Check out the January issue of Common-Place for background and even some methods. Not much directly pertaining to the Midwest in this issue, but Christopher Grasso gives a lengthy preview of his book on how belief and unbelief wove together in the US in the early 1800s. If you want hard-core research, click on Eastern Illinois University professor Charles R. Foy's article, "Uncovering Hidden Lives," whose work in archives on both sides of the pond has helped produce the Colored Mariner Database (not yet on line) of almost 10,000 African American, Native American, or mixed-race Atlantic mariners in the 1700s. For instance:
A compilation of naval records had provided me with the story of four slave sailors on a ship from St. Thomas who found themselves in Portsmouth during the American Revolution due to a broken ship rudder. The seamen convinced naval officials of their rights under the English law not to be forced to continue to work as slaves on the ship. The case was particularly interesting because it involved slave sailors from throughout the Atlantic: North America, the British West Indies, Calabar, and St. Thomas. But what happened to these men once they left the ship in Portsmouth was unknown. A review of court, tax, land, and church records in the Portsmouth City Records Office provided no information on the men. However, a search of records for warships in Portsmouth at the time the men landed there yielded a significant discovery: one of the men had been subsequently impressed onto a naval ship! While we might not know the details of these men's lives after they gained their freedom, the fate of this unfortunate sailor reminds us that in the eighteenth-century Anglo-American maritime world, freedom from enslavement did not always mean freedom from coerced labor.Surely this is where the always-permeable border between genealogy and history dissolves altogether.
Also don't miss Byron Le Beau's discussion of Currier & Ives's not terribly realistic but still informative visual record of the 19th century including the Civil War.