A slave family poses in front of a home in the Virginia area in this undated photo.

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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.6, SL.6-8.1, W.6-8.3, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.7

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.3, Civ.6, Civ.10, His.1, His.4

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Individuals, groups, and institutions

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

Slave Families Lost and Found

New research is helping to uncover long-forgotten stories of African-American family members torn apart by slavery—and their attempts to find each other

Elizabeth Williams survived the brutality of growing up as a slave in the South. She endured the terror of the fighting during the Civil War. But there was one thing she couldn’t accept: the anguish of not knowing what had become of her family. 

Williams was born a slave in Tennessee. Around 1841, she was sold to a man in Arkansas and separated from her husband and four children. Williams never saw any of them again. 

Nearly 25 years later, as a free woman living in California, Williams was desperate for information about her lost family. She placed an ad in a newspaper saying that any information would be “gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery.” Her ad listed the details that she recalled, as well as her own contact information.

Williams’s ad is just one of thousands published during and after the Civil War (1861-1865). They were placed by ex-slaves seeking loved ones from whom they’d been separated. Many of the lost had been sold off by their masters to the highest bidder, never to see their families again. 

Each ad tells a heartbreaking story of separation. Together, they are helping historians form a more complete picture of how generations of African-American families were torn apart by slavery. Researchers hope making the ads available online will bring these stories to a bigger audience. 

“Family is central to human lives,” says history professor Judith Giesberg of Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She leads a project putting slave ads online. “These ads are important reminders that for hundreds of years, white Americans denied this to enslaved Americans.” 

Elizabeth Williams survived the brutality of growing up as a slave in the South. She endured the terror of the fighting during the Civil War. But she could not accept the pain of not knowing what had become of her family.

Williams was born a slave in Tennessee. Around 1841, she was sold to a man in Arkansas. She was separated from her husband and four children. Williams never saw any of them again.

Nearly 25 years later, Williams was a free woman living in California. She was desperate for information about her lost family. She placed an ad in a newspaper. It said that any information would be “gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery.” Her ad listed the details that she remembered. It included her contact information.

Williams’s ad is just one of thousands that were published during and after the Civil War (1861-1865). They were placed by ex-slaves looking for loved ones from whom they had been separated. Many of the lost had been sold off by their masters to the highest bidder. They never saw their families again.

Each ad tells a heartbreaking story of separation. Together, they are helping historians form a more complete picture of how generations of African-American families were torn apart by slavery. Researchers hope that making the ads available online will bring these stories to a bigger audience.

“Family is something that is central to human lives,” says history professor Judith Giesberg of Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She leads a project putting slave ads online. “These ads are important reminders that for hundreds of years, white Americans denied this to enslaved Americans.”

Brutal Lives, Cruel Separations

From the late 17th century through 1865, about 8 million black people were enslaved in colonial America and the United States. Many performed back-breaking labor like picking cotton in the scorching heat. Slaves were regularly whipped until they were permanently scarred. By 1804, the Northern states had all passed laws to abolish slavery. But in the South, slave labor was crucial to an economy and a way of life that depended on the growing of cotton and tobacco. The South’s attempt to hold on to slavery was the main cause of the clash between the North and the South in the Civil War. 

From the late 17th century through 1865, about 8 million black people were enslaved in colonial America and the United States. Many did backbreaking work like picking cotton in the scorching heat. Slaves were regularly whipped until they were permanently scarred. By 1804, the Northern states had all passed laws to end slavery. But in the South, slave labor was crucial to the growing of cotton and tobacco. The economy and way of life depended on those crops. The South’s attempt to hold on to slavery was the main cause of the clash between the North and the South in the Civil War.

Slaves were in constant danger of being separated from their families.

Throughout this time, slaves were in constant danger of being separated from their families. Many were sold, but others escaped, leaving loved ones behind in the South. Successful runaways made it north to a free state, but were far from everyone they knew.

After the North’s victory in the Civil War, slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But many former slaves had no way to locate family members. The U.S. government didn’t keep personal information about slaves, so there were few records that they even existed.

During the war, ads seeking lost relatives had started appearing in African-American newspapers around the country. Many began with desperate pleas: “Information wanted” or “Do you know them?” In black communities, the texts were often read aloud in churches and at other gatherings in an effort to widen their reach.

