Taking Your First Steps Around the 1870 “Brick Wall” in African American Research

For African Americans who were enslaved until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, the 1870 census was the first federal census to name them. Since the slave schedules of the 1850 and 1860 censuses only referred to slaves by tick marks, sex, and age, connecting the people identified in 1870 to their pre-emancipation identities is a notoriously difficult challenge. It’s so difficult that relatively few researchers attempt it. But there are methods for moving past this brick wall.

The Atkins and Carter families were enumerated together in Butler Township, Edgefield County, South Carolina, in the 1870 census:

Joseph Atkins, 50, m, m, farm laborer, born in SC, cannot read or write
Violet Atkins, 45, f, b, keeping house, born in SC, cannot read or write
Emma Atkins, 12, f, b, farm laborer, born in SC, cannot read or write
Wade Atkins, 8, m, b, at home, born in SC, can read and write
Frances Carter, 40, f, m, farm laborer, born in SC, cannot read or write
Allen Carter, 15, m, m, farm laborer, born in SC, cannot read or write
William P. Carter, 13, m, m, farm laborer, born in SC, cannot read or write
Savannah Carter, 11, f, m, farm laborer, born in SC, cannot read or write
Church P. Carter, 9, m, m, at home, born in SC, can read and write[1]

The question that arose for an Atkins descendant was “How can I find out if the Carters listed in the Atkins household are related?” It’s a good question. While the 1870 census enumerated every household member, it did not articulate the relationship of each member to the head of household as the censuses for 1880 and later did. So how do we go about answering that question?

One researcher put forth the argument that Violet Atkins and Frances Carter were likely sisters, but offered no particular evidence to support that theory. By my observation, that seemed unlikely. Violet, afterall, was listed as “b” for black, while Frances was listed as “m” for mulatto. It’s certainly true that even the same person can be alternately listed as black or mulatto in different censuses, depending on the census taker, but those descriptors by the same census taker in the same household suggest a clear difference between the two women.

On the other hand, Joseph is the only mulatto Atkins in the household, while all Carters are mulatto. That’s not proof of anything, but it may suggest a close relationship between Joseph and Frances. It’s a hypothesis worth testing.

The first thing I did was to check the 1860 slave schedule for any slaveholder named Atkins. The only one in Edgefield County was Thomas Atkins. Of the five enslaved people he owned, three were male (aged 53, 53, and 15) and two were female (20 and 1).[2] In 1860, Joseph Atkins would have been about 40, and Frances Carter would have been about 30. Neither appear to be any of the people referred to under Thomas Atkins.

Next, I checked Edgefield County wills for any Atkins who wrote a will in the years leading up to 1870. One man fit this bill: Robert Atkins whose will was written 14 September 1858 and admitted to probate 8 October 1858. While he referred to his estate both real and personal, he did not explicitly say that his estate included slaves. He did, however, direct that any surplus monies due him and arising from his cotton crop, after the satisfaction of all debts, should “be applied towards the increase of the farm by the purchase of Slaves together with the necessary stock farming implements etc.” A little later in his will, he stipulated that “should my wife Elizabeth Atkins think proper to intermarry again I desire that my whole Estate be appraised immediately by three disinterested persons. . . .”[3]

The probate records for Robert’s estate were filed more than a dozen years later on 11 January 1871. Those forty pages include two key documents: an appraisal in 1858 and an appraisal in 1861. The 8 October 1858 appraisal placed a value of $900 on “one negroe man Joe” and a value of $1,300 on “one woman Frances & child Allen” among others. (There was no Violet there.) The 5 January 1861 appraisal placed a value of $1000 on “one man Joe” and a value of $1600 on “one negroe woman Frances & Allen & William” among others. (Again, there was no Violet there.)[4]

These four people are clearly among those in Joseph Atkins’s 1870 household, having been emancipated before Robert Atkins’s estate was finally settled. While it’s easy to assume that Joseph and Frances are siblings, we can’t yet be so sure. We can see that they are closely related or closely associated, but the precise nature of that relationship hasn’t yet been discovered.

Ultimately, we’ve only scratched the surface of this research project. But look at how much we were able to uncover with just the first bit of scratching. The resultant information gives us a number of clues to follow up on. Deeds, other probate records for the Atkins family, and Freedmen’s Bureau records may very well clarify Joseph and Frances’s precise relationship as well as extend their ancestry. Moving forward does require tenacity and patience, but the information it can lead to is priceless.


[1] Joseph Atkins household, 1870 U.S. Census, South Carolina, Edgefield County, Butler Township, p. 5 (penned), p. 17 (stamped), dwelling 32, family 32, lines 28–36; image at Ancestry, citing NARA M593, roll 1494; the name is misindexed on Ancestry as Arkins.

[2] Enslaved people under Thomas Atkins, 1860 U.S. Census—Slave Schedule, South Carolina, District of Edgefield, Saluda Regiment, p. 1 (penned), p. 374 (stamped), lines 21–25; image at Ancestry, citing NARA M653, roll 1230.

[3] Robert Atkins will, 14 September 1858, proved 8 October 1858, Edgefield County, South Carolina, will book E (1852–1866), 274–276 (FHL #23,869).

[4] Robert Atkins probate packet, filed 11 January 1871, box 77, package 3104, unpaginated (FHL #162,280).

  1. March 28, 2020 1:10 pm
  2. March 29, 2020 4:17 pm

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