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Read more about U.S. legislation in the 1800s regarding slavery in GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents section which contains The American State Papers and more.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

First Lady Edith Wilson & Her Ancestor Pocahontas

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in celebration of November being Native American Heritage Month—Gena searches old newspapers to find stories about First Lady Edith Wilson and her connection to her famous Native American ancestor, Pocahontas.

When we think of great Native American leaders throughout U.S. history, names like Cochise, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull come to mind. But what about Native American women? Most Americans know the names of only two Native American women: Pocahontas and Sacagawea. Pocahontas, whose mythology was immortalized in a song sung by Peggy Lee and a Disney movie, might be the most familiar Native American woman because she left a sizable number of descendants through her son Thomas Rolf.

Who can claim descent from Pocahontas? At least one First Lady, numerous politicians, and even Confederate General Robert E. Lee, to name just a few. It was estimated in the 1980s that Pocahontas’ descendants probably numbered around 250,000. According to genealogist Gary B. Roberts, those who claim this lineage are through the Bolling line, which are the only known descendants traced beyond the early 18th century.*

Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s Native American Ancestry

One American whose Pocahontas lineage was well reported was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the second wife of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. From the time she became engaged to the president, her family history was a frequent topic in the newspapers.

photo of First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, married to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Photo: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. Credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.

This 1915 newspaper article provides some information about Edith’s family history. It reports that ever since the engagement was announced “there has been a live inquiry for the correct data.” The article provides that data by tracing Edith’s direct line to Pocahontas and proclaims Edith Bolling Galt the ninth in descent from Pocahontas. [Note: the article erroneously states that Pocahontas married Thomas Rolfe; her husband’s name was John Rolfe, and their son’s name was Thomas.]

Fiancee of the President Is Undoubtedly a Direct Descendant of Pocahontas, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 November 1915

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 November 1915, page 5

In writings about Edith’s foremother, emphasis was placed that someone with “Indian blood” would now reside in the White House. This announcement about Edith’s lineage was also the catalyst for impromptu history lessons found in newspapers across the country. The short life of Pocahontas has been retold often, and—as with any well-told story—inaccuracies creep in. This old newspaper article provides readers with information and images reportedly of Pocahontas.

Unhappy Pocahontas, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 October 1915

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 October 1915, page 43

The widow Edith Bolling Galt married President Woodrow Wilson in December 1915. Undoubtedly, any presidential wedding results in gifts from a diverse range of well-wishers. The Wilson wedding was no different.

According to this 1916 newspaper article, one item that Edith received was a Pocahontas statuette presented by the Pocahontas Memorial Association. The article points out that Edith Bolling Wilson was related to Pocahontas through her paternal line.

Indian Statuette for Mrs. Wilson; Figure of Pocahontas, Her Ancestress, a Bridal Gift, Broad Ax newspaper article 8 January 1916

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 8 January 1916, page 3

The news article included this picture of the Pocahontas statuette.

photo of a statuette of Pocahontas given to her descendant, First Lady Edith Wilson

The statuette was not the only Pocahontas-related gift that Edith received while in the White House. Other gifts related to her Native American ancestry included dolls and a portrait of her ancestress presented by the heritage membership organization Colonial Dames.

Pocahontas' Picture Gift; Private Copy of Original Portrait to Be Sent Mrs. Wilson, Oregonian newspaper article 3 March 1919

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 March 1919, page 14

When Edith Wilson visited England in 1918, this Duluth newspaper article heralded the visit of a descendant of Pocahontas—pointing out it was a little over 300 years since her ancestor made a similar trip. The newspaper article claims: “Only one other American woman [Pocahontas] ever has been received in England with the social and official courtesies which will be lavished upon Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.” The news article goes on to trace Edith’s roots to Pocahontas and even to her early Bolling English roots.

To Be Greeted as Was Pocahontas in 1616; England Prepares for President's Wife, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 3 December 1918

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 3 December 1918, page 12

Pocahontas Research Resources

Are you a descendent of Pocahontas? You may be interested in the book Pocahontas’ Descendants: A Revision, Enlargement, and Extension of the List as Set Out by Wyndham Robertson in His Book Pocahontas and Her Descendants (1887), by Stuart E. Brown, Jr., Lorraine F. Myers, and Eileen M. Chappel (the Pocahontas Foundation, 1985).

Gary B. Roberts’ article Notable Kin: Some Descendants and Kinsmen of Descendants of Pocahontas: An Excursion into Southern Genealogy on the American Ancestors website has additional sources you may be interested in.

Whether or not you have Native American ancestry, dig into GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives to find out more about your ancestors, discovering the stories that help fill in the details on your family tree.

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*Notable Kin: Some Descendants and Kinsmen of Descendants of Pocahontas: An Excursion into Southern Genealogy by Gary B. Roberts. American Ancestors. 1986. http://www.americanancestors.org/an-excursion-into-southern-genealogy/ accessed 11 November 2013.