My father asked me a fairly simple question one night while I was staying with him a few weeks ago. “Why did you decide to start researching our family’s history?” There wasn’t anything to the question. There were no motives. He was just curious. A number of answers rambled around in my head. All of them were true, but none of them were entirely true. There wasn’t one sole, single, overriding reason why I decided to pick up the genealogy gauntlet.
I stumbled across what I thought was my father’s name in the midst of searching for something else using Google. The link pointed to a genealogy site called, not unsurprisingly, Ancestry.com. I was intrigued so I clicked the link. However, it wasn’t my father’s details that presented themselves. It was an 1880 Census citing his father and his father’s family. For the most part, these were names no one in my family knew. A quick search on Ancestry.com returned census records with my great-grandfather’s details. My curiosity was now truly piqued. So this was a true and honest answer to my father’s question. Indeed, it’s exactly what I told him.
Another answer could easily have been that I thrive on challenges. I love hurdles, I adore mental puzzles, thrive on mysteries and genealogy has all of these wrapped up in the best Christmas present wrapping you could imagine. As an African-American, the challenge was always going to be obvious: just how far back could I go? What would genealogy’s glass ceiling be? Four generations? Perhaps five if I was lucky? Would it all end around 1870 (the first census to list blacks by their name)? It’s worth noting that the 1860 Census only lists slaves by gender and age. The only blacks and mulattos cited by name were those who were free.
I wanted to know where my family came from. Like any family, mine has its share of lore and rumours. Some of these include: our surname was French in origin, we had Cherokee blood and there was Irish blood kicking around our veins too. What combination of my family’s lore would be true? All of it? None of it? Half? I realised that I now had the tools I’d need to begin the journey towards some answers at the very least.
I’ve come across many who share my interest in genealogy who seek a famous ancestor, or a royal connection or some eccentric distant relation who buried a treasure that no-one has ever found. That’s never been my interest. I’ve sought – and still seek – to learn something tangible about my ancestors. Who were they? What did they think? Are there family traits? How much of me is, well, actually me and how much of who I am has been hard-wired by genetics?
I’ve been researching the various branches of my family for nearly 18 months now. To say it’s been a fascinating journey is an understatement. But my journey is far from over. New facts keep coming to light, new information is shared with other people researching the same families and I make contact with people from the other long lost branches of the family all the time.
So this is a record of my adventures in genealogy. Along the way, I’ll share tips, tricks and resources you can use if you have an interest in tracing your family tree.
To get you started, here are my two main ‘first ports of call’ research tools: www.familysearch.org (an absolutely amazing free online database with marriage, death, immigration and census records) and www.ancestry.com (which has a free trial period – after which you have to subscribe to access its records). While it didn’t provide any information in my search, AfriGeneas www.afrigeneas.com has a wealth of records, documents and information for African Americans researching their family tree.