Using Ship Manifests for Slave Research

by Kathleen Brandt | Feb 12, 2013

Kathleen Brandt

When referencing the slave trade we commonly envision domestic purchases and exchanges of plantation owners and traders culminating in the overland transporting of slaves. Shipping human cargo via coastal waterways from one region to another is often forgotten history.

It is estimated that over 1 million slaves were transported using either coastwise ships to the southern ports along the Atlantic, or channeling them along the southern coast and the Mississippi River using southern tributaries. The Abolition Act of 1807 prohibited the import of slaves into the United States, effective 1 Jan 1808; however, domestic slave trading from one slave state to another was legal until 2 July 1864. An overlooked treasure for slave researchers are the ship manifests that document the legal trade and migratory path of slaves transported by water within the jurisdiction of the United States.

The History of Slave Manifests

As with all migratory moves, the transporting of slaves was dictated by the economic climate. The lower-South's production of cotton expanded as far west as Texas and continued further to San Francisco. Although slave labor boomed after the invention of the cotton gin, researchers shouldn't disregard the importance of slaves to the sugarcane plantations of Louisiana or rice-fields of the Carolinas and Georgia. In the meantime, the Mid-Atlantic slave states of Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky suffered from dwindling tobacco production and a reduced need of slave labor. This economic shift encouraged the coastal and waterways trade as far north as Boston. Although uncommon, manifests can also reveal the shipment of domestic slaves and nurses from the south to the north.

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Figure 1. Ship Manifests, 1828 from Baltimore to Savannah

To fulfill the law that required proof that slaves were not illegally imported into the United States after 1808, manifests of cargo carrying slaves were submitted at both ports of departure and arrival with appropriate statements swearing that the slaves listed "have not been imported into the United States since the first day of January, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight..."

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Figure 2. Sworn Statement

The manifests contained the name of the shipper or slave owner as well as their residence. They specified the name, sex and age of each slave to include a physical description - stature and designation of "negro, mulatto or person of colour."

A collection of the Slave Manifests, albeit not all, have been salvaged and microfilmed by the National Archives in US Customs Service Record Group (RG) 36 and the originals are held at the Regional National Archive branches: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Texas, etc.

Surviving manifests suggest that New Orleans was not only the largest slave market but also a "slave-shipping terminal." It was the destination port for the mid-Atlantic vessels and the origin of embarkation to the lower southern ports. Once slaves arrived at the port of destination they were often sent to neighboring areas. In a recent search we were able to locate a slave arriving in Charleston and within days exchanged in Augusta, Georgia.

Research Tips

Slave research using ship manifests requires persistent sleuthing. The family historian must gather information on the records of slave masters as well as the slave. Since most slaves were transported under the shipper's name, master records may reveal sales to a shipper, allowing the researcher to trace the vessel.

Recently a successful search resulted by tracing the family unit. This was possible since the slave master moved his entire plantation to the cotton belt. After the Civil War, the Pennsylvania-born family members, as described on the earlier Philadelphia manifests, were still living in close proximity.

Outbound manifests from 1820 to 1860 with destination names - Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, Pensacola, Florida - and slave names, allow researchers to trace a ship and its cargo-passengers from origin to destination. The researcher should be familiar with the various slave ships. Visit the Slave Ships, South Carolina Genealogy Trails website for a listing of some slave vessels. Newspaper advertisements may also confirm active coastwise trading for your timeframe.

Analysis of 1870 and 1880 census records may also uncover a migratory pattern. Perhaps you have noted a disproportionate community of Georgian ex-slaves recorded their parents' birth as Maryland? Or did your Alabama ancestor record his birth or his parents' birth as Virginia? In 1836, the height of the slave trade, Virginia exported over 120,000 slaves using coastwise vessels. Combining census data with deeds, sales, wills and local history, the researcher may be able to identify their slave ancestor in the manifests.

To help determine your ancestor's place of origin, be sure to trace shippers, traders and captains of that region. A recent search highlighted a well-known Cahawba, Alabama slave trader, "Shoestring" Barker. It appears Shoestring owned the local slave exchange. Corroborating information, including census record analysis and business deeds, resulted in positively identifying a slave ancestor and his owners.

If you are researching a New Orleans slave ancestor, you may wish to also check Louisiana Slave Records, 1719-1820, as compiled by Gwendolyn Hall.

Which Slave Manifests Exist?

The extant manifests are another tool to research the migratory path of your slave ancestor and in many cases the movement and business efforts of the slave owner, trader or shipper. The researcher will find that due to the pirating of vessels, coastwise shipments before the War of 1812 were few; but in 1821, the boom year of coastwise slave trading, over 2,600 manifests are available for research. has approximately 56,000 records digitized in U.S., Southeast Coastwise Inward and Outward Slave Manifests, 1790-1860, which includes:

  • Beaufort, South Carolina: Beaufort Coastwise Inward, 1826-1830
  • Charleston South Carolina: Charleston Coastwise Inward/Outward, 1820-1855
  • (digitized 1825-1846).
  • Mobile, Alabama: Mobile Coastwise Outward, 1820-1860; Mobile Coastwise Inward, 1821-1860
  • Savannah, Georgia: Coastwise Slave Manifests, 1801-1860; Savannah Coastwise Outward Slave Manifests: 1790-1859 (digitized 1808-1858)

The Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana 1807-1860, microfilm collection M1895, have also been digitized on as "New Orleans, Louisiana, Slave Manifests, 1807-1860."

In addition, the National Archives has Slave Manifests for the Port of Philadelphia from August 1800 - April 1860. This collection has not yet been digitized.

Early ship manifests, 1789-1808, carrying slaves also exist and are held in National Archives RG 36. However, they do not identify the slaves by names, but provide the number of slaves entering the ports.

Other Vessels

In spite of the Act of Prohibition, November 1858 a slave ship, The Wanderer, imported a cargo of 409 Africans to Jekyll Island, Georgia from various Congo tribes. To further research for these survivors, be sure to read Survivors From the Cargo of the Negro Slave Yacht Wanderer by Charles Montgomery. Due to court records and personal accounts, many slaves are named and photos have been salvaged.

The Wanderer was not the only illegal slave vessel. Six years before the Civil War, up to 150 West Africans entered the Mobile, Alabama harbor on the Clotide, July 1859. Extensive research has been conducted on the survivors of the Clotide.

For More Information

Following are two additional resources that may further your slave research using ship manifests:

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