Tips on Genealogical Research
- Genealogical Research - How to Begin
- Genealogy Pathfinder
- Tips for African-American Genealogical Research
Genealogical Research - How to Begin
Unless you are royalty or a president or other dignitary, finding your
ancestor and making sure a "family tree" is kept for future generations may be
up to you. Federal, state and local government agencies do not usually perform
family research. Books on family history and genealogy are compiled and
published by individuals or family groups who do so because they are interested
in discovering and preserving their family history.
Start With Yourself
You are the beginning "twig" on your family tree. Start
with yourself, the known, and work toward the unknown "roots". Find out the
vital information about your parents, write it down, then look for data about
your grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.
Names, Dates, Places, Relationships
You will be concerned with pulling these
four key items from the many and varied documents of recorded history. They are
the tools of the family searcher. People can be identified in records by their
names, the dates of events in their lives (birth, marriage, death), the places
they lived, and by relationships to others either stated or implied in the
The place to begin is at home. Here you may find many sources,
such as in family bibles, newspaper clippings, military certificates, birth and
death certificates, marriage licenses, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, backs of
pictures, baby books, etc.
Relatives as a Source
Visit or write those in your family who may have
information, particularly older relatives. More often than not others before you
have already gathered family data. You should write letters, make personal
visits, and do telephone surveys to find out about such persons and what
information has already been collected.
Finding Distant Relatives
Before launching your research program in libraries
and archives, search for distant relatives who may have already performed
research. Advertise your family interests in the national, regional and local
genealogical magazines. Such periodicals are available in the east room of the
Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature.
A few churches have records of important events in the lives
of members but many do not. Investigate the possibility of finding genealogical
data in the records of the church to which your ancestor belonged.
Some states began to keep records of births and deaths earlier,
but for most of the United States birth and death registration became a
requirement around the turn of the century, about 1890-1915. Before that time
these events will be found recorded generally only in church records and family
bibles. Marriages will be found recorded in most counties, dating often as early
as the establishment of the county.
Deeds and Wills
Records of property acquisition and disposition can be good
sources of genealogical data. Such records are normally in the county
courthouses. Often the earliest county records or copies of them are also
available in the state archives.
The National Archives in Washington, DC has records of use in
genealogical research. The Federal census, taken every 10 years since 1790, is a
good source. The census records are also available on microfilm in the National
Archives' regional archives branches located in eleven metropolitan areas
throughout the country. The National Archives also has military service and
related records, passenger arrival records, etc.
Libraries, Societies, Archives
Visit the state, regional or local
institutions in your area. Libraries, historical and genealogical societies, and
archival depositories are all good sources for genealogical and family history
data. Be sure to find out what books are available on how to do genealogical
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It is important for a person to have a sense of "where they come from" and
"who" they are. Daniel Webster once said, "If a person does not know from whence
he came, he will not care much about where he is going." Talk to older members
of your family and do a little research into your family history. Some of your
ancestors may have served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the
Mexican War, the War Between the States, World War I, World War II, the Korean
War, Desert Storm, or some of the more recent conflicts. Remember women
served in all these conflicts too.
The first thing you do is fill out an ‘Ancestor
Chart'. USE a pencil to fill out the chart so you can erase errors.
Fill in the ancestor chart as completely as possible.
List dates as follows: day, month, and year. Ex. 5 May 1987
Write the last name first, then given name (first name). Always
write the female's maiden name in and not her married name. If the maiden
name is unknown then leave the space blank.
Family Group Sheet behind your ancestor chart for each level of
ancestors for additional information.
Ex. Sheet #2 behind your genealogy chart will be for your parents' level.
It will list your siblings and yourself in birth order. Sheet #3 will be for
the grandparents' level and should show your parents with their siblings in
birth order. Here is where you may include information such as: occupations,
hobbies, war service, cause of death, and other interesting facts.
Research the origin of your surname. There are books at the Birmingham
Public Library that give the meanings of surnames. There are also web pages
that provide surname lists and the meanings of surnames.
Write one page on an ancestor you found to be either of the following:
- most interesting and why
- most embarrassing and why
- most courageous and why
Document every piece of information you find. If the information is given to
you orally, state the name of the person giving you the information. If you got
the information from a family bible, then give the name of the owner of the
bible. If you found the information in a cemetery, then give the name of the
cemetery and its location.
