A Beginners’ Guide to Tracing Your Roots
With the rapid growth of on-line genealogical resources, and increasingly easy access to genetic testing, tracing our roots has never been easier. But the process of piecing together our past doesn’t begin with these hi-tech tools.
To start our investigation, we must first spend time with our oldest family members; recording everything they can remember. We must also explore our family archives; looking for obituaries, certificates, diplomas – anything that might contain our ancestors’ names and details of their lives.
With this information in hand, our goal is to work backwards, piecing together our family’s story as we go. To do that, we’ll need to turn to government records; birth certificates, death certificates, marriage records – and, of course, the Federal Census. The most recent census that’s available is from 1930. It, and those that preceded it, are readily available on-line.
Always remember though that building a family history has two elements: creating a family tree, and piecing together the lives of the people on it. Some of this more detailed information, contained in military records, court documents, land deeds etc., will be available on the Internet, but often it means traveling to the place where your ancestors once lived, and exploring the archives of the local church, or records stored in the Town or City Hall.
For African Americans, genealogical research holds special challenges. Almost all of us should be able to trace our ancestry back to the 1870 census; the first one in which all African Americans were listed by first and last name.
If you are one of the fortunate people whose ancestors were free before the Civil War, you might even be able keep going – perhaps as far back as 1790, and the first Federal Census ever taken. More likely though, your ancestors were slaves. If that is the case, you must change your approach. Before the Civil War, enslaved ancestors were regarded as property, so you need to find the name of the slaveholders who owned them.
To do that, first look in records that your ancestors left behind from after the Civil War - in which they may have named their former owners. Failing that, see where your ancestors were living in 1870, and study the records of the slaveholders in the area. It’s surprising how often – in a will, or an estate appraisal – you will find a family group, who fit the profile of your family members exactly. If you’re especially lucky, you might even find the names of your ancestors’ parents … and so be able to reconstruct another generation back into the slave era.
It’s at this point, when information becomes harder to come by, that many people think about using DNA, to jump the generations and learn where at least one line of their family leads to in Africa. If you take one of these tests, remember that it is a two-stage process. DNA testing companies can tell you where, according to their databases, there are people living today who share a section of your mitochondrial DNA - and if you’re a man, a section of your y-chromosome as well – making them your very distant cousins.
What these test results don’t immediately reveal is where your distant ancestors once lived. To reach that conclusion, you’ll need to use genealogical and historical data to determine where the ancestors you share with your Africans “cousins” most likely lived. It’s worth the effort though. The more you understand about how genetic ancestry tracing works, the more secure you will feel in drawing firm conclusions about where your direct maternal or direct lines lead.
For more information on how to trace your family tree, or how to use DNA to learn about your roots, we recommend the following books:
Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African American Genealogy & Historical Identity by Dee Parmer Woodtor. Published by Random House.
Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs. Published by the Fireside Division of Simon & Schuster
Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family by Megan Smoleynak by Megan Smolenyak & Ann Turner. Published by Rodale.
Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Published by Crown Publishing Group.