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Read more about U.S. legislation in the 1800s regarding slavery in GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents section which contains The American State Papers and more.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

102-Year-Old Ex-Slave Once Shook Abraham Lincoln’s Hand

I ran across this interesting obituary in an old newspaper today. It ended with this line: “She once shook hands with Abraham Lincoln.”

In 1912, or even today, it would be impressive to know someone who shook hands with a President—especially one of the stature of Abraham Lincoln.

There were, no doubt, many highlights over the course of Mrs. Catharine Pride’s 102 years. She was born an African American slave in Virginia in 1810, and after the Civil War had lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, for more than 40 years.

Now—put that in context. She was born an African American slave and she had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves. It must have been a very powerful moment.

Catherine Pride Obituary - 102 year old slave shook hands with Abraham Lincoln

Reclaim your ancestors’ stories and make sure the family knows the details of your ancestors’ lives, like this obituary of Mrs. Catharine Pride published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 January 1912, page 7.

You can discover a wealth of information in our full historical newspaper archives or explore only your African American ancestry in our African American newspapers collection.

13th Amendment Ratified, Abolishing Slavery in America

Our online archive of old newspapers is a great resource to help with your family history research, filling in details on your family tree. It’s also a good way to learn about the times your ancestors lived in, and better understand their lives.

For example, if your ancestors were alive on Dec. 6, 1865, then you know one of the major news topics they were discussing around the supper table. For on that day, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, forever abolishing slavery in the United States.

The next day, Americans saw in their local newspapers something very similar to what New Yorkers were reading about the newly-ratified constitutional amendment marking the abolition of slavery:

Slavery Forever Dead New York Herald Newspaper Article December 07, 1865

New York Herald (New York, New York), 7 December 1865, page 1.

Some people today think President Abraham Lincoln banned slavery when he issued his Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, but that was not the case. Using his War Powers, President Lincoln only did what he could legally do: free the slaves in Confederate-controlled parts of the country. Slavery itself remained legal in the U.S.— slaves were not freed in the four border states that did not secede from the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri.

It would take an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to legally ban slavery in the United States, and when the Georgia Legislature approved the 13th Amendment—becoming the 27th state to do so—the necessary approval of ¾ of the states was reached and the amendment was ratified.

13th Amendment Newspaper Article Lowell Daily Citizen & News 1865

Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts), 8 December 1865, page 2.

The American Civil War was fought over two main preservation issues: whether the Union should remain intact, and whether slavery should be preserved. After four terrible years of military fighting that killed over 600,000 soldiers and wounded hundreds of thousands more, the nation had its answers: the Union would remain whole, and slavery was ended.

What a tumultuous year 1865 was for America! At the beginning of the year the Civil War was still raging. During April General Robert E. Lee surrendered the main Confederate army—and five days later U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern sympathizer. By that summer the fighting had ended and the American Civil War was finally over.

And all during that long year the process of ratifying the 13th Amendment to ban slavery in America was slowly winding its way through the state ratification process. While this was of great interest to all Americans, of course, it is safe to say the outcome of the constitutional amendment’s ratification was especially important to African Americans, as the following three newspaper articles show (all from GenealogyBank’s African American newspapers collection).

The Duty of Colored Men in Louisiana Black Republican Newspaper 1865

Black Republican (New Orleans, Louisiana), 15 April 1865, page 2.

This newspaper article was published on the day President Lincoln died, and reminds its African American audience that ending the Civil War and freeing the slaves is but a first step toward a society where all members are free, educated, and equal participants with full legal protections. The old newspaper article warns that it is prejudice itself that must be overcome:

There are many remnants of the past guilt yet polluting the soil and the atmosphere. There are cruel and dangerous prejudices that must be outlived. The sting of the serpent of slavery is in the hearts of the people. They may die with it, but justice and righteousness will live forever, and with them we must and shall succeed.

Our Country Black Rights Article South Carolina Leader

South Carolina Leader (Charleston, South Carolina), 21 October 1865, page 2.

These are powerful words in an African American newspaper from South Carolina—the first state that seceded from the Union and where the Civil War’s first battle was fought—published just months after the war ended. The historical newspaper article goes on to say:

We are confident of a change, because satisfied that the present policy is a failure. No cause can long prevail unless founded in absolute justice to all men. With such implicit faith in the justice of our cause, let us give our unqualified support to the President, and press steadily on for the accomplishment of the great purposes of our country—the moral rights, the intellectual privileges, and the physical liberties of mankind.

At the end of December 1865, following ratification of the 13th Amendment, this newspaper article was published with the title “What Is a Man?”

What Is a Man? Black Equality Article Colored American Newspaper

Colored American (Augusta, Georgia), 30 December 1865, page 2.

This old newspaper article concludes with these stirring words:

But these laws are dead, and we are glad of it. Fate has torn down the shutters and broken the locks of the temple of knowledge, and the great problem of advancement has commenced, and if, in its solution, it should give birth to men in the full sense of the term; we hope and trust that the boundary lines of color and race shall be obliterated from the map of common sense, and every man shall stand on his own merits as a man, and the world shall behold the consummation of the poet’s [i.e., Robert Burns] highest hope, that

Man to man the world o’er

Shall brothers be, an’ a’ that.

Good luck with your family history research, and enjoy browsing through historical newspaper archives such as the ones GenealogyBank offers. You’ll find many details, and possibly even maps, photographs or other illustrations, to learn more about your ancestors—and the times they lived in.

If you are researching your black American ancestry you may find our special African American newspaper archive to be particularly helpful.