SUGGESTIONS ON RESEARCHING
In order to obtain information start by asking the oldest members of your
family questions such as:
- Have you always lived here? Did my grandparents always live here?
- Where were you born?
- How did you meet each other and where did you go to school?
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Tips for African-American Genealogical Research
If one goes to the 1850 census on Ancestry.com and uses keyword 'Black' for
any area of the country without entering any personal name in the search engine,
all the names that come up that are not surname Black, or in a place with Black
in the name (e.g. Black Rock Ward 11), are the free African Americans living in
The second required step for 1850 is to do a keyword search for the letter
'M' and all the names that come up without the initial M in them are free
African Americans designated as 'mulatto'. These can be pasted into a Word
document. If the relevant entries are entered into an Excel database, it's
possible to start manipulating the information by surname, ages, birthplace,
first name, etc. For example, all the Virginia-born African American
Buffalonians in 1870 can be located. The hard work is to reverse the name order
in the draft database, as in the Ancestry database the full name is first/last
as a single field. Doing each census separately is required, as there are
different fields in each.
There are also tricks for each census:
- 1860--need to do keyword first 'Black,' then 'mulatto'.
- 1870--again not entering any personal name in the search engine, one can
use the search engine template and limit search to 'colored,' but then must
also do letter 'M', same as 1850.
- 1880--one can limit search in the search template to first 'black' then
The Probate Court, also called the Inferior Court or Court of Pleas and
Quarter Sessions, serves as the county court in most states. These courts are
the ones most likely to contain genealogical information. It is in these courts
that deeds, land records, wills, administrations of estates and so on can be
found. Slaves were considered property so look in the Probate Court for
transactions of sales and for estate settlements where people will be named.
Each state has its own unique court system. Find out what courts existed and if the records survive for
the time period you are researching.
Marriages for former slaves can be found in the
Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Alabama Bureau
of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870
(insert different state name, if necessary). There are a number of marriage
licenses, certificates, registers, and reports documenting the Federal
government's effort to record marriages of former slaves. Officials in Alabama
informed the freedmen of the law to register marriages; however, no effort was
made to register people. Bureau of Freedmen officials in Kentucky, Louisiana,
Tennessee, and Mississippi provided guidance and issued licenses. It appears
that the Federal officials in each state acted independently of the central
directive to register marriages of former slaves as South Carolina, Florida, and
Georgia lack licenses or certificates of marriage for the newly freed people.
Washington, Reginald. "Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony."
Prologue, Spring 2005, pp.58-65.
Marriage records can be found in some Plantation records where they survive.
Some families recorded marriages of their slaves in the family Bible or journal.
African Americans have served in every conflict since the settlement of the
country. There are books that list the names of those who fought in the
American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. For an excellent
source for information on the early wars consult
Black Soldiers, Black Sailors, Black Ink: A Research Guide on African Americans
in U.S. Military History, 1526-1900 by Thomas Moebs.
Over 100,000 African Americans served in the War Between the States. The
majority served in the Union Army so service records can be found as well as
pension records for them or their widows. It is not general knowledge however
that a number of African Americans served in the Confederate Army. A portion
of these men received pensions from the Southern state governments, so check
Confederate pension records for names. South Carolina, Tennessee, North
Carolina, Virginia, and other Southern states paid pensions to African Americans. Some service records have been located for African Americans in the original muster rolls for the individual states located in the
There is an index to U.S. pension applications that covers the years
1865-1943 that is helpful. The service records of World War II, the Korean War,
Vietnam, and other conflicts are not available for research; however, there are
many web sites that give the names of people who served in the various wars and
you can order a copy of a person's service record from the Federal government.
Surnames of African Americans, for the most part, are mixed with surnames of British
origin. There is no established tradition of names from African languages being
used as American surnames. In general African Americans, used the
names of their former owners or names of historical note such as Washington,
Lincoln, or Lee. Only 14% of slaves did not use the surname of their former
owners. There are African surnames, given names, and nicknames, but many of
these were lost to those transported to the New World and sold as slaves.
A Handbook of African Names by Ihechukwu Madubuike provides a basic
explanation of African names and nicknames along with a list of the names and
Tax digests after 1866 can provide names of Freedmen as the tax records were
divided into White taxpayers and Freedmen taxpayers. Many times people applied
for Homestead Exemption which can have pertinent information such as the
applicant's name, the name of their spouse and children,
and sometimes the ages and names of the children.
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