"How to Begin and Sustain A Genealogical
by Sandra G. Craighead
Presented before the African-American Genealogical Society,
Cleveland, Ohio on February 24, 1996
Reprinted with permission
Lifting the Black Veil of Obscurity
Once you have reached the level on the Chart where you, nor anyone else living can go any further, you have reached the "Black Veil of Obscurity" (usually following discoveries from the 1870 census)Obscurity means to hide or to conceal; you know the last known ancestor on each branch had parents with names, ages, birthplaces and parents. Now the mystery begins! What time and the institution of slavery tried to hide -- you will now uncover!
Confirm the truthfulness of what you've been told -- up to now you have not accepted nor rejected anything;
Discover new facts and evidence. Keep this in mind -- use what you know to uncover what you don't know! Is is hard for anyone to come into this life, live it and leave without leaving some sign, some word that they were here.
Constantly put yourself into your ancestors' shoes. Ask yourself what work did they do? How did they support their family? Did they own any land? Were there any colored schools in the county? Where did the family do to church? What groups did they belong to? Where did they bury their dead? Did any railroads run through their town and if so, what routes did it take? Was there any industry in the area? Do they still exist today and, if so, where did their records go? When black folks left town, where did most of them migrate to? If you can't find the information you seek in one record, continue to look in alternative records.
Conduct Census Research
You start by determining which ancestors would have been adults on the 1920 census, find them on the 1920 census and proceed backwards, 1910, 1900, 1880, 1870, 1860, etc. As you gather documentation, fill out your Family Group Sheets.
Investigate the existence of state census in the off years to augment your census research -- many states had them in 1855, 1866, 1868, 1875 and 1885.
Request Vital Statistics
Request birth, death and marriage records on all direct bloodline ancestors.
When those vital records of direct bloodlines are unavailable, do a lateral research by requesting those records of the ancestors' siblings; or if the time period being covered is before legally mandated vital statistics, find a substitute record such as a newspaper obituary or cemetary or church record;the administration of an intestate estate will give a death date; tax record change from one spouse's name to another signals a death;
Research Local County Records - Obtain an Inventory of Local County Records
Tax records of all kind: real estate (land), poll tax (for voting) and personal estate (horses, chickens, goats, cows, carriages, jewelry) what is the value in this? year after year returns lets you know an ancestor is still alive -- when they stop paying taxes you know what has happened -- they have died!
County Court Records - wills, deeds, manumissions, administration papers, estate inventories - these are the "meat and potatoe" records that mention slave names, their ages, worth and relationships to each other and who they were given or sold to in the process of closing an estate. Sometimes where slaves were originally bought and from whom are mentioned.
School Records - often schools had enumerations of children listing important genealogical information. Mississippi's Educable Children's Lists are a prime example. These records were created from 1873 through 1965 and were taken approximately every 4 years. Most of these mini-census still exist today and are at the MS State Archives. Kentucky had a few school census in the early 1900s.
Cemetary, Funeral Home and Church records are good substitutes for missing death or birth record.
Plantation Records (basically account log boo ks which name slaves, family relationships and their assigned tasks.) Some contain slave birth and death dates. They mention who was bought, when, from whom, and for how much. The records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War collection by University Publications of America contains some of the most fascinating examples of this type of record.
Slave Narratives - thousands of elderly ex-slaves were interviewed by WPA workers about their lives - a 30 volume set of these interviews is the result.
Voter Registration applications. Those during Reconstruction especially valuable. Verifies a person's name, age, occupation, birthplace, but most importantly, it documents their existence.
County histories - this history tells when an area w as first settled and by whom; it is important to slave research because even though they seldom mentioned blacks, they did talk about the people who owned them, where they came from and who they married -- this is important to tracing the migration of black families and reconstruction of slave family units which were split among white siblings when the patriarch of the family died. The key here is "Where the white folks went, the black folks followed." If you want to trace your black family, you must research the white families that owned them.
Researching Miscellaneous Records
City Directories - gives name, occupation, residential address, wife's name, sometimes children's names.
Employment records - (i.e. Railroad Retirement Board, Pullman Car Porters) gives address, age and place of birth, marital status, name of spouse, children, and parents.
Insurance records - State boards which regulate the insurance industry can tell you where papers to defunct companies are located. Sometimes companies donate their "papers" to local universities and libraries.
