Southern California Genealogical Society

Techniques and Tips - The Search for Free African American Ancestors
By Aaron L. Day

In recent years, much has been written about the search for African American ancestors. However, much of this information deals with, slave research. Searching for free ancestors before the Civil War may be a pleasant surprise to many African Americans who are researching their families. Researchers who are tracking free African Americans need to know that there are many resources available that may prove useful to them.

When I started looking for my father's ancestors, I was not aware that they had been free in the South prior to the Civil War. Through the years, this information had not been passed down to the family. My paternal great-great-grandfather, Scott Day was discovered in the 1860 Census Schedule for Person County, North Carolina. He was listed as a free Mulatto, working for a farmer named Isaiah Bumpas.

My maternal great-great-grandfather, Oscar Daniel Banks, fought for the Union during the Civil War. He gave his life in 1864 so that his descendants might have better lives. An application for his pension benefits by two of his sons revealed that Oscar had been a slave. His previous owner's name was listed on the application record.

For those who have discovered that their ancestors were slaves, as was the case of my great-great-grandfather, Oscar Daniel Banks, there are documents available that will help in your research beyond the Civil War. The records that will aid in the research beyond 1870 are: wills, estate inventories, court records, slave schedules, tax lists, bills of sale, Freedman's Bureau records, deeds and other documents.

The fact that my Day ancestors were free before the Civil War has made it somewhat easier for me to trace them, through the different types of documents that are available. There are many records available to aid in the research. Some of those that I have used, and found to be very helpful, include:

  • Books and other records about free people
  • Census records
  • Family records and documents
  • Marriage records
  • Apprentice indenture records
  • Court records
  • Tax records
  • Deed records / land entry records
  • Additional records for research
Books and Other Records about Free People

Those who have discovered that their ancestors were free before the Civil War must consider the following question. When were my ancestors freed? The answer to this question will not be easy, because there are a number of different reasons they may have been free during this period. While doing my research, I discovered many of these reasons.

They may have been indentured servants before the beginning of slavery. A few of the first Blacks brought to this country were indentured servants, like White persons of this class, imported here during the beginnings of the colonies. These Blacks, like the White indentured servants, became free at the expiration of their term of service.

They may have been the children of a White female indentured servant. There was a Virginia law that said: Mulatto children of White females were to be bound out as indentured servants for a period of thirty-one years, after which they were free. The law was later changed to eight years.
They may have been given their freedom because of some meritorious act. During the 1780's, North Carolina slaveholders could free their slaves only for meritorious service and with the permission of the county court.

They may have bought their own freedom. One of North Carolina's most prominent abolitionists was Lunsford Lane, a former slave who purchased his and his family's freedom and then became a powerful voice in the antislavery movement.

They may have gained their own freedom by running away. Throughout this period, successful runaways added to the free Black population.

They may have been granted their freedom by a slave owner. By 1790, manumission could be decided by the slaveholder, throughout the South, except in North Carolina.

They may have been able to pass for White. It is reported that many Mulattos, because of their light complexions, were able to 'pass' and blend into the White community.

They may have served during the Revolutionary War. Before the end of the war most states, were enlisting slaves. The understanding was that they were to receive their freedom at the end of their service.

I realized that any one of these reasons could apply to my free ancestors. The search through the US Census Schedules proved to be very helpful, as a great deal of information was found, and I began to learn more about my ancestors.

Census Records

The U.S. Population Census records contain a wealth of information about people. Without the information from the census records, my family and I would have been extremely limited in our ability to locate our ancestors. The crucial link to my great-grandmother was made through a family document, and several U.S. Census reports.

The first U.S. Census was taken in 1790, and contains the population schedules for each state or territory at that time. Since that year, a census has been taken every 10 years. Microfilm copies of the original population schedules, from 1790 through 1920, with the exception of 1890, are available to researchers. Approximately 99% of the 1890 records were destroyed in a 1921 fire. Federal regulations require the records to be kept private for seventy-two years before release to the general public.

Working back through the U.S. Census reports, I started with the year 1920. This was the fourteenth Population Census of the U.S, and where I located my father. I located my father, James H. Day, in the 1920 census at age 11, and again in the 1910 census. He was with his father, mother, and siblings. His father, James L. Day, was traced back to the 1880 U.S. Census, where he was found living with a cousin.

Family Records and Documents

Letters and other documents received from family members may contain vital information about ancestors. The inclusion of collateral relatives in family research projects can be very rewarding. I was able to locate my great-grandmother, Milly Day because of a letter sent to me by my cousin, Dora Day-Parks. Dora's father, and my father were brothers. When Dora was in college, she did a family history report. Her mother was still living at the time, and was able to offer valuable information about the family history. Dora's letters through the years have included over 100 Day relatives.

