African American Lives
Analyzing the Evidence
The Science and the Investigators
Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Sharing Stories
For Educators
About the Series

Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Intro The Challenge Choosing Your Route Making the Journey
Image of a page of slave ship records Image of written records from a Portuguese slave ship, found in Angola during the making of AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES
Going into the past means making sense of antique records -- a serious and often exciting research project.
Setting out on a genealogy project can be, to say the least, a confusing process. Keeping organized from the beginning of the process is key. According to genealogist Jane Ailes, who located a number of records for host Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s family in Hardy County, Virginia, the trick is to approach genealogy as the serious research project it is -- you should think about each piece of information you find, whether a photo, a public record, or a family story -- as a piece of scientific data; part of a larger puzzle. And always remember that one little piece of information isn't the whole picture -- you're not looking for one eureka moment, but to put together those pieces of information into a single, compelling narrative. Don't stop until you're satisfied that you've gotten the entire story, or as much of it as you can. And don't be discouraged if you don't immediately meet with success. Genealogical projects can be lengthy pursuits -- and the excitement of research can last for years.

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The best way to begin is by researching yourself -- many people start the process by writing your own autobiographies. As you do this, stay focused on genealogy, so you're looking for events, connections, and so forth, the elements in your life that connect you to others. Make sure to keep careful notes on places and dates, and list all of the relatives you can remember, even those who've passed away.

Next, move on to your immediate family -- your parents and older relatives in particular. Taking oral histories from these people close to you is the best way to begin delving into the past; your older relatives give you a window of direct experiences into an era that you'd otherwise only be able to research in a library. And make sure to interview your older relatives as soon as you can -- memories fade, and while you can always go to visit the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, you won't always be able to sit down and speak with your grandmother.

Whoever you speak with, you'll want to gather the fullest biographical information you can. Don't just get names and dates, ask about treasured memories, stories they may recall, family activities, education, relatives, occupations, church, real estate, military experiences, hobbies, life influences -- at this point in your research, you're collecting clues which will help define the direction of your future investigations. Even seek out relatives you've never met and interview them too.

And as you're talking to (or making plans to speak with) your relatives, make sure to ask them about documents they may have that may relate to prior generations of your family -- anything that establishes a person's place in time can be useful: photographs, legal documents, marriage and birth certificates, death certificates and funeral notices. No matter how mundane these pieces of paper may seem, they can be important starting points for further research.

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Once you're sure you've spoken to everyone you can (actually, it's likely that you'll begin this part of the process while you're still conducting interviews), you'll want to start in on library and archival work, in the attempt to document your family's existence at least back to 1870, the first year in which formerly enslaved African Americans were listed by name in the Federal Census.

You'll probably be tempted to turn to the web early on, and indeed a wide variety of resources exist online, many of very high quality (including access to the catalogs of the National Archives and the Family History Center of the Church of Latter Day Saints). When using any online resource, don't just search for your surname and expect to get useful answers. While at later stages in the process, when you're focusing on a region in which your ancestors may have been enslaved, surnames can be useful, in the beginning you'll be immersed in the details of families with no relation to yours but the coincidence of a shared surname.

You'll also need to be wary of information you find online. Many errors have found their way into family trees posted online, and these errors have been perpetuated as new researchers have built on flawed work. And don't just search databases -- first of all, they represent only a fraction of the records available in libraries, and secondly, you're depriving yourself of the help of expert researchers if you don't visit collections and ask librarians and archivists for help.

If you're working online, reach out and communicate with other amateur and professional researchers. While message boards may not be as easily searchable as the big commercial genealogy services, it really can help to post questions you may have on one of the popular message boards at (a free site supported by or (presented by, the maker of the software package Family Tree Maker) In fact, AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. located genealogist Jane Ailes through a question posed by the production on

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As soon as you can, you'll want to begin working with original records. Otherwise -- and keep your high-school history class in mind here -- you'll be working at several removes from the information you want. Even the Federal Census, as Jane Ailes points out, "is not really primary....the published records are two or three copies removed from the originals, so they can be rife with errors."

And even if the transcribers did a good job, there's no way to know whether the census takers spoke to the right people, spelled names correctly, or even whether or not they visited in the first place. While the census can be a useful source, it's only a start. You'll want to locate original documents to back up what you find in the census.

This means, once you've been able to establish your family's geographical background to some extent, going straight to city and county records. This is (as you've seen in AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES) likely to involve a fair amount of traveling -- these records are generally not available online; indeed, depending on the county in which your family has roots you may be just as likely to find boxes of moldering paper in a courthouse basement as you are to find even a well-organized card catalog. And don't forget about economic records -- mortgage records, land deeds, banking records, even receipts can contain important clues to your family history.

Likewise, don't limit your search to public'll want to investigate other sources in the communities you visit: churches, cemeteries, fraternal organizations. The records kept by these institutions can be invaluable, particulary in researching the latter half of the 19th Century and the Jim Crow period, when African Americans were severely underserved by public institutions -- and thus may have been significantly underdocumented -- across large parts of the South.

As you search, keep in mind a few things. Given low levels of education in rural America during most of the country's history, many people, both white and black spelled their names phonetically, so spellings of surnames may well be inconsistent from document to document or year to year. Keep track of variants or alternative spellings when you find them.

And most importantly, remember that one of the challenges in researching African-American genealogy is that many vital records are segregated from white records. When you visit archives, make sure to request that the clerk search both sets of records.

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For many who are researching their African American ancestors, 1870 is as far as they will be able to go using traditional means. The paper trail often runs cold at that point, since only in rare cases will records including names be found that date back to the antebellum period. Finding paper records of your enslaved ancestors will take considerable detective work.

Finding the right slave owner, in the right county, who owned a slave with the same first name as your ancestor, of similar or approximate age takes a great deal of patience. What you'll have to do - assuming you can trace your ancestors back to 1870, is to make careful note of their age then, and work back to the 1850 and 1860 Censuses, which do not include enslaved African Americans by name, but do list them, under the name of their owners, by age and gender on attached "slave schedules." If you can locate the slave owner, there is a chance you may be able to extrapolate from these records to find information about where your ancestors were living before the Civil War.

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It is possible to go on researching forever -- given the immense timespan of human history, you could conceivably be working on your genealogical project for a very long time. Indeed, for many it becomes a lifelong hobby.

At some point you'll want to begin assembling your genealogical data and the stories you've collected into documents you can distribute to your family. At the very least you'll want to assemble pedigree charts (the traditional "family trees" you've probably run across; forms for constructing these are widely available online). As you go further, you'll proabably think about writing a family history, a long narrative collecting all of the information you've gathered. You'll have to organize all of your data chronologically, and divide it by the different lineages you've traced (you might eventually want to think about something along the lines of a book with chapters). You might even want to think about organizing it alongside a scrapbook -- as you've seen used in AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES -- to house copies all of the photographs and documents you've collected.

Whatever you choose to do with your research, you'll be sure of having learned more than you ever thought possible about your ancestors. So take the first step, and get started.

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