Researching ancestors believed to have been enslaved can be challenging, since the record trail is spotty prior to the 1870 U.S. Census, the first on which former slaves are listed by name. Slaves were enumerated on all federal census records from 1790 to 1860, but not by name.
There are thousands of descendants of enslaved persons seeking answers and information to overcome genealogy roadblocks.
While not well-known, there exists a vast amount of information about enslaved persons. But, unfortunately until now, it has been scattered in multiple countries, stored in a proliferation of databases and archival collections not easily accessed, and contained in all types of documents and records just waiting to be captured.
Pulling all of this information together into a central location and making it freely available to genealogists, family researchers, historians, and other members of the public has in the past seemed like an implausible and overwhelming undertaking.
But this monumental challenge has not deterred staff with Michigan State University’s Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences. They are taking on the seemingly impossible with the goal of illuminating the lives of the millions of Africans, and their descendants, sold into bondage across four continents as part of the slave trade.
Founded by a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this project is being carried out primarily by investigators with Michigan State University and the University of Maryland, in partnership with other prominent collaborating organizations.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, a partner in the project, told The Washington Post, this project will “revolutionize our access to the past lives and experiences of our enslaved ancestors more dramatically and more definitively than any other research project.”
The 350-year slave trade consisted of more than 43,000 transatlantic voyages and enslavement of 12.5 million Africans. Approximately 1.7 million of those shackled or stowed in the hulls of ships did not survive the precarious journey, dying from starvation or disease and buried at sea.
An estimated 388,000 enslaved persons arrived in North America, and by 1860 nearly 4 million lived in bondage in the United States.
According to their website, the data in this project is focused on the historical enslavement of Africans, which includes enslaved Africans; their enslaved descendants; former slaves; individuals involved in the sale, employment, control, and/or manumission of enslaved people (slavers, financiers, merchants, ships’ captains and crew, land/factory/ship owners, etc.); and others who were enslaved with and/or labored in the same societies as enslaved Africans and their descendants (e.g., enslaved indigenous people and indentured people). Content focuses on slavery from Africa across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, from the origins of transoceanic slavery through the emancipation generation.
Already making significant progress on their research work, the project has launched a FREE public website where you can search people, events and places across 857,398 records (constantly expanding) from the slave trade.
Any member of the public can utilize the site “Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade,” available at enslaved.org.
What is unique about this project is the fact that you will be able to browse interconnected data, generate visualizations, and explore short biographies of enslaved and freed peoples.
Also available through the website is a copy of the group’s free, digital academic journal, The Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation, published twice a year. The journal features articles about the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants from the 15th to the early 20th centuries, with an emphasis on various academic research projects.