NARA’s reference staff often receive inquiries from researchers and genealogists seeking records that document the nation’s history of slavery and slaveholding. Most of these researchers hope to get beyond “the wall” of 1870 (the first census year to document all Afro-Americans*). Prior to the 1870 census, it can be extremely difficult to find any official documentation on the formerly enslaved. Upon receiving these inquiries, reference staff typically inform these researchers that the National Archives holds very few records relating to the enslaved, slaveholders, or the slave trade.

As the repository of the permanently-valuable, noncurrent records of the Federal Government, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) only holds records that were generated by the United States Government, or from activities that were under direct Federal jurisdiction. During the antebellum period, slaveholding and slave trading were considered matters of private property and private enterprise; these activities were not under the direct jurisdiction or regulation of any agency of the Federal Government. Consequently, most records relating to slavery and slaveholders are held at local and state repositories—not at the National Archives.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all Americans of African heritage were enslaved during the antebellum period.  In 1860, the last census prior to the Civil War, there were approximately 490,000 free Afro-Americans (compared to four million who were enslaved). Despite representing only about 10 percent of the overall Afro-American population during the antebellum period, the population of free Blacks represent a rich source of historical and genealogical information for researchers. Many of the earliest and most important institutions (church denominations, fraternal organizations, newspapers, journals, etc.) of America’s Black community were founded by free Afro-Americans during the antebellum period. Although most records documenting this free Black population are in private collections, they are also documented among some of the Federal records held at the National Archives.

The first group of Federal records that can be used to find information on free Afro-Americans are the Records of the Bureau of the Census (Record Group 29). As it pertains to antebellum Afro-Americans as a whole, the Federal Constitution stipulated that enslaved persons were to be counted as three-fifths of a resident for tax purposes and the apportionment of the House of Representatives. From 1790 to 1860, the Federal decennial census counted the enslaved population alongside the free white and non-white (including free blacks) population.  Although the enslaved population was only documented numerically with no names, the census schedules documented free Afro-Americans with the same personal details recorded for the White population.

Federal population schedules from 1790 to 1840 provided the names for all “heads of free households,” including free Afro-American heads of households. All other family members were noted numerically under the head of household (all enslaved persons are listed numerically under the name of the owner). The 1850 and 1860 census schedules named all free members of the household, whether white or nonwhite. It records each “free” person’s name, age, sex, place of birth, and color (i.e., white, black, and mulatto). Enslaved persons were only counted numerically on separate slave schedules.


1860 Washington, DC Census Schedule with racial categories of (B) Black and (M) Mulatto

Afro-Americans listed under the racial categories of B (Black) and M (Mulatto).

Military pension and related service records are another group of Federal records that can document free Blacks during the antebellum years. It is estimated that approximately five thousand Afro-Americans served with Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War and made up twenty percent of US Naval forces during the War of 1812. The majority of these Black Patriots were already free persons of color prior to enlisting while others were freed afterwards as a reward for their service. NARA’s pension application records provide valuable personal details on these veterans and their families since the applicants were required to prove that they were who they claimed to be and that they had actually served. Many details of their personal history and genealogy are often divulged in that process. (For more information on this, you can read my article, “The Rejection of Elizabeth Mason: The Case of a "Free Colored" Revolutionary Widow” Prologue, Summer 2011, Vol. 43, No. 2 and Claire Prechtel-Klusken's, “Follow the Money: Tracking Revolutionary War Army Pension Payments” Prologue, Winter 2008, Vol. 40, No. 4 ).

William Jackson "Free Man of Color" Revolutionary War Veteran

Virginia Bedford County...: "This day William Jackson a free man of colour aged about sixty five or sixty six appeared in the Court of the County aforesaid at this October term 1825...and made oath that he enlisted as a regular Soldier in the Revolutionary War in the month of April or May in the year 1780 or 1781 at Amherst Court house Virginia under Colo. Hugh Rose, that he enlisted for during the War, That he was attached to the first Va regiment on Continental establishment under Colo. Posey and under Colo. Feebecker and under Genl....Muhlenberg..."

