Sunday, July 7, 2019

After Freedom: How Slaves Searched for Family

By Michelle Shocklee

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." Yet freedom for most slaves wouldn't come for two more years when the war finally ended in April 1865, and another two months to Juneteenth, the day Union troops arrived in Texas with the proclamation.

While researching my historical novels set on a Texas cotton plantation, I read dozens and dozens of true accounts of what slavery was like. These slave narratives, collected in the 1930s by the Federal Writers Project, are a treasure trove of information about the life of a slave. I wrote about my research in a blog titled I Was Born in Slavery--a Slave's Oral History.  To read and even hear the slaves' own words (there are a few recordings included in the archives!) is truly amazing. 

One heartbreaking theme is found in nearly all the narratives, and that is missing family members. Slave owners regularly split up families, selling off fathers and mothers and children for various (despicable) reasons. Slave traders often transported slaves across state lines, leaving the slaves with no hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. 

Slave auction house in Atlanta, GA, 1864
After the war ended and slavery was abolished, the task of reuniting families was monumental. Records indicate the government began collecting names and pertinent information of the former slaves, creating a sort of data bank to help locate relatives. But without modern-day technology, the endeavor took years and was far from adequate considering the vast number of people searching for their families. At the beginning of the Civil War, there were nearly four million people in bondage in the United States. You can imagine how many of them faced the hopelessness of finding their loved ones. 

As the years passed, some former slaves took to the newspapers, placing ads with information about their missing family members, hoping against all odds that someone somewhere would see it and contact them. I found them very poignant, especially those with updates that include good news. I'll share a few here and let them speak for themselves:

Louisville, KY , October 1, 1895.
I desire to know the whereabouts of Edwin Childs, the husband of Lucy Childs. The latter was daughter of old man Carter Page before the war. She belonged to Franklin Guy. She had two brothers, one by the name of William Page, and Archie Page. Edwin Childs belonged to Dr Worthum before the war, and he always hired his own time. His sister Muzinda, and he worked in the tobacco factory together. Edwin Childs' wife, Lucy Childs, was sold to the Negro traders before the war by Franklin Guy. Franklin Guy had two sons, one was named Tommie Guy and the other Warner Guy. 
Bettie Johnson, Louisville, KY

Louisville, Ky , October 23, 1895
Mr. Mitchell,
I have heard from my father Edwin Childs. He lives in Washington City. He saw the advertisement in the Richmond Planet. I received the letter from him Tuesday. It has been 36 years since I last saw him. We were sold away from our father in the year of 1859. I received a letter from Philadelphia, Pa , concerning the same matter. My aunt Muzinda lives in Richmond, Va. Through your kindness was the cause of me finding my father and aunt.
From yours,
Bettie Johnson, Louisville, KY

Here is another: 

INFORMATION WANTED OF MY RELATION. My uncle's name is Howard Hightower, his wife's name, Martha Hightower; three sons, Henry, Daniel and John; daughters, Mary, Caroline and Harriet. I have found Henry and Mary, who are living in Greensboro, Ga. We all belonged to William Hightower as late as 1862 '63, and at his death we were divided. Some went to Alabama, Southwestern Georgia and some to Polk county, Ga., while some remained in Green county, Ga., all of us being natives of that county. Uncle's name, Andy Hightower. Aminia and Louisiana Hightower are sisters to Andy. I will inform my uncles and aunts that their mother is living in Greensboro; also two of her sons. Any information will be gladly received by S. M. HIGHTOWER.
Rockmount, Ga.

One must wonder how many families were actually reunited with loved ones, and how many never saw their relatives again. In my historical novel The Widow of Rose Hill, two former slaves, Moses and Harriet, deal with this difficult subject. Without giving away their story, I did my best to keep to the facts of the time period, showing the heartbreak, the challenge, and the difficult decisions so many former slaves had to make. 

Put yourself in their shoes: Had you lived in those days, how would you have gone about searching for your loved ones? How long would you have tried? Would you ever give up?

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill, historical sagas set on a Texas cotton plantation before and after the Civil War. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of 32 years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself
solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. I don't suppose you ever give up searching and hoping to find your long-lost family. Especially those who are separated from you by no choice or action of your own taking. Very poignant. Thanks for sharing your research with us.

  2. Connie, I agree! I found it so heartbreaking yet beautiful that these newspaper ads were from the 1890s, showing that people continued to search many years after the war ended!