Researching Records Created By A Federal Agency
Slave Schedules for 1850 and 1860
Southern Claims Commission
Freedmen's Savings & Trust Company
Civil War U.S. Colored Troops Service records (including pensions)
Social Security SS-5 Application - asks for parents' names and birth places
World War I Draft Registration Card - asks for names of parents and spouse
Buffalo Soldiers records - Phillipine Insu rrection (1898), Spanish-American War (1899-1901) and the Mexican border disputes (1905-1907); most were in service in what was then called "Indian Territory." Later became states of Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado. All had large numbers of blacks; basically fought Indians from 1868 through 1890.
Newspaper Research - Puts Meat on the Skeletal Ancestor Bones
(For further information see Newspapers As Genealogical Research Tool - A Step by Step Guide
Time consuming, difficult -- but makes your people really come alive when you find them mentioned in the newspaper;
Can find things about an ancestor which could never have been found anywhere else - obituaries and birth announcements before legally mandated death and birth records; human interest stories; tragedies and triumphs
If you get stuck, try these
Research another branch of the family and le ave the troublesome line on the shelf for a few months; when you come back you will look at it with renewed determination and vigor; in the in terim you may suddenly come upon a new lead about that line; you may discover the existence of records from that county that previously you did not know about; anxiety makes it difficult to analyze facts and get the most out of them. A breather from this frustration can result in a whole new outlook to the problem line after a few months away;
If a direct line ancestor is the problem, do a lateral research of a sibling. Choose a male sibling -- their surname does not change, they were more active in society and created records (bought land, paid taxes, writ ten about in the community (yes, male chauvinism did exist in the black community also); black males were the leaders in black society, they headed up the black schoolboards; only males could vote before Women's Suffrage, therefore, they were on the voter registration lists; and lastly, only men went to war and, thus, created more records.
All of these things indicate that men, moreso than women, had a more deeper presence in the community as a whole. This was mirrored in the black community.
Order birth and death records for as many siblings as possible. These records may give information indicating if the siblings had the same parents or if they were only half brothers and sisters. Misinformation given earlier in interview stage, which lead to being stuck, becomes apparent when vital statistics later reveal correct information.
If you are stuck because the records you seek were burned in a courthouse fire, look for resources which were not kept at the courthouse, such as school records, church and funeral home records; records created and kept by the federal government; and lastly, newspaper research;
You should know what churches your people belonged to -- write that Church c/o "The Pastor" and ask if there exists an official church historian; if not, ask who is the oldest member of that congregation and interview him or her about their knowledge of your family; asking questions such as:
"Do you remember the bla bla family?"
"Do you remember where they moved to and when?"
"Did you attend any of their funerals?" "When?"
"What school did their children go to -- were yours in any of their classes?"
"Who else living in town would remember this family?"
"Who was bla-bla's best friend?"
"Where does he or she now live?" "If dead, are any of their children living?
"Do you have any old photos in which these folks appear?"
Bringing in "new blood" to the project most
likely will inject new ideas for leads; also consider placing an ad in
this church's weekly bulletin regarding your research project and desire
to interview friends of the family.
Go back to the beginning of your search for
that particular family line and review all records and re-examine all theories
you formed and the research paths you consequently took; ask yourself for
Was the family I found in 1910 or 1900 really my family -- or could it be one with similar names?
What assumptions have I made for which I have no concrete evidence to stand on? Could this have lead me to a dead end?
Where to find the Documents
Genealogical Libraries and Archives:
Western Reserve Historical Society - Cleveland, OH
Allen County Public Library - Ft. Wayne, IN
Latter Day Saints Family History Centers
Newberry Library - in Chicago, IL
Filson Club - in Frankfort, KY
DAR Library - in Washington, DC
National Genealogical Society Library - Arlington, VA
The National Archives - Washington, DC
LDS Main Family History Center - Salt Lake City, UT
AGLL (American Genealogical Lending Library in Bountiful, UT)
Library of Congress - Washington, DC
The Schromberg Collection at the New York Public Library
State Vital Statistics office in each state capital
Interlibrary Loan Departments at main local library
University Special Manuscript Collections
County and State Genealogical/Historical Societies
PERiodical Index annuals
National Union Catalog of Manuscripts