Searching for Lost Family: These Heartbreaking Ads by Former Slaves Are a Vital Genealogy Resource
Thank you to Jodi Bash for this article.
Last Seen is a genealogy resource that is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful. Here you can search for personal ads, typically with the headline “Information Wanted,” that former slaves posted in newspapers around the United States and Canada in search of their children, parents, siblings, and friends who had been sold away before the end of slavery.
These short newspaper clippings are transcribed for ease of searching and offer some amazing genealogical information. They also pack an emotional wallop!
I wanted to help with this project as soon as I heard about it. I’ve volunteered to transcribe census records and other genealogy resources because I understand the value of being able to search and find actual information, rather than reading through handwriting on microfiche or small type newspapers. But, never has it felt so important, so necessary, as it did to bring these names and searches within reach. Knowing how few good resources exist for tracing the lives of slaves, how precious little information there is, gives each of these small printed boxes a powerful impact.
Using the site is easy and intuitive. Individual ads listed show up in the order they have been uploaded, but you can use the tabs to search for keywords, tags, publications, specific names, etc. The “Browse Collections” menu takes you to all the ads that have been placed in a certain newspaper. A more general search box at the bottom of the left side menu allows users to do an exact name search. The image below is of the “Browse by Tag” window, showing about 1/3 of the tags listed.
To date there are 1,263 ads. You can find them here. This is a work in progress and, as such, all help is appreciated. However, the process to contribute and transcribe ads is less obvious. I used the “Sign up to Transcribe” link only to find nothing available. When I went to “Contribute an Item,” I found the required fields not as self-explanatory as I would have liked, and I have transcribed for other online genealogy sites before with no problems.
That being said, I received immediate and useful how-to information when I submitted my concerns via the “Contact Us” link. The team helped me get up and running after my several failed attempts. It’s important to follow the transcription guidelines on the “Scripto” menu page for accuracy.
Finding an ancestor, slave or slave-holder in these ads will bring a piece of a family tree together, but there are other great reasons to use this resource:
- It brings the black newspapers of the time to the forefront. The Colored American, from Augusta, GA; The Black Republican, from New Orleans, LA; The Chicago Defender, from Chicago, IL and many others. Newspapers are one of the best resources for finding unexpected information about ancestors.
- Ads here often mention slave owner names – this provides a link to many possible documented resources. Knowing this information could go a long way to finding details about how your ancestors lived.
- It often includes physical descriptions of people being searched for – while photographs from the late 1800’s exist, few were of slaves.
- Ads sometimes list name changes of former slaves possibly for the purposes of reclaiming their own identity – that detail would be almost impossible to track through “normal” document channels.
Many of these ads were placed in 1865, in the immediate aftermath of the civil war. Some were even posted well before the civil war from families who lived in non slave-holding areas looking for relatives in the South. Still others were published decades later by those still holding out some hope of finding a lost loved one.
The questions that each of these personal ads insists we ask are haunting. And the biggest question of all, the one we might never be able to answer, is did they find them?
I almost obsess over this, I admit. Most of the people who placed these ads are long gone – but the longing represented in the search, the drive for family and connection, is front and center for all of us today.
The project is directed by Judy Giesberg, Professor of History, Villanova University; Margaret Jerrido, Archivist at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia; and Carole Emberton, Professor of History, SUNY Buffalo, and the work is done by history students and anyone else who wants to add and transcribe ads.
Here is another example of an Information Wanted ad and the detail available within them:
Image at Top: “Photograph shows African American slave family or families posed in front of wooden house, on the plantation of Dr. William F. Gaines, Hanover County, Virginia.” 1862 Library of Congress
Jodi Bash is a genealogist living in Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She is founder of Family at Your Fingertips and is passionate about finding creative and tangible ways to connect with family history. She runs two blogs: Unclaimed Ancestors is an effort to connect old photos with descendants, and a way to scratch the ever-present research bug! A more personal blog at Family at Your Fingertips explores family heirlooms and the love of history. Jodi has been researching family history for over 15 years, and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She is the Director of Communication for Covenant Church in Houston, holds a B.A. in History and English from the University of Texas at Austin, a Masters in American History from the University of Houston, and an M.B.A. from Rice University. You can reach Jodi at Jodi@familyatyourfingertips.com and follow her on twitter via @famatfingertips.