After Slavery Separated Families, People Went In Search of Lost Loved Ones

By Nylu Bridges Bernshtayn, age 13

A woman and her child being separated as they are auctioned into slavery,1800s / New York Public Library Digital Collection


Slavery began in what is now the United States in 1619 and ended in 1865 when the thirteenth amendment was ratified. During that period, families were torn apart and family members were sold into slavery. “About one-third of enslaved children in the upper South experienced separation either by being sold themselves or from losing a mother, a father or siblings,” said Heather Andrea Williams, professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. When enslaved peoples tried to find their families after the Civil War it was very hard.

In 2017, Villanova University’s Department of History launched Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a project to archive and transcribe “information wanted” ads and letters from people trying to find their loved ones after slavery.  Researchers have found more than 3,000 such ads and letters, some of which were published well into the mid-1900s.

“For those who have been shaking their heads and saying that what is happening on the U.S. border is not American, they need only to look at this collection to be reminded that it is very American,” said historian Judith Giesberg, who directs the Last Seen project. “We’ve been doing things like this since this country was founded.”


“Here are these people, and they are telling you so much in just a few lines,” said Williams. “They are telling you about who they lost… Sometimes it’s a son looking for a mother, a mother looking for a child, a husband looking for a spouse. I thought, ‘How can anyone have that degree of hope to still find a person?’”

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