Skip To Content
Plan Your Visit

Welcome to the International African American Museum! Advanced timed tickets are required for all visitors. Popular dates and times may be sold out.

Oct 15, 2018

African American Genealogy: Researching From a Bill of Sale for Enslaved Ancestors


We had a lively discussion on last Tuesday’s episode of BlackProGen LIVE! “Biology of a Document: From Analysis to Plan,” about getting the most from the documents we have gathered in our African American genealogy research. The episode focused on analyzing each document you have found so far in your search.

Have you found a bill of sale for an enslaved ancestor, looked at it and rejoiced, then put it away? As our friend Shelley Murphy stresses, you should not leave each new document you find until you have asked the question “So what?” What does this new document mean for your research?

Do not file a newly found document away before looking at every line on the document to pull out every bit of new information. Once you have gleaned all of the new information in the document, look now at every line and think “What is the next record?” and “What record came before?” 

No document you find is frozen in time. The events that led to the creation of this document are the outgrowth of events that came before, and are related to events that came after. You can search for those records to learn much more about enslaved ancestors.

An example is the document we shared on Tuesday’s show. The below is a bill of sale where Daniel Heyward, acting as Executor of the estate of John Heyward, deceased, sold many enslaved people to John R. Mathewes. We analyzed this document during the show, but had a few short moments to do so. We promised viewers a blog post that will elaborate.

Heyward, Daniel, Exor. Of The Estate Of John Heyward To John R. Mathewes, Bill Of Sale For 49 Slaves. Date: 4/7/1843. South Carolina, Secretary of State, Series: S213050 Volume: 006A Page: 00015

Researching from This Document

This bill of sale contains several key bits of information that we can use to search for more documents related to the enslaved ancestors who were sold. Let’s start with the identity of the seller.

Search for the Executor

Daniel Heyward, acting as the Executor to the estate of John Heyward, is the seller. 

1. Check for other bills of sale issued just by Daniel Heyward around that time, without notation that he is Executor of the estate. It’s not unusual to find bills of sale with only the Executor’s name as the seller, that actually prove to be related to to the deceased’s estate. If you are browsing microfilm images, check previous and next few images for other bills of sale related to estate – the Executor may have recorded all of the bills of sale for the estate at once.

2. Search probate records for name of the Executor and the deceased, to find other probate records related to this estate. For this estate, we can consult the FamilySearch collection “South Carolina Probate Records, Bound Volumes, 1671-1977” for will records, and the collection “South Carolina Probate Records, Files and Loose Papers, 1732-1964” for estate inventories and probate account records. Neither record collection is indexed, so you will have to consult the individual volumes for the appropriate dates and consult the index pages in the front of each volume. Alternatively these records can be searched on

3. Check records of the Equity Court for equity suits, judgments, estate accounts and other bills of sale related to this estate. It is not unusual to find bills of sale in Equity Court records that you will not find recorded with bills of sale elsewhere, but only in the court records. Consulting the FamilySearch catalog for Charleston County court records, we see two collections of interest: “South Carolina Equity Court, Bills of complaint, 1800-1863; indexes, 1721-1868” and “South Carolina county records : Charleston Co. court records containing renunciation of dowers, land, probate and misc. court actions, 1740-1787.

4. Check the Heyward family tree to learn the relationship of Daniel Heyward to the deceased John Heyward – Daniel Heyward may have inherited or purchased enslaved people from this estate. 

5. Check the Digital Library on American Slavery for other records related to Daniel Heyward or John Heyward. Although this collection is administered in North Carolina, many South Carolina equity petitions were mined to build that database. 

6. Check the SCDAH Online Index to discover names of enslaved of Daniel Heyward and John Heyward. To do this, search for Daniel Heyward or John Heyward, then select the topic “Slaves, Named.” This will return a list of all documents for that person which include the names of enslaved people.

Search for the Deceased

The next bit of information we can search on is the name of the deceased. John Heyward is the deceased, and the enslaved people being sold are a part of John Heyward’s estate.

1. Search for the will, estate inventory and other probate records related to this estate (see items 2 and 3 above). If you find the estate inventory, look to see if family relationships are noted for the enslaved people in the estate, as no family relationships are noted in this bill of sale. 

2. Check probate records for the years following the year the will and estate inventory were filed. Estates were sometimes kept together, and active, until all of the estate’s debts are paid. It’s not unusual to find probate records for even a decade after the estate’s original papers were filed.

3. Check historic newspapers to see if this was an advertised estate sale.

4. Search ArchiveGrid to see if Heyward family papers are preserved in archives. Also check for papers of Lowcountry law firms that may contain papers related to the deceased or their estate.

5. Check to learn how John Heyward acquired these enslaved people. Did he inherit them? Were they born on his plantation? Did he purchase them? Finding answers to these questions may open new research windows in records made before this sale took place.

Search for the Buyer

John R. Mathewes is the buyer.

1. Research John R. Mathewes to see if he died before or after emancipation.

2. Mathewes died in 1867, but his estate inventory listed enslaved people freed by United States in 1865 – family relationships were noted in estate inventory that were not noted in bill of sale. 

3. John R. Mathewes’ will lists two sons who were to inherit his property – look for Freedmen’s labor contracts between these sons and Freedmen. 

4. Use the family groupings from the estate inventory to search for census records, Freedmen’s Bureau records and other records for those listed in the bill of sale and the estate inventory.

5. If you find census records, check United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890 to see if the adult men served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) – 5,000 men served in the USCT in South Carolina alone.