By David Dilts
I asked a researcher who had just spent over half a year researching the ancestors of Michelle Obama what advice she would give to beginning genealogists looking for African American ancestors. She told me, “Never give up!” Finding African American ancestors may sometimes be hard, but with persistence you can usually do it. The purpose of this article is to show you how to get started.
Home sources. Start with home sources. What can you find in old trunks in the attic, or by talking to older relatives and family friends? You may be tempted to start looking for a slave ancestor, but learning about more recent ancestors first will pay off in the long run. Start with your parents, then grandparents. Carefully work your way back to earlier generations by learning as much as you can about more recent generations first. If you start too far back too soon, you might mistakenly research the wrong person. One reason you start with home sources from your place or your grandparents’ places is because you know those sources are about your ancestors.
Searching for ancestors usually involves a lot of guess-work. First, you guess when and where an event happened in a person’s life, and then go hunting for the documents to confirm your guess. A key to becoming a good guesser and genealogist is to understand the following:
Principle: The more you know, the better you can guess.
Each scrap of information you can find about a person will help you guess more about that person including who his or her parents were. For example, if a man’s children were all born in Kansas City, it is reasonable to guess he might have been married in Kansas City. So, finding as much as you can about your ancestors from home sources such as interviewing older relatives and from old family papers will begin to build up the clues you need to find more and more about them. Take notes when you talk to older relatives to get at much information down as possible.
Use family group records to organize your notes in a compact and easy-to-use format. Family group records show a father, mother, and their children along with information about important events such as birth, marriage, death, and other events in their lives. The more you know about all the members of a family, the better you can guess about other events in each of their lives.
Software like Personal Ancestral File help you create family group records. You can download it for free on the Internet at FamilySearch.org. There are also commercial programs you can buy like RootsMagic and Legacy for doing the same thing.
Censuses. Learn as much as you can about your family from federal and state census records. Every ten years the federal government lists and counts all the people in the United States. These lists are available from 1790 to 1930. They are easy to use, include almost everyone, show family members, their residence, and birth states. Some states also took their own censuses between federal censuses. The Internet has several sites you can use to learn about censuses, or use search censuses for ancestor:
- Wiki.FamilySearch.org – look for a state where an ancestor lived together with the topic “Census”. Includes online Internet links to the following census indexes and images:
- FamilySearch Record Search – a free site with many federal and state census indexes
- Ancestry.com – subscription site, the most complete collection of indexes and images
- HeritageQuestOnline – subscription site, complete federal images, and many indexes
- Footnote.com – subscription site, some federal images and indexes
For tips on how to search census indexes see the article, United States Census Searching.
Be sure to add information from each census where you find an ancestor to that ancestor’s family group record. For an explanation of how to do this see Adding a Custom Event to a PAF Family Group Record.
Other sources. Use the FamilySearch Research Wiki to learn about these additional sources that help to find African American ancestors:
- Social Security Death Index (SSDI)
- World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917 to 1918
- African American Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company Records
- United States Military Records: Research Tools
- Finding Plantation Records
- Probate records (last wills) of owners in the county where a slave ancestor lived
- African American Land and Property
- African American Freedmen’s Bureau Records
- Slave Narratives
- Southern Claims Commission
- Runaway slave advertisements
Tips and Principles. First look in the same sources as you would for anyone else—look in special sources for African Americans later. Sometimes African Americans are listed at the end or in separate records. If you cannot find an ancestor’s name in “colored” records, try the “white” records as well.
Watch out for name changes, especially from 1865 to 1875. If the surname changed, use computerized census indexes to search for members of the family by their given names to learn their alternative surname. Pay attention to neighbors and people in the same household in census records, they are often relatives.
If you don’t find a name in an index during the first search, try again under a different spelling, or in a different index (usually census index), or just skip the index and look through the record page by page for the ancestor.
With persistence, and good notes (tracking of all the information about each family member) you can improve the chances of finding more African American ancestors more quickly.