Searching for Your African American Ancestors

Genealogy, including African American genealogy, is a process. Resources available will depend on the historical time period in question. No matter how far back you are searching, you need to start with yourself and move back, generation by generation to be able to say with confidence that you have identified your ancestor, not just someone with the same name.

First, you will want to gather as much information about your parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and if possible, your great grandparents. The basic information you want to learn will be birth dates and places, marriage dates, and places, and where relevant, death dates and places. These are known as vital records. These are the most basic information pieces to start your genealogical journey.

Figure 1 Sample Ancestry Chart

Recording Your Information
Your family information is traditionally recorded on Ancestry Charts. Information for individual family groups (a set of parents and children) can be recorded on Family Group Sheets. There are several free on-line sites to obtain these charts, including the various research sites such as Ancestry, My Heritage, Geni, and others. Various chart styles can be found on sites such as Pinterest, as well. Free printable charts are available on a variety of sites, including Vertex42. You can also build your family tree and research your family in the databases located on sites such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, Geni, and FamilySearch. You may also wish to acquire a family history software program. There are several popular ones, such as RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, and Family Tree Maker, to name just three.

Basics for Finding Vital Record Information
What are the resources for finding information on the births, marriages, and deaths of your family members? One resource that you may have, or one of your relatives may have is a Family Bibles. Family Bibles often include pages for recording births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. These bibles may be the only recorded vital record information for grandparents, great grandparents, and other family members born before births and deaths were officially collected by states. While bibles are the most likely place to find this information, do not overlook other places, such as other books in which someone may have recorded these events.

Marriage Records
While birth records have not been officially recorded until the twentieth (20th) century, except for a few states, Marriages have been recorded by county governments and even towns throughout our history. The enslaved were not able to legally marry, but free people of color could marry in all time periods. Usually, individuals are noted by color, and in some instances, separate registers were maintained for people of color.

Figure 2 Church Marriage Record, Montgomery County, MD

The information found in marriage applications, bonds, licenses, or on the certificates varies with time and location. Applications for licenses sometimes record the names of the parents, whether they are still living, and if so, where they live. Some more recent forms include questions about previous marriages. It is important to note that some jurisdictions, even today, include only simple questions about the bride and groom. In Maryland, no questions are asked about parents.

Marriage records can also be found sometimes in church records. Some denominations keep detailed information on marriages performed at the churches, however, some do not. Many early church records have been digitized and are available on-line.

Figure 3 Tombstone in Mutual Memorial Cemetery, Sandy Spring, Montgomery County, MD

Burials
Deaths and burials were not officially recorded until the twentieth century in most locations, with a few exceptions. However, many church cemeteries and even community cemeteries have graves marked with tombstones. It is important to remember that not every grave has a stone. In addition, the locations of some cemeteries over time have been lost. Nevertheless, cemeteries and their tombstones can provide important information about a deceased ancestor and their families, including parents’ names, children’s names, spouses, and birth and death dates. A word of caution, some dates may conflict with other records. Birth dates often vary considerably. In some instances, the deceased is believed to be much younger than they were; conversely, they may be recorded as much older than they were. Sometimes the date of death recorded differs by only a few days, indicating that the stone was probably erected at some time after the death by persons who did not have accurate information about the deceased.

Many cemeteries have been recorded with transcriptions available at local historical societies. Many of those have been made available in book form or on-line. In addition, there are several on-line databases devoted to cemetery information. The best known is Find A Grave. Others include Cemetery Census, Interment.com, and BillionGraves.

Beyond Vital Records
Finding marriage, death, and even birth records can help you begin to learn the names of your grandparents and great grandparents. You may also learn from these records that your family didn’t always live in the same place. Some of them may have been born in other places, places you didn’t know about. How can you learn more about them? One important set of records can help you learn about your ancestors, their families, their communities, what they did for a living, their education, whether they owned land, sometimes whether they served in the military and more. Those records are the censuses.

