Beginning African American Research

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Syllabus for class taught by G. David Dilts, AG® from FamilySearch at the NGS Conference 2010.

Why It Is Important to Use Home Sources[edit | edit source]

  • You know those sources are about your ancestors.
  • They are relatively easy to find. Principle: The more you know, the better you can guess.
  • Interview older relatives and family friends, and search for attic papers and old trunks.

Use Federal Census Records[edit | edit source]

1. Federal censuses were made every 10 years 1790 to 1930 (1890 mostly destroyed). Some state censuses were made in between those years.

2. Censuses are easy-to-use; include everyone, and list families, residence, and birth states.

3. Studying census records helps you build up your knowledge about ancestors.

4. List the most important internet sites for U.S census indexes and images is the Research Wiki at under the topic [You Name It State] Census which links to:

A. Familysearch (free) Family Search
B. (subscription)
C. HeritageQuest (subscription)

5. Principle: If your first search fails, keep trying. Try again with a different index, different spelling of the name, different search data, or different location. If necessary find your ancestor via relatives or neighbors, in previous or later censuses.

6. Principle: Be thorough. Find each ancestor on every census from 1870-1930. Do the same for siblings. Show your findings on each ancestor’s family group record. To learn how see

Other Sources Especially Useful for African American Research [edit | edit source]

To learn more, search these topics in the Research Wiki at

  1. Social Security Death Index for ancestors who died after 1962
  2. WWI Draft Registration Cards 1917-1918 for men born 1873 to 1900
  3. Freedman's Savings And Trust 1864-1871 bank
  4. U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) in the civil war soldiers and sailors system 1861-1865
  5. Records Of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations pre-1861
  6. Slaves in wills (Probate Records), deeds (Land and Property), tax records (Taxation)
  7. Registers of free blacks and registers of slaves in southern and border states
  8. Freedmen’s Bureau – marriages, labor records, food, health care, lynching records 1864-72
  9. Slave Narratives 3,500 typescript interviews of former slaves made in 1930s, well indexed
  10. Southern Claims Commission (advanced source) 1871-73 based on civil war claims
  11. Runaway slave advertisements – spotty coverage, hard to find a particular ancestor

Tips and Principles[edit | edit source]

  1. Learn some of the other sources available for African American research from the Research Wiki: African_American_Research
  2. Principle: Search for ethnic groups like African Americans first in the same sources you would for anyone else.
  3. African Americans can appear in either “white” or separate “colored” registers.
  4. African American names change, especially from 1865 to 1875—how to find them anyway.
  5. What to do when an ancestor is not in an index when they should be there
A. Try a different spelling
B. Try a different index of the same source (for censuses)
C. Ignore the index and go through the source line-by-line looking for your ancestor.

What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me When I First Started[edit | edit source]

1. What the end product of good genealogical research will be.

A. Well-documented family group records reaching back in time as far as possible.
B. Research logs documenting the research process used to compile the family groups.
C. Sharing your genealogy is one of the best ways to find ancestors.

2. Expect to find ancestors names spelled in unexpected (wrong) ways. Guess variations.

3. How to guess where to start research. The more you know, the better you can guess.

A. How to guess places—use the other places as a guide.
B. How to guess dates
1. Births: oldest child 1 year after parent's marriage, 2 years space between children
2. Marriages: 1 yr before 1st child, 25 yrs after groom's birth, 21 yrs after bride's birth
3. Deaths: about the same age as siblings
C. Look for one event at a time in one person’s life.
D. Work from the easiest-to-document event to the hardest-to-document event on a family group record. The easiest to document is the most recent event that is on the family group with a specific date, place, and source cited. Consider what is exact, partial, or missing. The hardest to document is the earliest possible event not mentioned on the family group and lacking a full date, place, or source citation (all of which you will have to guess).

4. Thoroughly search a full nuclear family in community context[1] one event-person at a time

A. Extract full information on people in the area with the same surname.
B. Extract full info on people by another surname living in same household.
C. Identify census neighbors, at least 12 before/after. Note who owned land.
D. If near a state or county line, study people with the same surname in nearby areas.
E. Comb the neighborhood for families with similar naming patterns, origins, or occupations.

