What to Do When a Record Doesn’t Tell You Much

Oh, that every record we use would be filled to the brim with details about our ancestors. Unfortunately, not every record is rich in detail. But just because it's a skimpy record doesn't mean we can't use it. Here's what to do when a record doesn't tell you very much.


Charmaine Szostek asked a question on Facebook about the race of someone she saw listed on the 1850 Slave Schedule. (Thank you, Charmaine, for letting me use your example here on the blog!) Here's a portion of the page that Charmaine posted:

George Lowery 1850 Slave Schedule

George Lowery, Union Parish, Louisiana, 1850 Slave Schedule, unnumbered page after page 687. Image courtesy FamilySearch.org. (Click to enlarge.)

Here is Charmaine's question: "George Lowery is one of my great grandfathers. I was trying to understand what I was reading. Does it say that his race is black?"

Learn About the Record

We always need to learn about the records we're using. That's exactly what Charmaine did when she posted this on Facebook. Here's the entry on line 36:

Geo. Lowery, 1 slave, age 60, male, black.

Charmaine was confused about what the record was telling her. Was George Lowery a black man who owned slaves?

Several people on Facebook jumped in with links to articles about blacks who were themselves slave owners. Those articles were insightful, but they didn't answer Charmaine's question: Was this George Lowery a black man?

The answer: You can't tell from this record. 

The Slave Schedules list the slave owner's name, plus a basic description of each slave (age, gender, race, whether a fugitive from the state, and if they were "deaf & dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic.") Where it gets confusing is the first line for each slave owner is a combination of the slave owner's name plus the description of the first slave on the list. 

So the line with George Lowery's name doesn't tell us his race; it tells us the race of one of his slaves. 

Now what?

Learn How the Record Relates to Other Records

Records often do not exist in isolation. They often work with other records. That's true with the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. They were taken at the same time as the population schedules (the part of the census we usually use). Since George Lowery is listed by name on the Slave Schedule, he should also be listed on the population schedule. This is helpful to us since the population schedule is supposed to list each (free) person's race. 

This Slave Schedule is for Union Parish, Louisiana, which means that George Lowery should be listed there in the population schedule. There's one problem: There's more than one George Lowery. 

  • George Lowery, age 5, born in Alabama
  • George Lowery, age 54, born in Georgia

Chances are that a 5-year-old isn't the owner of 41 slaves; it's more plausible that the 54-year-old George is the one. But what if the two George's had both been adults? How could we sort them out? 

Because the Slave Schedule was created at the same time as the Population Schedule, the names should be in the same order. We can look at who else is listed near George Lowery on the Slave Schedule and look for those names in the Population Schedule. 

One of the names before George on the Slave Schedule is Solomon Feagel/Feazel. The name after George is James Lowery. On the Population Schedule, Solomon is listed the page before 54-year-old George. James Lowery is listed immediately after that George; the 5-year-old is in James's household. The only George Lowery that fits the order is the 54-year-old. 

Evaluate the Record

The 1850 Population Schedule doesn't list the race of anybody in Union Parish, including George Lowery.

George Lowery, 1850 Federal census (population schedule), Union Parish, Louisiana, page 394, nos. 683/683. Image courtesy FamilySearch.org.

Before you start thinking that it was a lazy enumerator, he was actually following the instructions:

"Under heading 6, entitled "Color," in all cases where the person is white, leave the space blank; in all cases where the person is black, insert the letter B; if mulatto, insert M. It is very desirable that these particulars be carefully regarded." 

‚Äč(From "1850 Census: Instructions to Marshals and Assistant Marshals.")

To Charmaine's original question of "Was George Lowery black," no, he wasn't. He was white, per the 1850 Population Schedule.

Keys to Working with Skimpy Records

Don't be too discouraged working with skimpy records. The keys are to learn all you can about them so that you understand what is there, then take the next step to see how that record fits in with other records, and evaluate what you found. Even when that first record doesn't spell it out, it can lead us to the answers if we follow its lead.

Want to learn more about getting all you can out of the records you use?

My new course "Beyond the Hints" will help you make more discoveries with less frustration. The course will open in January 2018. Click the button below to be notified when the course launches. 

What to Do When a Record Doesnt Tell You Much
Posted: November 16, 2017.

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  • Very interesting and informative information, Amy. I never knew the info after the slave owner’s name was the info for the slave. Makes sense. I’ve never paid much attention to slave records but now maybe I should look a little closer. Thanks for all of your helpful information.

  • One of those light bulb moments. The first line makes sense now that you have explained it. And the logic of finding the right George all falls into place.
    Thank you for this informative post.

  • Thanks for sharing Amy. When first checking this record it does look like he was black. Very confusing the slave schedules.

    I wonder if there are any other records/sources that I may have misinterpreted.