In one letter to me she writes, "The names of James L. Day's brothers and sister are; Aaron Day, Gus Day, Fred Day, Henry Day, Floyd Day, and Jennie Day." Our great- grandmother, Milly Day was located in the 1870 census for Person County, North Carolina with; Aaron, Henry, and Setta. She was found in the 1880 census with; Thomas, Augustin (Gus), Sulu, Jennie, and Charlie. Our grandfather James L. Day was found in the 1880 census, at 19, living with a cousin, Richmond Day. With the discovery of Aaron, Gus, Henry, and Jennie Day in the census reports, we were able to determine that Milly Day was our great-grandmother - another generation.

Marriage Records

For those researchers who are fortunate enough to discover marriage records for their ancestors, the documents can be very informative. The laws regarding marriage varied from state to state, as well as who were permitted to marry. The public marriage records of North Carolina fall into five categories:

  1. Marriage Bonds were in use from 1741 to 1868. This was considered a groom's obligation to pay if he had contracted an illegal marriage.
  2. Marriage Licenses, containing official permission for marriages to be held, have been preserved since 1851. From 1851 to 1868, both bonds and licenses were filed.
  3. Marriage Certificates, or returns, are statements of officiating officers that marriages have taken place. These certificates were required for the first time in 1851, and are usually printed on the same form as the license.
  4. Marriage Registers, contain digests of the facts given in bonds, licenses, and certificates after the year 1850.
  5. Cohabitation Records are not exactly marriage records; they were used only for a short period in 1866 to legalize marital relationships begun during slavery.

The Person County Marriage Bonds of North Carolina provided me with information regarding the marriage of my great-grandmother Milly Day. It shows the bondsman and witness. This record was a very important find for me because; it shows that Milly is the daughter of a Scott and Latta Day - another generation. In reviewing the 1870 census again, I realized there was a Scott and a Setta Day listed just above Milly and her children. It was this discovery of my great-great-grandfather Scott that enabled me to continue my research back to 1820. On the 1820 census, I discovered that Scott was the son of either a Thomas Day or a George Day - another generation.

Apprentice Indenture Records

The information contained in these records can be invaluable to those who are searching for free African American ancestors. Apprentice indentures, bonds, records, and papers may be found in the offices of clerks of superior court or recorded in deed books, but most are now in state archives. Often called apprentice bonds, it was an agreement or contract between local authorities and an individual regarding responsibilities. A child would often be bound to an individual for the purpose of learning a specific trade. That Trademaster in return would provide essentially everything necessary to raise the child. The child in return, would work, and learn until a specified age.

From the "Caswell Apprentice Bonds" I found additional information on Thomas and George Day. Thomas is reported to be three years old in 1780, and his mother is named Rachel Day. George is four years old, and is with his mother Ann Day. Thomas and George were each bound to a Samuel Winstead on June 20, 1780. Another record shows that Jesse, the six-month-old son of Rachel was bound to a Drury Allen on March 20, 1780. Lucy, the daughter of Ann, who was one year old, was also being bound to Drury Allen on March 20, 1780. This information revealed - another generation of Day ancestors. These records are at the Department of Archives and History, Raleigh North Carolina.

Court Records

Since most researchers will not have the time or opportunity to read through the enormous volumes of court minutes, historical abstracts of many court sessions have been published that may prove to be very helpful. The abstracts usually contain all references to county buildings, courthouses, jails, poor houses, names of county officials, and actions involving the citizens of the area. Additional records may include; references to wars or veterans of wars, samples through the years of tax rates, salaries, county expenditures, and other information. The minutes of one court session could run for 10-12 pages, so abstracts are a condensed version of the full minutes. These court minutes reveal the types of problems the county officials faced, how they were solved, and lists the names of the people involved.

The paper trail of these records can be very revealing. My search through North Carolina court records for information about my free ancestors led to a startling discovery about Rachel and Ann Day. From "Caswell County Court Records, March 1783" - the children of Ann Day and Rachel Day were now orphans, and being indentured to a David Allen. Lucy, the daughter of Ann, who was bound out in 1780 to Drury is now being bound to his son, David. Lucy is now four years old. The same court record shows that the children of Rachel are now orphans, and they are bound to David Allen. Jesse, who was bound out to Drury Allen at six months, is now bound to his son, David Allen. Rachel's daughter Nancy who is two months old, is also bound to David Allen.

Tax records

Tax records can be an excellent source of information for researchers. There were two common forms of taxes: taxes on people and taxes on property. Taxes on people were called poll taxes or capitation taxes and were formerly levied on persons called tithables, taxables or polls. In 1970, the poll tax was finally abolished in North Carolina. Superior Court Clerks may keep pre-1868 tax records. Registers of deeds, as clerks to the county commissioners and as tax listers in some periods, preserve later records, while tax supervisors and tax collectors may hold current ones. Most state archives have tax records from many counties, some filed as county records and some in such state collections as "Colonial Court Records," "Auditors' Records," "Secretary of State Records," and "Comptrollers' Records."

Samuel Winstead was located in both the 1784, and the 1794 tax lists for Nash District, North Carolina. In 1784, Samuel has 900 acres, 2 white polls, and 2 black polls. Samuel's adult sons, Aisley and Cotance are also shown on this list. In 1794, Samuel has 450 acres of land, zero in the white polls column, and three in the black polls column. Two of the black polls should be for Thomas Day and George Day, as they would be seventeen and eighteen years old.