Census Records
Censuses have been taken every ten years since 1790. They are used to determine election districts and representation in Congress. In recent years, local governments use statistical information from censuses to help determine the distribution of resources for schools, hospitals, and other government programs. Because the census attempts to capture information on every single person in the country (citizen or non-citizen), it is useful for locating our ancestors and learning about their lives.

Figure 4 1840 Census Page, Montgomery County, MD

There are several important things to learn about the census. Each census year, the government was seeking different information. In 1790, apportionment for congress and acquiring an accurate list of those who should be taxed. All free people who could be taxed, primarily white men (and white women heads of household), but also free people of color (no enslaved) who were taxable, including women of color. Since taxation and representation were the primary reasons for the census, only the names of heads of households were recorded. It was not until 1850 that all names in a household were recorded, but no relationships were recorded. It was not until 1880 that the census recorded the relationships of each person to the head of the household. Beware, sometimes a person listed as a lodger or boarder was a cousin or in-law. You can read more about the information gathered in each census year on the History page at census.gov.

Figure 5 1870 Census Page, Sandy Spring, Montgomery County, MD

For African Americans, the 1870 census is one of the most important census years. That is the first year that all people, especially the formerly enslaved, were recorded. This census will list everyone in the household. It will record age; gender; color; occupation; if they own real estate, what is its value; the value of the personal estate; where they were born; whether parents were foreign-born; if an infant, what month born; if married within the year, what month; if attended school that year; whether literate or not; whether deaf, blind, idiotic, or insane; whether a male citizen 21 or older, or whether a male citizen 21 years or older but not eligible to vote. Answers to these questions not only can give you new insights into your ancestors’ lives but also help guide your next research steps.

Land
You may be surprised to learn that your family already owned property in 1870. You may wonder where it came from. This is where deed records and property tax lists can be helpful. Many county deed indexes have been microfilmed or digitized. They may be available through the state archives, such as the Maryland State Archives, or in other states, through such sites as FamilySearch or Ancestry, which are available without subscription through public libraries and Family History Centers. Some tax lists may also be microfilmed or digitized.  They are also available in the county tax offices.

Figure 6 Record of Freedmen Marriages

Before 1870
Between the end of the Civil War and the early 1870s, the federal government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. As the official title notes, the Bureau was not just for Freedmen, but it provides an important resource for African American research, because of its work with Freedmen. In Maryland, there were three locations, Rockville, Bladensburg, and Annapolis. Freedmen’s Bureau offices helped the newly freed to regularize their marriages, obtain work contracts, settle disputes with employers, and bring charges when criminally attacked. They also ran hospitals and refugee camps. Perhaps the best-known hospital was in Washington, D. C. Known originally as “Freedmen’s Hospital,” it is known today as Howard University Hospital.

Figure 7 Freedmen’s Savings Bank Records

There were other organizations created to help the Freedmen. There was the Freedmen’s Savings Bank. All these entries have been digitized and indexed. These records can be a treasure trove of information. They may, though not always, include the names of all the family members and their ages. Sometimes there are indications that some of the children may have had a different parent. Sometimes, even the former enslaver is named.

Education records can provide information on family members who attended and even taught at Freedmen’s schools. Receipts for payments to those teaching in the schools can be found in the records.

For more information on the history of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the location of their field offices, banks, schools, and hospitals, you can go to Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Figure 8 Civil War Draft Registration, Montgomery County, MD

The Civil War
Many African Americans, both free and enslaved, enlisted in the United States Colored Troops, referred to commonly as the USCT. At first, forbidden to serve, African Americans were granted the right to enlist in July 1862. They would make up 15 percent of the army and 25 percent of the Navy. While some would serve in regular units, the army created special units called the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The best known to be the 54th Massachusetts celebrated in the movie, Glory.

Figure 10 Descriptive Card for a Montgomery County, MD USCT Soldier

The records of those who served during the Civil War, including in the USCT, have been digitized and indexed. These records can show when a person enlisted, their age, where they were living, where they served, if they were injured or got sick, if and where they were hospitalized, if they died in service, where, and possibly where buried. If married, the name of the wife or widow can appear. In Maryland, those who were enslaved at the time they enlisted, may have information on their enslaver. For more information on African Americans in the Civil War, go to the site of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum.  To obtain information on your ancestor on the wall at the African American Civil War Memorial, contact them here.

