Many black families came to America during the period of legal slavery, a time when documentation of black people as individuals was often lacking. However, even then there were some free black people. By 1863, one-seventh of black people in the United States were free. This means that there are many black people now living in the US who have free black ancestry. Slave or free, almost every black family can be traced back until at least 1825, and some families can be traced to even earlier times.
Please note that this research guide deals primarily with resources pertaining to African-American genealogy and local history from colonial times through the end of the nineteenth century. Not all black families in Connecticut share this background; some may have Cape Verdean or Caribbean ancestries. There has also been a mix of families with Native American and African-American heritage.
Identification of black people in genealogical records is difficult because the African names of slaves were largely disregarded. Black people were usually given only American first names. In Connecticut, a man's wife and children often took his given name as their surname. For example, the sons of Primus Richards were known as George and Henry Primus. In the Records and Papers of the First Congregational Church, Hartford, black people are listed in the index as "Negroes". There are no individual name listings, and slaves were often listed under the slave-owners' names (i.e., "Myers, Miers, Negroes of") with no identification of the person by name.
When slaves escaped to the North or were freed, they adopted surnames. Some slaves took surnames prior to being freed, but generally kept the name a secret from the white community. It is a common misconception that freed slaves took the surnames of their last owner. In fact, slaves often went by several surnames and made a final choice at the time they were emancipated or gained freedom. They often took the surname of their father, who may have been a white slave-master or overseer. Or, they took the name of a current owner, a former owner, a famous American, or a locally-prominent citizen.
Slavery in the United States tore families apart while leaving few exact records. Searching for ancestors who may have been slaves requires a thorough investigation of slave-owning families in public and historical records. Descendants of free black people from Connecticut can find documentation of their ancestors prior to the Civil War in church records, land records, military records, probate records, vital records, and other public records. Some specific records, oriented to race, such as manumission papers (written to release an individual from slavery or bound servitude), and other proofs of freedom can also be found.
However, researching black genealogy may be hindered by the practice of "passing". Some blacks, as well as whites, will discover family members who found it necessary or advantageous to "pass" as white. As a result, their present-day descendants may be protecting this knowledge about their family, or may even be unaware of their black ancestry. Likewise, persons and families of mixed African-American and Native American ancestry may not acknowledge or be aware of part of their ancestral heritage.
Vital information from headstones in over 2,000 Connecticut cemeteries was recorded ca. 1934 as a WPA project known as the Hale Collection of Connecticut Cemetery Inscriptions. These records generally do not give a race, but there are some exceptions, and the researcher is advised not to overlook this resource. The statewide slip index and index for each separate town in the bound volumes include "No Surname" sections at the end of the alphabet, which include names of many black, Native American, and mulatto people. One example from the slip index is:
Foone (African Slave)
- Cemetery 2 [Riverside Cemetery] Page 65
Census Records Population Schedules, 1790-1880, 1900-1920
Censuses from 1790 to 1840 only gave the names of the heads of the household. All other people in the household, including slaves, were not named but merely counted: "2" under the category of "slaves" and "female", for example. Free black heads of households in this period were sometimes listed by only one name. In the 1850 and 1860 censuses, slave statistics were gathered, but the census schedules did not list slaves by name. All the members of free black households were enumerated by name in these censuses. The first listing of all black citizens by name on a federal census was made in 1870. Censuses for 1850 and after will show the date and place of birth, occupation, personal wealth, education, spouse, children, and hired hands for free blacks.
Church records contain information pertaining to baptisms, births, deaths, and marriages of free and enslaved black people, as well as whites. The collection of original church records in the State Archives and microfilm copies of those records in the History and Genealogy Unit cover approximately 600 Connecticut churches, many dating back to the 17th century. Genealogical information from about one-quarter of these, mostly Congregational, is in the State Library's Church Records Index.
If a black person had a surname, the Church Records Index will list him or her alphabetically by surname and possibly identify the person as "colored". The Church Records Index (both the slip index and the bound volumes covering individual churches) also includes a "No Surname" section at the end. Examples of "no surname" entries pertaining to blacks in the slip index of the Church Records Index include:
Aaron, wife buried
First Congregational Church Records and Papers, 1685-1811.