Throughout this time, slaves were in constant danger of being separated from their families. Many were sold. Others escaped. They left loved ones behind in the South. Successful runaways made it north to a free state. But they were far from everyone they knew.

The North won the Civil War. Then slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But many former slaves had no way to find family members. The U.S. government did not keep personal information about slaves. There were few records that they even existed.

During the war, ads seeking lost relatives had started appearing in African-American newspapers around the country. Many began with desperate pleas. “Information wanted” or “Do you know them?” they read. In black communities, the ads were often read aloud in churches and at other gatherings. That was done in an effort to spread their reach.

“At His Death We Were Divided”

Over time, the former slaves died and the ads were largely forgotten. But a few years ago, historian Giesberg uncovered some of the ads during a research project. She believed that the precious bits of history should be preserved—and made available more widely. 

“Each one is a family history,” she says.

Giesberg now oversees Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a recently launched online database of the slave ads. (The website’s name comes from the fact that most ads refer to where or when family members were “last seen.”) Her students—searching through old newspapers—have so far found and digitized about 3,000 of the slave ads. 

Even in their brief detail, the ads capture the helplessness of people who had no control over their lives. One tells the story of Mary Delaney, a former slave from Tennessee. “My mother was sold from me when I could but crawl,” she wrote. “I never saw any of my people [again].” 

Another ad, by a Georgia man, explains how his family was split up: “We all belonged to William Hightower as late as 1862, ’63,” it reads. “At his death we were divided”—or sold to different owners.

Over time, the former slaves died. The ads were largely forgotten. But a few years ago, historian Giesberg uncovered some of the ads during a research project. She believed that the precious bits of history should be preserved. She also thought they should be made available more widely.

“Each one is a family history,” she says.

Giesberg now oversees a recently launched online database of the slave ads. It is called Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery. (The website got that name because most ads refer to where or when family members were “last seen.”) Her students search through old newspapers to find the slave ads. So far, they have found and digitized about 3,000 of the ads.

The ads don’t have much detail. But they capture the helplessness of people who had no control over their lives. One tells the story of Mary Delaney, a former slave from Tennessee. “My mother was sold from me when I could but crawl,” she wrote. “I never saw any of my people [again].”

Another ad is by a Georgia man. It explains how his family was split up. “We all belonged to William Hightower as late as 1862, ’63,” it reads. “At his death we were divided”—or sold to different owners.

Picsfive/Shutterstock.com

Honoring Slave Families

Historians don’t know how successful most of the searches were. But in some cases, ex-slaves reported good news (see “How We Cried ... When They Took You Away,” below)

In October 1895, Bettie Johnson of Louisville, Kentucky, wrote to the Richmond Planet that she had heard from her long-lost father, thanks to her ad in that paper (see ad, above). And in November 1891, a Kentucky man named Alexander Foley reported that he had been reunited with his wife, who had been sold about 40 years earlier. 

Many other parents, children, and spouses were not so fortunate. But Giesberg says that even in cases where the chances of reunion were slim, the newspaper notices served an important purpose. “The ads were a way of honoring the families that existed” even in slavery, she says. 

Historians do not know how successful most of the searches were. But in some cases, ex-slaves reported good news (see “How We Cried . . . When They Took You Away,” below).

In October 1895, Bettie Johnson of Louisville, Kentucky, wrote to the Richmond Planet. She said she had heard from her long-lost father. It was thanks to her ad in that paper (see ad, above). And in November 1891, a Kentucky man named Alexander Foley reported that he had been reunited with his wife. She had been sold away from him about 40 years earlier.

Many other parents, children, and spouses were not so fortunate. But Giesberg says that even in cases where the chances of reunion were slim, the newspaper notices served an important purpose. “The ads were a way of honoring the families that existed” even in slavery, she says.

Celebrating Acts of Hope

Until now, historians have had limited knowledge about slavery from primary sources. (Those are firsthand accounts of events by people who lived through them.) Not many slaves knew how to read and write well enough to keep diaries or write autobiographies.

To learn more about that time period, researchers are turning to Last Seen and other resources. At least one new digital database, for example, is dedicated to other newspaper ads that were also once common—those written by masters looking for escaped slaves (see “Wanted: Runaway Slaves,” below).

