News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 5, 2008

Genealogy: These steps can help you trace your African roots

By Tamie Dehler

TERRE HAUTE — Searching for your African heritage is a two-step process. The first step, beginning the search and looking through recent records, is similar to the research efforts of people of European lineage in the United States.

To begin your search, interview the older members of the family and write down everything they know about your family and ancestors. Keep the provable “facts” separate from family legends, but record both. The family legends can lead to areas for research later.

Next, begin searching records for the recent family history going backward in time. At this point, you may need to consult a “how to” book on beginning genealogy or take a class in genealogy for beginners.

Records to check include the vital records (birth, death and marriage records), land, and probate records, which are all found at the state and county level; census records, military records and the Social Security Death Index, found at the federal level; and cemetery and funeral records, newspaper articles and obituaries, fraternal and social organizations, city directories, church directories, and school records, all found at the local level.

This part of your search might take you back beyond the World War I era and even into the late 19th century. Besides World War I, be sure to look for military service for an ancestor who might have been a Buffalo Soldier (in the Indian wars), fought in the Philippine Insurrection in 1898, the Spanish-American War (1898-1901), the Mexican border disputes (1905-o7), or fought for the Union in the Civil War.

The second step of the search for the African family heritage is more challenging, especially if the family is descended from one or more slaves. By 1750, there were about 240,000 people of African descent in the 13 colonies; this was about 20 percent of the entire population. I’ve seen estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of people of African ancestry were free and did not experience slavery. But this leaves the vast majority who did. These people, although found in every colony, were not evenly distributed throughout the colonies. The majority lived in Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina (of the original colonies). Maryland was the only one of the 13 colonies with a significant population of free blacks.

Before you can get your research back to colonial America, you must first continue to go backward through Reconstruction, the Civil War and into antebellum slavery. Transitional records include the records of the Freedman’s Bureau, Freedman’s Savings and Trust Records, and military service and pension records for Civil War Colored Troops fighting for the Union.

Although slaves did not have surnames, about 15 percent took the name of their last owner. Others took the name of an admired person, such as Washington or Lincoln. Some had secret surnames that they had been using among themselves all along. Some took a surname like “Freeman,” to describe their new status.

To make your slave connection, you have to be able to identify the slave owner and follow his activities. You have to follow his history as if it is your own, because in many ways it is. Search for the slave owner on the census and in local, state and county records. But since slaves were property, your focus will change. Follow the transactions involving slaves in the owner’s deeds, wills, tax and probate records, as well as plantation records, if available. A slave on the census will not be listed by name, but will be recorded by their gender and age category.

Next week, we’ll continue with strategies on making the slave connection.