Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 23

African American Slave Records and Census

Posted on December 23, 2019 at 3:38 PM by Iredell County Public Library

I once asked a coworker if she had ever traced her family tree. She replied no, saying, “I don’t want to find out that my ancestors were slaves.” Researching her family tree meant having to face a painful truth. Like most African Americans in the United States she was likely a descendant of slaves forcibly brought here through the Atlantic slave trade. Between 10 and 12.5 million Africans were brought to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. A website at www.slavevoyages.org has information on over 36,000 slave ship voyages and identifies 91,491 slaves taken from captured slave ships or African trading sites. 

The first Federal Census taken in 1790 lists Iredell County’s total population as being 5,435 and of those 858 were slaves. By 1820 the number of slaves had increased to 2,988. In 1850 there were 4,142 slaves making up 28.1% of the total population of 14,719 in Iredell County. In the last census taken in 1860, prior to the end of slavery, Iredell County had 4,177 slaves making up 27.2% of the county’s total population of 15,347. N.C.’s as a whole had 361,522 slaves in 1860. 

Not all African Americans were slaves prior to the 1870 census. The 1790 census shows 3 free African Americans living in Iredell County. By the 1800 census the number had increased to 17. In 1840 there are 39 free African Americans living in Iredell County and 29 in the 1860 census just prior to the start of the Civil War.  N.C. as a whole had 30,463 free African Americans in 1860 and these people are named in the census.  

Among the family names of free African Americans in Iredell County in the 1850 and 1860 census are Belt, Brandon, Cass, Duncan, Gardner, Graham, Hall, Hays, Holmes, Kennedy, Knox, Leagaus, Mendock, Norman, Pryer, Smith, Studiwent, West, White, and Williams. The naming of these free African Americans is of great importance to family historians as slaves were only given first names and though counted they were not named at all in the regular census records. 

In addition to the Federal Census there are also the 1850 and 1860 Slave Census Schedules which list the slave owners by name along with the number of slaves they owned with their sex and age. Note it does not list the slaves by name. Researchers often look at the 1870 census for their ancestors then count back to the 1860 and 1850 slave census to try and identify their ancestors by their location, sex, and age. 

The Iredell County Public Library has microfilm for the Iredell County census from 1790 to 1930 along with several books that index the Iredell census. The library offers free access to online census information from 1790 to 1940 at the library’s website at www.iredell.lib.nc.us/167/Local-History-Genealogy. Once on the page, click on Heritage Quest Online and you can access the U.S. census records nationwide by putting in your library card number and your pin number, which is set to be the last four digits of your phone number. 

Another census that includes slave information is the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885. These schedules listed the deceased name, sex, age, color, whether widowed or not, place of birth, month of death, occupation, and cause of death. The list covers people who died between June 1 and May 31 of the year prior to the census. This census does not count everyone who died during that period, but does provide useful information. 
You can access the U.S. Census, Slave Schedules, and Mortality Schedules from home at Heritage Quest or by using the popular genealogy site Ancestry you see advertised on TV. The library has a subscription to Ancestry and you can access the site at any of the library’s internet computers by entering your library card number and pin number and going to www.ancestrylibrary.com. Ancestry can only be accessed through the library’s computers in the library while Heritage Quest can be accessed either at home or at the library.  

Most African Americans can only trace their family tree back to the 1870 census when their ancestors were named for the first time. A quick search in the 1870 N.C. census for place of birth listed 21 people from Africa, Gambia 1, Swaziland 3, Madagascar 1, Guyana 1, Zanzibar 1, Liberia 1, Afghanistan 1, and Guinea 1. The importation of slaves was banned by Congress in the United States on Jan. 1, 1808, but an estimated 50,000 were brought in illegally between 1808 and 1860.  I will continue next week with other local sources for African American genealogy. 

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Tracing Iredell’s slave history with census records” on March 2, 2018