Deeds and Land Entry Records

These records are excellent sources to locate information about ancestors. From these records, researchers may be able to learn more about where their ancestors lived, who their children were, how much property they owned, and who their neighbors were. I began to list these records by date order in an effort to learn more about the Days, the surrounding neighbors, and their activities. Examples of information found in these Deeds and Land Entries include:

From Caswell County, North Carolina Deed Book 'A' - Page 590, State of NC - No. 200 - to William Day 323 ¾ 'A' both sides Tar R adj Thomas Person, William Tapp, William Yarbrough, Burgoon Bird. 20 Dec 1779.

Deed Book 'C' - entries regarding the Days of Person County, which was formed from a part of Caswell in 1791, and was named for Thomas Person. Page 166-7, William Winstead to Benjamin Morrow, for 50 lbs, 'A' on Tar R adj. Richard Jones, Isaac Day, John Day - on Bumpass old field. 30 Aug 1799. Acknd in open court. Page 247 - 100 'A' on Tar R adj. Jonas Parker, the cattle Br. 9 Sept 1799. Wit: John Day Junr.

The records I have listed above have been a tremendous aid in the search for my Day ancestors, and I am also learning about the history of our country. As my research continues, I am constantly learning of the many resources that are available. Additional records that may prove helpful in any research for free African Americans are listed below.


  • American Missionary Association Records
  • Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau) Records
  • Cemetery Records
  • Church Records
  • City Directories
  • Free Register Records
  • Freedman's Savings and Trust Records
  • Homestead Records
  • Manumission Records
  • Military Records
  • Probate Records
  • School Records
  • Vital Records (Government records of births, marriages, and deaths), social security death index.
  • Will Records

Hopefully, the resources listed above will prove useful to researchers who are tracing their free African American ancestors. The search for my ancestors has been made easier because of the many resources that are available to researchers. There have been quite a number of outstanding books written about the free status of many of our ancestors. The following books have been very helpful to me in learning and understanding more about the free social status, before the Civil War.

  • 1. Slaves Without Masters-The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, by Ira Berlin.
  • The Free Black in Urban America, by Leonard P. Curry.
  • The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860, by John Hope Franklin.
  • From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin.
  • The Free Negro Family, by E. Franklin Frazier.
  • Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware, by Paul Heinegg.
  • Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia, by Paul Heinegg.
  • North of Slavery-The Negro in the Free States 1790-1860, by Leon F. Litwack.
  • Master of Mahogany - Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker, by Mary E. Lyons.
  • Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina-1850 Census, Margaret Peckham Motes.
  • The Free Negro in Virginia 1619-1865, by John H. Russell.
  • Northumberland County, Virginia Registers of Free Blacks, by Karen E. Sutton.
  • Amos Fortune-Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates.
  • Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, by Carter G. Woodson.
  • Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, by Carter G. Woodson.
  • The Free Negro in Maryland, by James M. Wright.

The discovery of Paul Heinegg's books gave me the connecting link that I needed to solve the puzzle, as to why my ancestors were free in the Deep South before the Civil War. His excellent reference books provide data on an astounding eight thousand free African Americans. Paul concludes, that the Day family descends from a white woman who had a child by a free African American man in 1692.

End Notes

  • Finding a Place Called Home, by Dee Parmer Woodtor, published by Random House, copyright 1999, pages 305-308.
  • The 1910, and the 1920 U.S. Census, Person County, North Carolina Population Schedules, T623, #1211, and T624, Roll #1106.
  • Black Roots, by Tony Burroughs, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., copyright 2001, pages 143-145; the 1870, and the 1880 U. S. Census, Person County, North Carolina Population Schedules, M593, Roll #1154, and T766, Roll #7.
  • Marriage and Divorce Records, by George Stevenson; Person County Marriage Bonds, by Katharine Kerr Kendall; the 1820 U.S. Census, Person County, North Carolina Population Schedule, M33, Roll #82.
  • Caswell Apprentice Bonds, by Katharine Kerr Kendall
  • North Carolina Research, by Helen F. M. Leary, and Maurice R. Stirewalt.
  • Tax and Fiscal Records, by Raymond A. Winslow, Jr.: 1784 and 1794 Tax lists for Nash District, North Carolina.
  • Caswell County, North Carolina Land Entries, 1778-1795, page 103, #598
  • Caswell County, North Carolina Deed Book 'A' - page 590, #200
  • Caswell County Deed Book 'A' - #664
  • Caswell County Deed Book 'C' - pages 166-7, and page 247
  • Deeds of Caswell County, North Carolina, Book 'A' - Page 1, 20 Feb. 1777
  • Caswell County Land Entries 1778-1795, #1246
  • Caswell County Deed Book 'D' - page 35, #664, 10 Nov. 1784
  • Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia, by Paul Heinegg.

© Aaron L. Day. Used with permission.

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