As with all veterans, these men often applied to the Veterans Administration (VA) for compensation or pension benefits. After their deaths, their widows also may have applied for benefits. VA pension files can be a treasure trove of information. To receive added benefits for a spouse or a widow to receive benefits, proof of marriage must be provided. This may be the first place you can acquire proof of an ancestor’s marriage. Proof could include a copy of a marriage license or certificate, an affidavit from the person who married them, and other supporting affidavits from family friends and neighbors.

Figure 9 Civil War Widow’s Pension Index Card, Maryland

To receive benefits for children, similar information would need to be provided. Since birth certificates would not exist, affidavits from neighbors, midwives, doctors, and others who had first-hand knowledge may be included. There may be other affidavits that are supportive of the character of the veteran or widow, some of which may mention the claimant’s enslaver. Copies of census records or bible records may have been submitted to prove the age of the claimant. Sometimes, even pictures of the veteran or widow may be in the files. These files may hold the only information available that can corroborate your family stories or other circumstantial evidence you have collected. These VA files are not digitized, they must be requested from the National Archives. However, the VA Pension File index that has been digitized and indexed and is available on all major genealogy sites, including FamilySearch, which is a free site.

Before Emancipation
African American research prior to Emancipation is very challenging. While the information on free people of color is found in many of the same records as those for whites, those for the enslaved can be very difficult to find. Those who were enslaved were considered property, so their records are usually found in record groups that deal with property, such as, estate inventories and sales, or deeds.

Uncovering the lives, families, and ancestors of those we have identified on the 1870 census, who were likely enslaved previously, requires identifying the enslavers and researching their records, especially their property records. Chief among those records are the estate records, found in court probate records. These records may include wills, inventories, accounts of sales, distributions of the estate.

Figure 11 Will Bequeathing Enslaved Persons, Montgomery County, MD

Wills
Because those enslaved were considered property, they could be bequeathed to family members in wills or sometimes be manumitted as George Washington did. Those left to daughters who subsequently married would be under the control of the husbands, but not technically their estate. Thus, it is important to research both a husband’s and wife’s family to determine where to research next.

Inventories and Accounts of Sale
When someone dies, an inventory of their estate is compiled. This included enslaved property. The enslaved were named, gender identified, sometimes age or age grouping recorded (child, girl, young woman, old woman, etc.), and monetary value. Sometimes, the monetary value is not mentioned in the inventory, only in the accounts of sales. Sometimes inventories will list people in what seems to be family groups. These names could be compared with family groups on the 1870 census or against other family accounts of members. Other times the names may be separated into lists of males and lists of females.

Figure 12 Account of Sale of Slaves

The accounts will list the individual and monetary value. Those in their prime working years and childbearing years will be noted to have greater monetary value than the very young or the very old. The accounts are important because they will tell the name of the person who bought the enslaved individual. This information can provide the information needed to continue your research.

Distributions of the Estate
When all debts and other provisions of the estate have been satisfied, the assets are distributed to the heirs. This will be in accordance with the will, if there is one, but will follow specific rules if there is no will (known as intestate probate). In intestate probate the heirs are named, then the estate, including enslaved property, will be divided among them. Again, this will help you determine where and whom to research next. Many probate records have been microfilmed or digitized and indexed. In Maryland, most are available either in the county courthouses or at the state archives.

Figure 13 Bill of Sale of Enslaved Persons, Montgomery County, MD

Deeds
Property bought and sold was usually recorded by a registrar of deeds at the county courthouse, including enslaved property, though not always. In some jurisdictions, sales and purchases of enslaved were recorded in separate sections of the registers, other places not. Unfortunately, there is not uniform compliance with the recording of these transactions.  In addition to deeds and bills of sale, deeds of gift, and manumissions can also be found in the property records of the county where your ancestors lived. Therefore, potential deed transactions should be explored.

Figure 14 1860 Slave Census Page, Montgomery County, MD

Slave Censuses
In 1850 and 1860, separate “Slave Schedules” were taken. They were organized according to enslaver, “owner.” Unfortunately, the enslaved were not named but rather enumerated by gender and age. However, if you’ve gathered enough other identifying information, it is possible to make a potential identification of your ancestor in one of these schedules. However, this would not be a place to start. You would need to find other information first.

Maryland Slave Statistics
In 18167, Maryland created a census of enslavers, and those they enslaved before Maryland’s new state constitution, which abolished slavery, took effect on 1 November 1864. The enslavers hoped to be able to receive compensation for property lost, as enslavers in the District of Columbia had done. These lists name the enslaver, the enslaved persons, their physical condition, their terms of servitude (some indentures were included), and whether they had served in the military. These and other databases related to slavery in Maryland can be found on the Maryland Archives site, Legacy of Slavery in Maryland.

Figure 15 Manumission of Enslaved Persons, Montgomery County, MD

Manumissions
From time to time, enslavers chose to grant an enslaved person (possibly even including their family members) their freedom. Documents that carried out these wishes are called manumissions. Sometimes an enslaver would manumit their slaves when they died, as George Washington did. Other times they chose to manumit them as a reward for their loyalty or other meritorious services, or because they were their biological children, grandchildren, or half-siblings. Manumissions resulting from a will would be found in the decedent’s estate records in the county’s probate records. Manumissions granted during the life of an enslaver may be found recorded in the county’s deeds or county court records or may be in special manumission files maintained at state archives.

Research Facilities
There are many research facilities whose resources can be great resources. Historical societies, such as the Montgomery County Historical Society and its library, other local libraries, community museums, such as Sandy Spring Museum and research library, university libraries, Maryland State Archives, Family History Centers, and county courthouses to name a few, have many resources and collections of records and documents that may hold the answers to your ancestral quest. In addition, the staff and volunteers at these repositories are very knowledgeable and great resources. Many of these repositories also have online resources that can be readily accessed from the comfort of your home computer. For example, a resource of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, which maintains FamilySearch and local Family History Centers, has a Wiki page dedicated to African American Genealogy research. To help you with your research in Maryland, the Maryland State Archives has produced its research guide, Researching African American Families at the Maryland State Archives.

Genealogy Societies
The largest genealogical society devoted to African American research is the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society. They have chapters across the country. In Maryland, there is a Montgomery County chapter, Prince George’s County chapter, Central Maryland chapter (Howard County), and Baltimore chapter. The national society holds an annual conference and publishes a newsletter and journal. The Maryland chapters, along with the African American Special Interest Group at the Washington D. C. Family History Center, (Kensington, MD) sponsor a full day, free conference every year in February in celebration of African American History Month. In addition, there are the Maryland Genealogical Society and county genealogical societies in most counties.

DNA
At some point in your research, you may wish to explore how DNA can help you overcome “brick wall” problems in your research. DNA can help you extend your research back generations, identifying grandparents or great grandparents whose names have been lost to your family. It can also help you identify unknown cousins, thus reuniting branches of your family that has lost touch over time. Perhaps the most exciting discovery that can be made for African Americans is the possibility of identifying areas in Africa from which your ancestors may have been brought, including DNA matches (distant cousins) who are living descendants of common ancestors from centuries ago in your shared homeland.  The most frequently used testing companies include AncestryDNA, 23 and me, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage.

Additional Research Aids
Kenyatta Berry. The Family Tree Toolkit (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing). 2018.

Blaine Bettinger. The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy (Fort Collins, CO: Family Tree Magazine), 2016.

Tony Burroughs. Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree (New York, NY: Touchstone), 2001.

Margo Lee Williams is a historian working on Sandy Spring Museum’s Historically Black Communities of Sandy Spring research project. She is an award-winning genealogy and history author. A former editor of the Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, she is particularly interested in community and family histories of free people of color in the Southeastern United States, especially those from North Carolina and Virginia, who often had mixed-race origins.