One of the biggest research challenges for African American genealogy is documenting enslaved ancestors who were brought from Africa to the Americas in the Atlantic Slave Trade. More than 40% of those who were forced from Africa to the shores of North America arrived in Charleston. In the final years of the Atlantic Slave trade to Charleston, slave ships arrived exclusively at Gadsden’s Wharf, the site where the International African American Museum is under development.
Here, we look at some of the resources genealogy researchers can use to document the arrival of slave ships in the port of Charleston.
The SlaveVoyages Database documents the millions of enslaved Africans forced from Africa to the Americas, and from one part of the Americas to another. There is a database of individual voyages of slave ships to the Americas, a database of African names recorded during the trade and its suppression, essays and other resources that are a great starting place for your research.
The new website Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade offers resources for exploring and reconstructing the lives of individuals who were enslaved, held slaves, or participated in the slave trade. Here you can explore resources that document people, events, places, stories, sources and visualizations for the enslaved and those who enslaved them.
Historical newspapers are a rich resource for documenting the arrival of slave ships, the sales of enslaved Africans, and runaway slave ads. The many South Carolina newspapers digitized by Chronicling America are free to access and search. You can clip and download items of interest. Other South Carolina newspapers are digitized at GenealogyBank, Accessible Archives, Ancestry.com and the South Carolina Digital Library.
Shipping News – Historical Newspapers
Charleston newspapers reported shipping news that documented the arrival of ships in the port of Charleston. Shipping news items document the name of the ship, the port where the ship embarked on its journey, the name of the ship’s owners or consignees, the names of the captains, the number of days the ship was enroute, and the cargo the ship was carrying. Below is an example of a shipping news article.
The Papers of Henry Laurens
Henry Laurens was one of the most active Charleston merchants who sold cargoes of enslaved Africans in Charleston. The sixteen volumes of The Papers of Henry Laurens contain correspondence, newspaper advertisements and other documents that chronicle Henry Laurens’ life and his participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Although the volumes are not digitized, they are available in many public and university libraries.
Many of the items included in the sixteen volumes of this serial set were taken from The Henry Laurens Papers, which can be viewed at the South Carolina Historical Society. You can view the finding aid for this collection here.
Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade
The four volumes of Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America edited by Elizabeth Donnan contain numerous examples of documents concerning the trade to Charleston. All four volumes have been digitized and are freely available online. Volume IV (The Border Colonies and Southern Colonies) contains an extensive list of documents for the trade to South Carolina between 1706 and 1807. There you will find personal correspondence, newspaper advertisements, accounts of sales and more.
Naval Office Lists, Public Records Office, London
The Public Record Office in London contains two collections, Naval Office Lists, 1757-1764 and Naval Office Lists, 1764-1767, that document the arrivals and departure of ships for the port of Charleston. The lists contain the name of the ship, name of the ship’s owners, name of the captain, date of the arrival or departure, and the ship’s cargo. Be aware that ships carrying enslaved Africans would have arrived about ten days before they were cleared into the port of Charleston due to mandatory offshore quarantines for ships arriving from Africa. To access the collections, you can contact the Public Record Office in London.
Public Treasurer Journals, South Carolina Department of Archives and History
The South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH) holds journals of the Public Treasurer for South Carolina. The volume Public Treasurer, Journal B: Duties records the amount of duties Charleston and South Carolina merchants paid on their sales of enslaved Africans. These journals reveal the names of merchants participating in the Atlantic Slave Trade and the amount of duties paid for individual sales of cargoes of enslaved Africans. The journals may be accessed at SCDAH in Columbia, South Carolina. You can also order copies of SCDAH’s holdings.
Merchants’ Account Books, U.S. and U.K. Archives
Account books of merchants involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade may be held at archives in the United States and the United Kingdom. You can search ArchiveGrid to find collections related to the Atlantic Slave Trade and specific merchants who participated in the trade. The Account Book of Henry Laurens, 1750 April – 1758 December has been digitized by Yale University Special Collections and is free to access online. You can download individual pages of research interest. There are some accounts of merchants’ sales of enslaved Africans in the Public Record Office in Kew, U.K., but only a handful are held there. You can order copies of those records on the Public Records Office website.
Note that the Austin and Laurens account book recorded only the gender of those who were imported and sold and does not include names of the enslaved. Information recorded in the journal includes the name of the purchaser, how many men, women, boys or girls they purchased, and the credit terms for the sale.
Share Your Finds
Have you located other resources that document the Atlantic Slave Trade to Charleston? Please tell us about them in the comments below!