What is a “fi fa,” and Why is it Important for African American Genealogy?

Toni Carrier
by Toni Carrier

Historic newspapers are an important resource for African American genealogy. Runaway slave ads, jailor’s notices of captured runaway freedom seekers, notices of estate sales, private sales and sheriff’s sales that include the names of enslaved ancestors are all important for understanding enslaved ancestors’ experiences.

Today, we focus on advertisements for Sheriff’s sales, what those advertisements tell us, and what leads they provide for further research.


Advertisement for Sheriff's Sale, Macon, MS intelligencer., April 18, 1840, Image 2

Advertisement for Sheriff’s Sale, Macon, MS intelligencer., April 18, 1840, Image 2


What is a “Fi Fa?”

Notices for Sheriff’s sales often include a reference to a “fi fa.” What is a fi fa, and what can these words tell us in our search for enslaved ancestors?

A fi fa, or writ of fieri facias, is a writ issued by the court after a judgement in a legal action for debt or damages. The fi fa instructs the sheriff to sieze and sell property equivalent to the value of the judgement against the debtor. 

How is a Fi Fa Notice a Clue for African American Genealogy?

In the examples shown above and below, there are two important bits of information:

  • Identity of the Slaveholder for the Enslaved People being Sold: Seeing a sheriff’s notice to sell enslaved ancestors as the result of a fi fa tells us, first, that the person whose property was seized is a confirmed slaveholder for your ancestor. The advertisements usually contain a phrase such as “Levied on as the property of E.A. Massingale,” as in the advertisement below, which identifies the slaveholder. 
  • Clues for Finding More Documentation: Second, a mention of a fi fa tells us that there should be a record of the legal action and the court’s judgement. In the sheriff’s sale notice below, the court and the legal actions are listed. We see that the three suits were filed in the Circuit Court of Noxubee County, Mississippi. The suits were Lott M. Ballard vs E.A. Massingale, Peter B. Cook vs E.A. Massingale and Hazel Stewart vs E.A. Massingale. 


Sheriff's Sale Notice, Macon Intelligencer, July 25, 1840, Image 4

Sheriff’s Sale Notice, Macon Intelligencer, July 25, 1840, Image 4


Researching From a Sheriff’s Sale Advertisement

Let’s go to the FamilySearch Wiki page for Noxubee County, to see which records are available for that county. We can go to the FamilySearch Home Page, hover over “Search,” then select “Research Wiki” from the drop down menu:

FamilySearch Wiki Search Screen Shot 1


On the FamilySearch Wiki Home Page, we’ll type in “Noxubee County Mississippi.”


FamilySearch Wiki Noxubee County Search Bar


From the search results, we’ll select “Noxubee County Mississippi Genealogy.”


FamilySearch Wiki Page Noxubee County MS

FamilySearch Wiki Page, Noxubee County MS


Let’s scroll down the Wiki page to the section on court records. Here we see that the county courthouse has records for the Circuit Court, beginning in 1834. The sheriff’s sale in the advertisement above was advertised in 1840, so the court actions that led to the fi fa may be among the Circuit Court records in the Noxubee County, MS courthouse. 


FamilySearch Wiki Page Noxubee County MS, Circuit Court Records Detail

FamilySearch Wiki Page Noxubee County MS, Circuit Court Records Detail


As you see, the Wiki page gives us the contact information and address for the Noxubee County, MS courthouse, so we can contact or visit the courthouse.

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