The Last Seen ads may also help descendants of slaves fill in long-blank family trees. Recently, the project received a note from a Georgia woman who found her great-great-grandfather’s family using details from the website.

In addition, Giesberg believes that students who look at the database will better understand what slave families endured—and what moved them to write their ads in the first place.

“Each ad,” she says, “was an act of hope.”

Until now, historians have had limited knowledge about slavery from primary sources (firsthand accounts of events by people who lived through them). Not many slaves knew how to read and write well enough to keep diaries or write autobiographies.

Researchers want to learn more about that time period. They are turning to Last Seen and other resources. For example, at least one new digital database is dedicated to other newspaper ads. It contains ads written by masters looking for escaped slaves (see “Wanted: Runaway Slaves”). Those ads were once common too.

The Last Seen ads may also help descendants of slaves fill in long-blank family trees. Recently, the project received a note from a Georgia woman who found her great-great-grandfather’s family using details from the website.

In addition, Giesberg believes that students who look at the database will better understand what slave families endured. Students will understand what moved slaves to write their ads in the first place.

“Each ad,” she says, “was an act of hope.”

Write About It! What are some ways that primary sources, like these slave ads, can help people better understand history? Cite text evidence. 

You Be the Historian!

Learn more about slavery through the eyes of its victims and offenders with these databases: 

Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery informationwanted.org

The Geography of Slavery in Virginia  
www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos

“How We Cried . . . When They Took You Away”

How an ad helped a family reunite nearly four decades after its members were separated

Dowen Young was just 8 years old when his mother, Margaret, was taken away in chains.

The Young family, which included Dowen’s two younger siblings, was originally enslaved together on a Missouri farm. Then, in 1861, Margaret was shipped off to New Orleans, Louisiana, and sold at a slave market.

“How we cried, Mother, when they took you away,” Dowen later recalled. 

A few years afterward, Dowen was rescued from his master’s farm by a band of abolitionists. The men put the boy on a steamboat that took him to freedom in Illinois.

His mother wasn’t so lucky. Margaret remained a slave in Alabama until after the war. For years, she didn’t know where her children were. Only in 1897 did Margaret’s employer see an ad noting that her family was looking for her. Finally, she was reunited with Dowen—36 years after they had been torn apart.

Dowen Young was just 8 years old when his mother, Margaret, was taken away in chains.

The Young family, which included Dowen’s two younger siblings, was originally enslaved together on a Missouri farm. Then, in 1861, Margaret was shipped off to New Orleans, Louisiana, and sold at a slave market.

“How we cried, Mother, when they took you away,” Dowen later recalled. 

A few years afterward, Dowen was rescued from his master’s farm by a band of abolitionists. The men put the boy on a steamboat that took him to freedom in Illinois.

His mother wasn’t so lucky. Margaret remained a slave in Alabama until after the war. For years, she didn’t know where her children were. Only in 1897 did Margaret’s employer see an ad noting that her family was looking for her. Finally, she was reunited with Dowen—36 years after they had been torn apart.

Wanted: Runaway Slaves

Bridgeman Images

For many years before slavery was abolished, slave owners ran ads (like the one above) in newspapers around the country to track down escaped slaves. Now a team from the University of Virginia has put together an online database of the ads. The collection shines a light on a dark chapter in America’s past.

The Virginia database’s ads—which date from 1736 through 1803—hint at the physical violence slaves suffered. They were often whipped or had their faces branded to indicate who they belonged to. “Many scars on his face and hands [made] by a burn,” reads one ad. 

But the ads also tell heroic tales, according to Edward Baptist, a history professor at Cornell University in New York. Each slave who attempted to escape, he says, challenged the “system of power” represented by the slave owner.

For many years before slavery was abolished, slave owners ran ads (like the one above) in newspapers around the country to track down escaped slaves. Now a team from the University of Virginia has put together an online database of the ads. The collection shines a light on a dark chapter in America’s past.

The Virginia database’s ads—which date from 1736 through 1803—hint at the physical violence slaves suffered. They were often whipped or had their faces branded to indicate who they belonged to. “Many scars on his face and hands [made] by a burn,” reads one ad. 

But the ads also tell heroic tales, according to Edward Baptist, a history professor at Cornell University in New York. Each slave who attempted to escape, he says, challenged the “system of power” represented by the slave owner.

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