Researching African Ancestry

It's a common misconception that tracing African ancestry is impossible. In the past decade or so, much has been done to dispel that perception. If your ancestors lived in the United States, you can use many of the same research techniques and records (census schedules, vital records, and other primary resources) that genealogists of other ethnic groups consult back to 1870. Prior to 1870, your research resources become more limited, depending on whether your ancestor was a freedman or a slave. To make that determination, you may want to interview some of your relatives. They often possess oral traditions that can point you in the right direction.

If your ancestor was a slave, try consulting the slave owners' probate records (which you can usually find in local courthouses), deed books (slave transactions were often recorded in deed books — which you also find in local courthouses), tax records, plantation records, Freedman's Bureau records, and runaway-slave records. These types of records can be helpful because they identify persons by name.

Although your first inclination may be to turn to a slave schedule in the U.S. Census (slave schedules show the owner's name and the age, sex, and color of slaves), such schedules are not as useful as other sources in your research because the enumerators who collected the census information didn't record the names of slaves, nor did the government require them to do so. This fact doesn't mean that looking at slave schedules is a total waste of time; the schedules simply don't identify your ancestor by name. You need to find other resources that name your ancestor specifically.

If your ancestors served in the American Civil War, they may have service and pension records. You can begin a search for service records in an index to Civil War records of the United States Colored Troops or, if your ancestor joined a state regiment, in an Adjutant General's report. (An Adjutant General's report is a published account of the actions of military units from a particular state during a war; these reports are usually available at libraries or archives.) A good place to begin your search for Civil War records is the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System at

Two other sources of records to keep in mind are the Freedmen's Bureau and the Freedmen's Savings and Trust:

^ The Freedmen's Bureau (its full name was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands) was established in 1865 to assist ex-slaves after the American Civil War. For more on the Bureau, see the article by Elaine Everly at prologue/19 97/summer/freedmens-bureau-records.html

^ The Freedmen's Bureau Online offers examples of Freedmen's Bureau records at

^ The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company was also established in 1865 as a bank for ex-slaves. For more information, see the article by Reginald Washington at prologue/19 97/summer/freedmans-savings-and-trust.html

Several of the bank's contributors were members of the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War. Although the company failed in 1874, its records are now kept at the National Archives and Records Administration, along with the records for the Freedmen's Bureau. You can also find information on the Freedman's Bank Records CD-ROM available from the store: isplay?catalogId=10151&storeId=10151&categoryI d=13706&langId=-1&cg1=137 01&cg2=&cg3=&cg4=&cg5=

i The National Archives and Records Administration provides information about Freedman's Savings records (and their availability on microfilm) at groups/105.html

For more information on using records to research your African ancestry, try the following resources:

i The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto

Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking (Ancestry, Inc.). In particular, see Chapter 15, "Tracking African American Family History," written by David Thackery.

i Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, written by Tony Burroughs (Fireside).

i Black Family Research: Records of Post-Civil War Federal Agencies at the National Archives available online at publications/ref-info-papers/10 8/.

i Slave Genealogy: A Research Guide with Case Studies, written by David H. Streets (Heritage Books).

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