5. What to do when you don't find it (the event-person sought) on the first search.

A. Write "nil" on your research log.
B. Keep the same event-person as a research goal and try switching one of the following:
1. Switch spelling of the name (or skipping the index and looking page by page)
2. Switch record (different edition or different author) -
3. Switch record type (use a Record Finder to find substitutes) 
4. Switch jurisdiction (up, down, or sideways) 
5. Switch repository
6. Switch to kin and associates

6. What to do when you do find it.[2] Organize and document AS YOU GO!

A. Photocopy the new source document.
B. Identify the source (footnote information) on the front of the photocopy.
C. Write your own document filing number on the back of each photocopy.
D. Log the new document number, and summarize the events/people you found on all appropriate logs.
E. Transfer new family data from the source to appropriate family group records. (sometimes need to add a custom event in PAF).
F. Enter new source footnotes for every piece of data on a source, even if that event already has a note.
G. Add a preliminary assessment of the data and its reliability to the end of each source footnote.
H. Print the updated family group record.
I. File the new family group and photocopy.

7. How to get a good education about genealogical research.

A. The FamilySearch community is great! Wiki at
B. Other reading, classes, travel to ancestral homes.

Homework[edit | edit source]

  1. Contact your oldest living relatives and ask them for information and to see old family papers.
  2. Transfer information about your family to well-documented family group records using as a guide the Wiki article Family group record: roadmap for researchers at
  3. Find each of your ancestors, and their siblings on each census from 1870 to 1930, and earlier if possible. Add each census you find to the appropriate family group record.
  4. Continue your genealogical education by reading, attending classes, and traveling. Glance through the African American Research Wiki articles listed below.

Bibiliography[edit | edit source]

  • Burroughs, Tony, "African American Research" in Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves, ed. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006, 652-76. Discussion of oral history, censuses, military records, Freedman's Savings and Trust, Freedmen's Bureau, free blacks before 1861, researching the transition from slavery to freedom, and slavery research.
  • Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: a Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Step-by-step instructions with emphasis on methods, including real life examples, preparing to research, beginning steps, computers and the Internet, writing the family history, putting it all together, and an excellent bibliography.
  • Cyndi's List: African-American at Longest list of Internet links arranged by subjects: General Resource Sites • History & Culture • How To • Libraries, Archives & Museums • Mailing Lists, Newsgroups & Chat • Maps & Gazetteers • Military • Newspapers • People & Families • Photographs & Memories • Professional Researchers, Volunteers & Other Research Services • Queries, Message Boards & Surname Lists • Records: Census, Cemeteries, Land, Obituaries, Personal, Taxes and Vital • Slavery • Societies
  • Prologue (Summer 1997) 16 articles about searching for African Americans in federal records at the National Archives.
  • Smith, Franklin Carter, and Croom, Emily Anne. A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2003. Getting started, censuses, other federal sources including NUCMUC and the Southern Claims Commission, state-county-and-local sources, special situations, names, and finding slave owners.
  • Streets, David H. Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case Studies. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1986. Censuses, using county records including probate, deeds, order, and tax books.
  • Thackery, David T. Finding Your African American Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide. Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000. Includes several good bibliographies.
  • Thackery, David T., and Woodtor, Dee. Case Studies in Afro-American Genealogy. Chicago, Illinois: Newberry Library, 1989. Four case studies showing how to start with an obituary, tracing a line into slavery, research free blacks before 1861, and changing names.
  • Wiki African American Research at Excellent help with these African American topics: Search Strategies • Archives and Libraries • Bible Records • Biography • Cemeteries • Census • Church Records • Court Records • Freedman's Bank • Freedmen's Bureau • Funeral Homes • Genealogy • History • Internet Sources • Land and Property • Military Records • Newspapers • Obituaries • Probate Records • Resources • Slavery and Bondage • Societies • Southern Claims Commission • Vital Records
  • Wiki Principles of Research Excellent all-around beginners guidebook.
  • Wiki Quick Guide This African American research guide describes how to begin your search, searching recent records, transition records out of slavery, slave records, and most useful records to search.
  • Woodtor, Dee. Finding a Place Called Home: an African-American Guide to Genealogy and Historical Identity. New York: Random House, 1999. Advanced guidebook. FHL 973 F2wd US & Canada Reference 2nd Floor

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Genealogical Mindset and Principles of Scholarship " (lecture in Course 4 Advanced Methodology, Evidence, Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., 13 June 2005).
  2. G. David Dilts, “Research Logs: The Most Important Tool for Organizing Your Family History,” Genealogical Journal 30, no. 1 and 2 (2003): 30-13.