The new television series "Who Do You Think You Are?" recently featured football superstar Emmitt Smith. I'm still haunted by his expression when he learned that his slave ancestors were viewed as property rather than people by their owners.
Like other descendants of slaves, Smith found his ancestors in the property deeds and wills of their white owners. Those are the most common avenues of research.
The National Archives, however, houses some records that most researchers don't know about. Here are a few worth seeking if you are a slave descendant:
Coastwise Slave Manifests. In 1807, Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, but the law didn't stop internal trade, which treated them as cargo rather than humans. The law required all vessels of 40 tons or more carrying slaves in the coastwise trade to file duplicate manifests at the ports of origin and destination, pledging that the slaves had not been imported to the states after 1808.
This series consists of inward and outward slave manifests submitted to the Collector of Customs at various ports in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.
The manifests include the name of the ship and its master, ports of departure and destination, and a list of slaves on board. A first name, sex, age, physical description, name of the shipper or owner and his place of residence are included for each slave.
Ancestry.com plans to digitize these records. Until it does, the only viewing option is at the National Archives Atlanta Regional facility, where researchers should request the originals from Record Group 36.
Records of the Slave Claims Commission. In 1863, the U.S. War Department issued an order to pay loyal slave owners living in Union-controlled states for allowing their slaves to enlist in the Union Army. Those states - Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia and Tennessee - had seceded from the Union but by 1863 were back under Union Army control.
A slave owner had to furnish proof of the slaves' enlistments, proof of his own loyalty, and a deed of manumission freeing each slave. For each slave who enlisted, the owner could be paid up to $300.
These records are at the National Archives in Record Group 94. They haven't been microfilmed or digitized, which means researchers have two options: Make a trip to Washington to view them or hire a local professional to obtain them.
Compiled Service Records of U.S. Colored Troops. These should contain files on the same freed slaves featured in the Slave Claims Commission records. They've been microfilmed, and rolls of the film or specific records can be ordered from the National Archives Web site at eservices.archives.gov/order
online. Researchers can also ask their local libraries whether they have copies of the microfilm. They include the following (the M-number identifies the microfilm roll):
•M1818 for Artillery organizations;
•M18187 for 1st-5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry and 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry;
•M1898 for 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (Colored);
•M1801 for 55th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored);
•M1819 for 1st U.S. Colored Infantry, 1st South Carolina Volunteers (Colored) Company A, 1st U.S. Colored Infantry (1 Year);
•M1820 for 2nd-7th U.S. Colored Infantry including the 3rd Tennessee Volunteers (African Descent), 6th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent), 7th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent), and Miscellaneous Service Cards;
•M1821 for Infantry Organizations, 8th through 13th;
•M1822 for Infantry Organizations, 14th through 19th.
I'll be at the SouthShore Regional Library in Ruskin at 2 p.m. April 8 for a two-hour probate records workshop, "Speaking from the Grave." There is no charge for the class, sponsored by the Friends of the Library, but seating is limited to 25 people, so arrive an hour early and register at the front counter. The library is at 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin.