March 27, 2003
Getting Started in African American Research
Q: My friend is African American. How would she begin to research her ancestry if she only has information on immediate family members? The surname is Walker and the family is from North Carolina. It seems like her research would be a special challenge if her ancestors were bought and sold as slaves. It is my understanding that a lot of slaves took on their masters names back then. Can you provide some direction? -- Cindy
A: African American research begins like the any other research, working from the known to the unknown. The first thing to do is to get records for those events that are known since they will hold clues that will lead you to individuals and events previously unknown.
In his book Black Roots, A Beginner's Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, Tony Burroughs breaks down the approach to genealogy for African Americans to six phases:
Your friend needs to talk to her relatives and look at the records she has about herself before she can begin to move on to phase two. I can say, from my own experience in researching African Americans, that in some states (especially some of the southern states), that phase one research is not as easy as it should be. Some of the southern states elected to segregate African American records so your friend may find that she has to specify that she is looking for African Americans. When working in microfilmed records, she should be prepared to look in volumes marked "colored." Many researchers who have written about researching African Americans have said it is the same as researching any other family history until you trace the family back before 1870. My own experience, though, says that in many cases (again, especially in the south) it is different because of the segregation of the records and the general feeling toward African Americans well into the twentieth century.
One of the best approaches to gathering initial information is to talk with the elders in the family. This is known as gathering an oral history. Instead of interrogating the family members, though, it is a good idea to ask about events family members participated in and then get the interviewee to give you ages for those present. Even if they are estimates, they give you something to begin your research.
In their book A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors, authors Franklin Carter Smith and Emily Anne Croom offer some general interview techniques that should help to get the stories flowing. Among other things they suggest that in addition to asking for names, vital statistics and relationships, that you also ask about family stories and how ancestors lived their daily lives.
Some family historians will discover that their African American ancestors were not slaves. The majority of researchers, though, will find that prior to 1865, their ancestors were considered property. Both of the previously mentioned books offer guidelines and research approaches that will aid the researcher in tracking slave ancestors.
From Word to Family Tree Maker
Q: A friend has sent me a 55 page family tree but it is a Microsoft Word document (.doc). Is it possible to convert it so that it can be displayed in my Family Tree Maker software? -- Michael
A: It sounds like the family information your friend sent you was in a narrative format. In narrative reports, individuals are arranged in family units and sometimes includes stories of special events along with the usual relationships and dates of vital events.
If this is the case, then the only known method of putting the information into your Family Tree Maker software is good old human effort. However, before you throw up your hands from the overwhelming task ahead, first ask your friend how he or she created the report. While it may now be in a Microsoft World document, it is possible that the original information was in a genealogy program. Perhaps your friend generated the narrative report and sent it to you as a Word document.
I would ask your friend if they are using a genealogy program and if so, what program. Then ask them if they can create a GEDCOM file of the family in the pages you received. You can then import the GEDCOM file into Family Tree Maker. There may be some information shared in the GEDCOM file that doesn't import correctly, but it will be much easier than having to type in all the information found in the pages you received.
If your friend isn't using a genealogy program and created the report manually, then you will have have to manually enter the information into Family Tree Maker. I suggest that you work in a systematic method, beginning with the individual on the first page and working through each page. Before you begin to enter any of the information, though, you should figure out if any of the people in the narrative are already in your family file. This way, you won't accidentally enter a person in your database twice.
Info on Bottom of 1930 Census
Q: I can see that there is information at the bottom of the 1930 census form but I'm not able to read it. Where can I find a print of this information? -- Lynn
A: The bottom of the 1930 census pages lists many abbreviations that the enumerator used to fill in various columns on the census form. The abbreviations are listed by column and I have included them here so that you can print them out and have them handy as your work in the 1930 census.
The remainder of the directions at the bottom of the page have to do with the entries that the enumerator was required to fill in and for whom. Some of the columns were only required for the head of the household while others were required for all who were listed in the household.
Can't Find in Census Search
Q: My great-great-grandfather (James Anderson Evans) was born in 1818 in North Carolina and died in 1867 but I can't get him to show up in my 1850 census search. Why is that? -- Annie
A: There are any number of possible reasons why a person doesn't show up in a census search. You may find that a person doesn't show up because of how he was recorded in the original census. On the other hand, it may have to do with how the index was created and how you are able to search the index.
First, it is most likely that your great-great-grandfather was not enumerated as James Anderson Evans. More likely he was enumerated as either James A. Evans or James Evans. He may also be listed as J. A. Evans or Anderson Evans. Given that the Evans surname is pretty common, you may have seen him in the index, but not realized it was him, especially if he was listed as James Evans. You did not mention whether or not you had limited your search to North Carolina. If so, then it is possible that you have excluded him, as he may have been elsewhere in 1850.
While did mention that he died in 1867, you didn't mention where he died. If you know the county and state in which he died, you may want to do a page-by-page search of that county in 1860 in search of him. Likewise, a similar search may be necessary in the 1850 census. I suggest the page-by-page search because he may have been overlooked in the indexing or even misindexed. In those cases, you may never actually find him in the index using the search engine at the Web site.
You may find that you need to do some additional research in records other than the census to find out exactly where your James Anderson Evans was in 1850. Sometimes we assume that the person should be in a given state or county when in fact, due to a need to make a living or some other reason, the individual has gone to another county or state.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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