pages feature the obituaries and vital records announcements?

Reading and understanding the whole newspaper, not merely searching it out of context, can provide you not only with important information to help you search for your ancestor—it can also give you important social history information. Mentions of events or activities that went on while your ancestor was alive might give you some ideas for additional documents to research. Social history information can also be integrated into your family history narrative as you tell the story of your ancestor’s life.

search page for GenealogyBank's Irish American newspapers collection

Don’t Give Up

Ancestry research isn’t always as easy as simply entering a name and pushing the search button on the largest newspaper where your ancestor lived. Sometimes you’ll need to think in terms of your ancestor’s community and the times they lived in, to help you narrow down possible events and activities they took part in. Keeping a list of all possible variations of a name, and adding to that list, can help you not miss important articles. If you’re searching for an ethnic ancestor, see what ethnic newspapers were published for the time and area where your ancestor lived, and search those papers thoroughly.

a list of GenealogyBank's Jewish American newspapers collection

One of my favorite sayings is: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I firmly believe this is true for genealogy research. Because we can’t know everything that may exist for an ancestor, be open to incorporating differing search strategies, enhance your family history research by studying your ancestor’s community, and search ethnic newspapers—and you will be closer to finding the information you need.

Related Ethnic Blog Articles

Genealogy – Growing Even More Popular

“In ever increasing numbers … genealogists becoming more numerous … in every part of the country.”

“Almost every large city has its own genealogical society.”

That sounds like an article from today’s newspaper – but it was written in 1912.

(Read the complete article – 16 Dec 1912 San Jose Mercury News).

But it is as true now as it was nearly 100 years ago when this article was written.

There are more genealogists now than every before.

Genealogists today as then are using the tools and data available to “do accurate and truthful genealogical research.”

Genealogists then and now are working at two goals:

1. To accurately research, document and record the information on their extended family tree.

2. To preserve, disseminate and pass down that information to the rising generation.

Discover your heritage, preserve it and pass it on!

Be a part of GenealogyBankSign up Now.

Find and document your ancestors in GenealogyBank – the best source for old newspapers & documents on the planet.

Period!

African American Funeral Program Collection Online

Hat’s off to the: East Central Georgia Regional Library. They have put their African American Funeral Program Collection online.

This impressive collection has more than 1,000 funeral programs from the greater Augusta, Georgia area. They date from 1933 to 2008, with the bulk of the collection starting from 1960 to 2008.

According to the website:

The programs typically contain a photograph of the deceased, an obituary, a list of surviving relatives, and the order of service. The collection provides extensive genealogical information about the deceased, including birth and death dates, maiden names, names of relatives, past residences, and place of burial. Alongside this genealogical information, the obituaries provide a rich source of local history about African Americans. Many of the people included in this collection were prominent in their communities, and many were involved locally in the struggle for civil rights.

The African American Funeral Programs from the East Central Georgia Regional Library is a project of the Digital Library of Georgia in association with the East Central Georgia Regional Library as part of Georgia HomePLACE. The project is supported with federal LSTA funds administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Georgia Public Library Service, a unit of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
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