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Massive Data Project Will Help People Identify Enslaved Ancestors

Michigan State’s ‘Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade’ will combine available historical data on slavery into one searchable hub

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smithsonian.com

A new project called “Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade” will give scholars and the public a massive resource to help search for enslaved people and their descendants in one source. 

As Brian McVicar at MLive.com reports, Michigan State University received a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop the online data hub linking together several important databases on enslaved people in the Americas. It will also allow users to analyze and create maps and charts of enslaved populations in the United States.

According to a press release, it will take 18 months to build a proof-of-concept version of the project, which will pull from eight major online databases. “By linking data compiled by some of the world’s foremost historians, it will allow scholars and the public to learn about individuals’ lives and to draw new, broad conclusions about processes that had an indelible impact on the world," says project co-investigator Walter Hawthorne, professor and chair of MSU’s Department of History. 

In a video presentation, Hawthorne explains that much of what historians know about enslaved people come from things like baptismal records, plantation inventories and other scattered documents that include mostly fragmentary information about each person. The problem for those researching geneaology is that such handwritten paper documents are often damaged and very difficult to read, even when they're made into high-resolution scans or photos. But by extracting the data from these documents and entering them in databases, online databases have made these primary documents more accessible to historians and genealogists. 

While there are dozens of digitization projects going on around the world doing this work, tracking the story of one individual or running analyses on one population can become difficult across so many databases. “Enslaved” will act as a hub, linking open data-sources together. “If I can do an analogy, it’s kind of like what you might do for an airline ticket or a hotel room when you go on Expedia,” says Hawthorne. “You’re searching across multiple databases.”

Though online databases and digitization of census records and other documents has led to a genealogy boom in the United States in recent years, for people with enslaved ancestors, tracing their roots remains a daunting task. Historian Rebecca Onion at Slate reports that freed slaves did not show up in the U.S. census by name until 1870. Tracking ancestors by last name is also difficult. Many people assume that many enslaved people took the last name of their owners, but Tony Burroughs, founder of the Center for Black Genealogy, tells Onion that’s not necessarily the case—last names come from many sources and don’t often link up with a slave owner. This difficulty of linking a free person with records from a plantation has thus been dubbed the “1870 Brick Wall.”

When "Enslaved" debuts, it hopes to join with other resources to help scale that barrier.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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