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Tracing Your Own Family Roots

Start at the beginning as you would for American ancestors of any race

Chris Haley kneels outside the cell on Kunta Kinteh Island, Gambia, where thousands of kidnapped Africans were believed held before they were shipped into slavery.

You’d expect Chris Haley, director of the Maryland State Archive’s Study of Slavery, to be hooked on genealogy. He is. Nephew of Roots author Alex Haley, Chris has studied the subject from the ground up. Here he shares some tips for learning about African American ancestors.

Start with what you know

The beginning is the same for American ancestors of any race.
    “Decide which line of your family you’re tracing,” Haley told Bay Weekly. “Then start with yourself and work backwards, one generation at a time, until a roadblock appears.”
    First talk with living relatives. “Don’t underestimate how many clues you can find in your immediate circle,” says Haley. Oral history and documentation they share with you can help direct your search.
    “Look at family naming patterns,” Haley further advises. “Who are you named after? How about your parents, your grandparents? Carry this back as far as you can.”

Go online

Next visit your county library or historical society to search genealogy websites and other online databases. Unless, of course, you’ve subscribed to a database like, which allows you to search from home, while helping you organize and store what you find.
    You can find digitized records, microfilm and more at the Maryland State Archives, where Haley works as an archivist. It’s always his first stop.

Look for death records

Haley starts his archival searches with death records, looking for church, funeral and cemetery records, newspaper announcements and obituaries, as well as death certificates. “Remember,” he says, “various states (and cities) began issuing death certificates at different times — Maryland, for instance, in 1898; Baltimore City in 1875.”
    Then, Haley says, “I look at ­federal census records.”
    Census records are invaluable genealogical tools, especially in researching black ancestors.
    The first Federal Census was taken in 1790 and has since been repeated every decade. The only names in the earliest censuses were heads of household.
    The 1850 and 1860 censuses listed names and ages of household members and included slave schedules. Here blacks were cited based on city, enumeration district, age, gender, color and status as fugitives or manumitted slaves.
    But as Haley reminds us, enslaved persons had no surnames. Many were assigned surnames upon manumission; others chose their own surnames. “Thus,” he cautions, “we should make no assumptions.”

Work your way back to the 1870 census

Suppose you’ve worked your way back to the 1870 census, the first after the Civil War, and found your black ancestor by name. But you still can’t find this ancestor on the 1860 census.
    Possible explanations: Perhaps the census taker misspelled or improperly recorded your ancestor. Perhaps you’re looking in the wrong area. Try extending your search; look at who owned property in neighboring districts.
    Or, says Haley, maybe your ancestor was already free by 1860; an estimated 15 percent of all black Americans were. This varied by area. “Baltimore, for instance, had a huge free black population in 1860,” Haley says. “Your ancestor may also have left the country, but that’s unlikely. Odds are, your ancestor was enslaved.”

Look beyond death and census records

Continue your search. Comb through birth, baptismal, church and marriage records; wills, probate, court and military records, newspaper notices and land records. Look on the county level; research plantation records and slave sale notices.
    Look on the Maryland State Archives’ Beneath the Underground database. This searchable database includes more than 300,00 records from 1830 to 1880 with information on white and black, slave owners, enslaved and free individuals. Recent additions include lists of manumissions and Certificates of Freedom: http://slavery2.msa.
    You’re well on your way to finding your roots and keeping history alive for the next generation.