The pension files and service records for veterans of the Revolutionary War can be accessed in the following records series and microfilm publications:



Pension and service records for the War of 1812 and other antebellum wars are not microfilmed and are only available in their original textual format at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. The names of veterans with files have been indexed, however, and are available on the following microfilm publications and series:



An additional microfilmed resource for those researching free Afro-American veterans of the antebellum period is Microfilm Publication M858, The Negro in the Military Service of the United States, 1639-1886. This publication is a compilation of “Official Records, State Papers, Historical Extracts, etc.” relating to Afro-American military service from the colonial era to post-Reconstruction. (See NARA's Military Reference Reports for a more comprehensive description of relevant records pertaining to the Revolutionary and other Old Wars).


The final group of NARA records that can provide valuable information on free Afro-Americans are several series documenting the service of merchant seamen in the Records of the US Customs Service (Record Group 36). By the time of the Civil War, there had already been a long maritime tradition of free Afro-Americans serving as seamen on merchant and whaling vessels throughout the port cities of the Northeastern states and on small vessels throughout the many waterways of the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia. This robust tradition of Black seamen extended as far back as the colonial era and throughout the post-Revolutionary antebellum period. During the nineteenth century, serving as a merchant seamen or whaler was one of the few occupations that offered free Afro-Americans a relative level of independence, self-sufficiency, qualified equality (as compared to other occupations), and a chance to travel the world.  As a result, the numbers of Afro-Americans were overrepresented among seamen when compared to their actual population. 


Among the pertinent records that document these seamen are the “Seamen’s Protection Certificates” and “Crew Lists.” The Seamen’s Protection Certificates were required to verify the identity and citizenship of American seamen. The use of the certificates was enacted by the US Congress (Act of 1796, 1 Stat. 477) as a means to protect American seamen from impressment by the British Royal Navy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The act required US Customs agents to issue the protection certificates to qualified seamen, maintain registers of certificate applications, keep accompanying proofs of citizenship on file, and forward quarterly lists of registered seamen to the Department of State. NARA holds the registers of seamen who received these certificates as the actual certificates were kept by the seamen themselves.


Similarly, Congress passed an act on February 28, 1803 (2 Stat. 203) that required the masters of American vessels leaving U.S. ports for foreign voyages - or likewise arriving at U.S. ports from abroad - to file crew lists with the collector of customs at their port of entry. The law did not apply to foreign vessels or American ships plying coastal trade. The crew lists documented such pertinent information as the seaman’s name, place of birth, residence, and physical description. Long after impressment ceased following the War of 1812, vessel crew lists continued to be filed on a routine basis well into the 20th century.


Since the purpose of these records was to identify each seaman, they record personal information such as: name; age; date of birth; place of birth; citizenship and how citizenship was obtained. They also give a detailed physical description (including complexion, color of hair and eyes, height, weight, and other identifying information). There was no standardized racial designation required for these certificates, but the apparent race of individuals was usually disclosed within the physical description.


The relevant records covering the antebellum years that researchers can use to investigate this topic are as follows (smaller, miscellaneous files may be held at the respective regional facility based on port):



Records of the US Customs Service (RG 36)Seamen’s Protection Certificates





Microfilm Publications



Black Seaman, Thomas Jones

Thomas Jones, Black Seaman

"48 years; 5ft, 4.5 inches; black complexion; black eyes; black wooly hair; large scar on right side" Feby 3d, 1832:


General Records of the Department of State (RG 59)Records of the Passport Division




Crew Lists, RG 36 (At NARA’s Regional Facilities)



* Although the term African American has been widely adopted since the early 1990s (gradually replacing Black American), in this essay I prefer to use the older term “Afro-American” to describe people with varying degrees of African heritage. During the antebellum period, these persons were variably referred to as Black, Negro, Mulatto, Persons of Color, Colored, etc. This was a diverse population with differing self-conceptions, consisting of those who had been in America for generations (since the early colonial period), others who were recent arrivals from Africa, a majority who were enslaved, a significant population who were free, many who were racially unmixed, others who were multiracial. In some instances, I use Afro-American interchangeably with the long-used term “Black.”