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The importance of the 1870 U. S. Census to African-American research

When the 1860 federal census was collected and enumerated, slavery was still legal within most of the states south of the Mason-Dixon line. The 1860 federal census enumerated only free people of color in its population schedule; slaves were enumerated namelessly on a separate schedule, identified only by slave owner, age, gender, and color.
That year also witnessed the 1860 Presidential election, in which Abraham Lincoln was elected, setting off a chain of events that turned the world of African-Americans, both free and enslaved, upside-down. The election of Abraham Lincoln, with the support of many northern abolitionists, led directly to the secession of eleven Southern states and the formation of the Confederate States of America. The attack by Confederate forces on Fort Sumter in South Carolina served as the opening volley in the U. S. Civil War.
Throughout the course of the war, and in its wake, the status of African-Americans changed drastically. The following short timeline highlights just a few of the events that occurred during this period, directly affecting their status within the United States:
  • Throughout the Civil War, the runaway slaves of Confederate planters were welcomed behind Union lines as “contraband,” or seized property. Some field generals used these “contrabands” as scouts in southern territory and as soldiers, even though federal law still prohibited African-Americans from serving in the national military.
  • In the summer of 1863, the prohibition against service was repealed, and the U. S. Colored Troops was created, consisting of both free and enslaved African-Americans.
  • The U. S. Congress authorized the adjutants general of the border states—Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky—to compensate slave owners who manumitted their slaves to join the U. S. Colored Troops. Sensing that the war may end slavery altogether, many slave owners pursued this route.
  • Lincoln later issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in Confederate states not under Union control to be freed.
  • The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, created by the U. S. Congress under the War Department in March 1865, attempted to aid former slaves in the transition into free citizens of the United States, legalizing slave marriages, establishing public schools, and assisting in the purchase of land.
  • The Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, ratified and adopted in December 1865, ended, in clear and absolute terms, the institution of slavery.
The population of the United States was next enumerated in the 1870 federal census. This census was the first to record the names and other personal information of all African-Americans, including those who were formerly enslaved. In researching your African-American ancestors, moving backward from the present, the 1870 federal census may be the last census in which you are able to identify these ancestors by name.
This census also represents a high point in the lives of many southern African-Americans of this period, as most southern states had not yet begun to pass the discriminatory laws that would define the “Jim Crow” period of racial segregation in the United States.  By this time, some former slaves had reunited with families separated by slave sales. Many were now literate and some even owned land, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The 1870 census often even serves as a powerful tool in identifying former slave owners, a necessary step for anyone desiring to reclaim the heritage of their enslaved ancestors. Many researchers will discover that their emancipated ancestors still lived near their former owners in 1870, having been free for barely five years at this point. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, for it is only through the investigation of the records of slave owners that one might discover information concerning the lives of their slaves.
For all of these reasons, and certainly others, the 1870 federal census is vital for African-American research.


  • Robyn Smith 5 years ago

    Excellent post as usual, Michael. I would only caveat it by saying by that the vast majority of ex-slaves, and people in general, in 1870 were still illiterate (although I think I knew what you meant by that statement).You are such a good writer. This is a very nice summary of that place in time for African-Americans--good stuff for people to use in their write-ups.