Research Tips: Getting Started

Keep detailed notes, download images or photos of original documents, bookmark URLs in your browser, and record complete info on every source you consult. Often you will need to go back to something, so be sure you can find it immediately; don’t waste time repeating a search you have already completed. There are several good scanning apps for smart phones that can produce individual images or multi-page PDFs . I use Adobe Scan, which is free and easy to use. But remember that capturing an image is not the same as having the full source citation. You want both.

Whatever document you are looking at, glean all the information there. Each census asked different questions. Death certificates may include the name of the informant who supplied information. Applications for military pensions or bank accounts may require witnesses.

  • Before reading a census, look at the blank form and the instructions to enumerators. You need to know, for example, that in the 1850 census the date pinpointed by the census is June 1: those born after June 1 will not be listed, those in the household June 1 but now absent will be listed. 1850 Census (the first to include names of all in the household) Download Measuring America: The Decenial Censuses from 1790 to 2000.

When reading the census, scan five pages before and after your family’s entry, and repeat this for every census. (Professionals scan 20 pages each way.) Do you see patterns? Recurring names? In 1870, they may be living near their former enslaver. Other neighbors may be in-laws, extended family, or others who originated in the same neighborhood or plantation community.

  • Here is genealogist Robyn Smith’s advice: make a table. Put your ancestor or research target on a single line and highlight it in color. List households before yours above, and households after yours below, in order moving outward from your target. For those in close proximity, or suspected to be in some way related to your target (relative, former slaveowner, employer, business partner, church member) include all in the household. For those farther out and with no known relationship, list every surname.

Within your ancestor’s household, and related households, pay attention to every name. Be alert to changes over time: multiple marriages, step-parents, married children. Watch for hints a pair of adults with the same surname might be siblings, rather than a married couple.

Remember that family formation during slavery was matriarchal. People with different surnames who show up near or among your family members may be related through their mothers.

Don’t assume that a family on the census after Emancipation is necessarily a biological family. So many families were separated during slavery that we can safely assume a lot of children were raised and became family with adults who were not their biological parents. The children of enslaved women were the property of their mother’s slaveholder. Often they were kept with her while young, but not always. Mothers and children, even very young children, were separated by sale and inheritance. In a number of Magruder estate inventories I’ve read, there are way more children than could have been produced by the women recorded in the same list. Sometimes there are several young children and no woman of child-bearing age at all. Women too old for manual labor were often assigned to child care, while the mothers worked.

In light of this, consider what is most important for you personally to discover. Do you want to know who exactly were the biological parents of your ancestor, or is it more important to know who raised her and set her on her feet? Ideally, I know, you would find both.

This question is sharpened where you think a slaveholder, or other white man, may have fathered one of your ancestors. In some cases you may find evidence that the white father did something to provide for the family, with land, money, or protection from violence. In other cases, you may have nothing but Y-DNA. If you focus solely on the biological father you may miss finding and understanding a black man who actually raised and provided for your ancestor.

Paternity is always unprovable by records alone. One of my African American 4th or 5th cousins says that, wherever possible, she likes to find “the golden triangle of DNA, records, and family tradition to corroborate and validate claims.”  She has reminded me of the old saying, mother’s baby, father’s maybe, and cautions against taking a birth certificate as the gold standard of proof.

When looking for clues in a slaveholder’s estate, be sure to read the entire Probate Court record: the will, the inventory, the sales and distributions. Different details are required in each step, and different people created and recorded them. For example, an inventory might list enslaved people by order of age and sex, with no clues about family relationships, while the sales and distributions have entries like “Maria and Maria’s son Henry,” or “William, his wife Hannah, and 3 children.” There’s no predicting what you’ll find.

Investigate geography. Use maps to locate your ancestors in relation to other farms and plantations, businesses, towns, roads, railroads, ferries, industries, employers, and churches. For free ancestors, add city directories and African American newspapers to the list of sources you will check. Check County land ownership maps in the Library of Congress through 1900. If you find your county there, know that many of these maps were commercial products and landowners paid to be included. Not every landowner will be there, but the most prominent are almost always present. Examine the map to see who produced it, and when.

If your ancestors lived in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, or South Carolina, check out Paul Heinnegg’s Free African Americans pages to see if you may be descended from a white woman who married or had a child with an enslaved black man. Descendants of white women were technically free, but because both “bastardy” and “mulatto bastardy” were crimes, mothers and children were prosecuted through the courts and sentenced to various terms of bondage. (In Maryland, if the father was a free man the child’s term of service was 21 years & the mother saw additional months added to her indenture; if the father was enslaved the terms were 31 years and 7 years.)

Many daughters had children during their time of service and were, in turn, sentenced to additional terms of indenture. Sons fathered children with enslaved women, leaving both behind in slavery if they later obtained their freedom. Some descendants—entitled to freedom, but still in slavery–brought freedom suits in state and county courts. All those court proceedings generated records, which Heinegg combed through to piece together genealogies of these families. His research is also available in book form. In many cases, descendants hung onto the white woman’s surname, which could be a thin thread leading to freedom. This can make it hard to find fathers in the genealogy, but it does at least provide a consistent surname through generations.

Magruders in Prince George’s County, Maryland, had a bit of specialty in holding these families in bondage for decades, repeatedly taking them to court to be convicted for bearing bastard children, sentenced each time to additional years of servitude. In those cases, the child was often sold shortly after birth, to serve out 21 or 31 years of indenture. These convictions and sales are in the court records. Sometimes a child was purchased by the mother’s slaveholder, but often they were sold to a neighbor. Descriptions of land—whether in county land records, court records, or wills and estates—often mention the owners of bordering properties. Also, witnesses to wills and other legal documents might be neighbors, whether related or not. (Just one example: I made a breakthrough in understanding the patterns of bastardy convictions via a witness to Samuel Magruder’s 1711 will.) See Priscilla Gray & Descendants.

If your family is from Maryland and includes the names Butler, Queen, Mahoney, or Shorter also be sure to find William G. Thomas III’s A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), which chronicles some of the hundreds of freedom suits (many successful) brought by members of those families.

Many people try to assemble a family tree within a historical vacuum. Don’t be one of those people! Always also keep reading both general and local history. What were the migration patterns? When did relevant laws change? When was your county founded? Was it carved out of an older county, as the population grew? What were the major crops and industries? What happened there during the Civil War? What were the conditions of enslavement in the places your ancestors lived? How was Maryland different from Virginia? How was Kentucky different from Alabama? The answers to these and a thousand other questions will provide context for the family details you uncover, and help you understand the lives your ancestors lived.

Where can you find the history you need? GoogleBooks can be a good source, b/c some of what you need is probably out of copyright and in the public domain. On Amazon or other online sellers, search by key words or look for books you have heard of. Once you’ve identified a book you want to read, try local libraries and Interlibrary Loan services (ILL)–make a request and the library will try to borrow the book from another library. State, county, and local historical societies‘ websites will include historical sketches. They also publish books, pamphlets, and maps. Look for online inventories of historical properties.

My bibliography pages focus on Magruders and on Maryland, but some entries range beyond. Some include links or PDFs.

If you were to visit my office, you would see a few resources on Magruders, taking up less than a foot of shelf space; a thirteen inch shelf of ACGS yearbooks; and six packed feet of shelf space devoted to histories of Maryland, of slavery, of struggles for freedom, of black family life, of tobacco culture, etc. In another room, you’d find another six feet of material on Scotland. And that doesn’t count the books on my Kindle.

And lastly: black newspapers, black newspapers, black newspapers! You may find your family; you will definitely learn about black life in the past. In addition to the daily news, look for church news, obituaries, marriage and birth announcements, human interest stories, advertisements, benevolent societies, professional societies, personal notices, neighborhoods, natural disasters, legal notices, arrests…everything that happens to human beings and everything human beings do.