Reader Question: Slaveholding Ancestors

This week’s genealogy question comes from Pam, who wants to know more about the following ancestor:

Patience Julia Mobley, b. 1856 in FL-d. 1907 in FL.

the daughter of

Zilpha Smith, b. 1810 in GA (I think)- death unknown and

John Riley Mobley, b. 1810 (I think) in GA-death unknown.

Pam further writes:

  • I have reason to believe that all of the Mobleys had indentures as well as slaves. In the 1850 census, there is a Charity Thompson living in the household who is in fact an indentured servant.
  • My question is how do you research indentures and slaves???
  • How do I KNOW that this John Riley Mobley is indeed descended from John Rickard Mobley?
  • Why aren’t there more records available to me regarding this family?
  • I don’t fully understand how indenturing works…Seven years and you’re free to leave? Seven years and you’re free to live as the head of household’s wife? Does your status change in some way? Does being an indentured wife involve the usual wifely duties in addition to something more?
  • I am trying to confirm or negate that these particular Mobley’s are descended from slaves (either or both of them)… Did these men ever marry their slaves?

 The Genealogist’s Answer

To answer all of your questions, I will divide my answer into three categories:

1) What web sites to search

  • I begin all of my online searches with Google–I Google the ancestor’s name alone if it is rare, or their name plus locations and dates, if it is more common.
  • Then I move on to genealogy sites (like FamilySearch and and any local sites hosted by historical associations or heraldic organizations near the area my ancestor lived.
  • I also Google state records, and consult Michael Hait’s eBook, Online State Resources for Genealogy.
  • Then I check for any federal records pertaining to an ancestor, by using the US National Archives’ search engine OPA

Once I have exhausted online records, I start doing offline research.

2) Next step: Offline Research

Online records will likely not give you enough evidence about the identity of your ancestors, so you will need to look for information about them offline, too.

For this phase of my searching, I do all of the following:

  • Visit the courthouse in the county where my ancestor lived, or
  • If their courthouse is too far away, I order microfilm copies of the courthouse’s record’s on FamilySearch
  • As I go, I make an inventory of what I have found, to make sure I haven’t missed anything

~ To learn what offline records FamilySearch has for your ancestor’s hometown, follow this tutorial:

~ To learn what other offline records exist for your ancestor’s hometown, look it up in the FamilySearch wiki:

~ Be sure to Google the name of your ancestor’s town with terms like “genealogy” and “records,” in order to locate additional helpful resources!

3) How to find out more about slave-holding ancestors, indentures, and intermarriage:

I can recommend the following excellent reads about slave-holding whites, their relationships with slaves, and what life was commonly like in slave-holding plantations:


white cargo book

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

hairstons book

The Hairstons, by Henry Weincek


kinship book

Communities of Kinship by Carolyn Earle Billingsley

4) How do you KNOW who is really descended from whom, and why aren’t there more records about this family?

Pam, I’m not Accredited for African American or gulf states research, but the following genealogists are, so you might want to consider contacting them for a consultation:

In the meantime, here are my simple answers to this question:

You will know which historical data is most accurate and what other records are out there after you study these guides:

idiots guide

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy


ft problem solver

The Family Tree Problem Solver


gen analysis

 Elements of Genealogical Analysis

Thank you for your question, Pam–as you make progress, please send me your updated research logs and charts, and I’d be happy to explore them, as well, on our site for additional discussions about your fascinating case!

Until then, good luck and happy hunting! 🙂



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