Hege Library & Learning Technologies

African-American Genealogy

Guide to genealogy resources about slaves and free people of color, especially for North Carolina

Keep in mind...

People of mixed race sometimes stated a different race from one census to the next. For example, an adult woman listed as "white" in one county was listed as "mulatto" in her childhood. American Indians and Asian immigrants didn't even have categories until 1870, so they could be listed as "white," "black" or "mulatto."

Persecuted people, like those escaping slavery and Native Americans, might have avoided census takers.

Much of the 1890 census was lost by fire. Fill in that 20-year gap (1880-1900) by using other sources, such as city business directories. See the Online Resources tab for more ideas.


Census records

The United States of America has taken a census every ten years since 1790. The information provided changed over the years: from heads of household in the early years, to names and ages of every person in later years.

The 1790 census lists the name of the head of household, then the following numbers of people in that household:

  • white males over 16
  • white males under 16
  • white females of all ages
  • other free persons
  • slaves


Each little piece of information is a clue. For example, if the head of the house is a female, she's probably a widow. If James Sampson has a listing of 0-0-0-4-0, then James is a free person of color with his own family (possibly a wife and two children).

The 1870 census was the first to list every person by name regardless of color, not just tally marks. It was also the first to include Chinese and Indian as racial categories, in addition to White, Black, and Mulatto (mixed race). Information on the 1870 census includes:

  • name
  • age
  • sex
  • color (race)
  • occupation
  • value of real estate (if any)


plus tally marks to indicate immigrant parents, newlywed, student, illiterate, "deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic," males over 21, and criminal background.

Oh, Polly! Where's Margaret?

Abbreviations and Nicknames

Old handwriting, including census records, includes abbreviated names. Common abbreviations include:

Jas or Jas means James

Chas or Chas means Charles

Jno means John 

Saml means Samuel

While Ancestry.com is programmed to understand most common abbreviations, nicknames can be confusing. Polly is a common nickname for Margaret, just like Dick is short for Richard and Ned is short for Edward. 

If your ancestor is hard to find, try searching different name variations and even initials.