(Pages of "Negro" persons with no surname.)
Caesar & Jenne,
Negro servants of Lieut. George Denison, baptized Nov. 28, 1742; their son, Tim, baptized same day.
First Congregational Church Records
Volume 2, page 47
Some examples of "no surname" entries pertaining to black people in volumes of the Church Records Index are:
Amy, a mixed coloured woman, her child, d[ied] Dec. 22, 1825, age 4 days
North Congregational Church
Volume 5, page 121
Betsy, negro, m[arried] Stephen Holmes, negro, b[oth] of Amenia, N.Y., June 25, 1796
First Church of Christ (Congregational)
Volume 1, page 68
These records, documenting the sale and ownership of land, also document the sale, purchase, manumission, and emancipation of slaves, who were considered personal property. There is no statewide index to Connecticut land records, but general indexes to grantors and grantees are available for most towns. For suggestions on use of land records in genealogical research, see the Research guide to Connecticut Land Records.
Some examples of black people mentioned in land records include:
Negro, Alpheus, Emancipated from John & Benj. Moseley, 31 Oct. 1808.
Glastonbury Land Records, Volume 15, page 413.
Slave, Cato, (Negro) - emancipation. Grantor: Warner, Jonathan.
Lyme Land Records, Book 20, page 21, Oct. 7, 1793.
This Works Progress Administration project abstracted marriage and death notices from the 90 earliest newspapers published in Connecticut from about 1750 to about 1865. The index entries are arranged alphabetically by surname, with a "No Surname" section at the end, in which are listed many black, Native American, and mulatto individuals.
Examples of death notice index entries in this collection are:
Cezar, Minott (colored), Age 40
Columbian Register, issue of Aug. 11, 1849
Cesar, Rachel (colored), Age 100?
Springer's Weekly Oracle, issue of Sept. 23, 1799
Freeman, Candace (colored widow), Died Dec. 7, 1857; Age: 81
Winsted Herald, issue of Dec. 18, 1857
Connecticut Courant Index, 1764-99
This slip index to the Connecticut Courant, a forerunner of the Hartford Courant, includes name and subject entries for the period 1764 to 1799. Sample index entries are:
- Cato, slave runaway from Hebron, 8 O 92:33
- Negroes, runaway, 29 Apr 65:31
- Slaves for sale in Glastonbury, 18 Fb 8:33
Wills, inventories, and distributions contain a wealth of genealogical information. Servants and slaves were listed in inventories, given in distributions to other people, and sometimes given their freedom. Free men generally do not have a race listed.
Examples from the Probate Estate Papers Index are:
Cato (a Negro)
Town of Plainfield District of Plainfield
1788 - File Number 402
Freeman, Francis (Negro)
Town of Farmington - District of Hartford
1697 - File Number 2068
1 Miscellaneous document
Town of Wethersfield - District of Hartford
1731 - File Number 4408
1 Will - 2 Inventories - 5 Miscellaneous documents - 1 Bond - 2 Accts. of Administration.
The index does not cover specific items of property (including slaves) mentioned within a will, so it may be beneficial to search the tax abstracts of a town to determine slave owners and then check the probate records of those individuals. Tax abstracts for many Connecticut towns are included in State Archives Record Group 62.
The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Vital Records consists of abstracts of Connecticut town vital records (births, marriages, and deaths) up to about 1850. Blacks may be identified as negro, black, or mulatto, or designated as "free men of color" to distinguish them from white Americans of the same name.
Examples of Barbour Collection index entries are:
BURR, Mance* Titus
freeman, Negro of Fairfield, married Castile or Lusteel Nichols, freeman of Weston [ ], 1822, by David Hill, J.P. (*or Nancy)
Volume l-m, page 6
NICHOLS, Fanny A.
of Hartford, married John Harding, of Ellington, colored, Sept. 9, 1838, by Rev. John A. Hempsted
Volume 1, page 144
married Mehitabel E. Jacob, both of Hartford, colored, July 27, 1835, by Rev. George Coles
Volume 1, page 121
The Barbour Collection's statewide slip index and its bound volumes for individual towns include a "No Surname" section at the end in which are listed many black, Native American, and mulatto individuals.