Freedmans Village, researching African American Genealogy

African American Genealogy – Finding Your Roots

Editor’s Note: The following piece from our archives by the late Carolyn L. Barkley contains excellent resources and tips for researching African American Genealogy.

Over thirty years have passed since Alex Haley’s Roots captured the imagination of the nation and helped fuel an explosion of interest in genealogical research. During the intervening years, thousands of individuals have begun the journey to discover their past. As they have added to their knowledge, the genealogy “industry” has added exponentially to the richness of the resources available and to the technology that makes possible convenient access to those resources. The media has recognized the widespread interest in genealogy in general, but African American genealogy in particular. Shows such as the PBS series “History Detectives” have showcased the opportunities to learn more about our ancestors and their experiences. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, hosted a series of television programs showcasing genealogical research, and especially the use of genetics in genealogy, in uncovering the roots of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock. His new book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past (Crown, 2009) documents this research while profiling celebrities like May Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones. Given the continually increasing wealth of resources available to researchers as well as the frequency with which new information is brought to our attention through the media,, now is an extraordinary time to begin researching African American roots.

The African American research process begins like any other:

  •  Gather together your family’s documents, letters, photographs and memories. Organize them using standard genealogical practices and forms. Books such as Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007) and George Morgan’s How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy (McGraw/Hill Osborne, 2004) will assist in this process.
  • As you organize your family archive, begin to verify the information in original sources such as births records, marriage licenses, death certificates, wills, deeds and military records. Books such as Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s County Courthouse Book (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., Spring 2009) and Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (CR Publications, 2004) will help you determine where specific records are located. You will also want to check online resources such as Family Search, provided by the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints to gain additional clues.

After verifying information gathered from your family and documenting the names, dates and geographical locations you’ve discovered, your next step is to research individuals in each census beginning with the 1930 federal census and moving backward in time, generation by generation. Continue reading…

Whaleback (Ledge) Lighthouse, Kittery, Maine, USA, about 1950.

Lighthouse and Life-Saving Service Records

Editor’s note: This formerly archived post by the late Carolyn L. Barkley explains the historic background of the United States lighthouse system, and how the interrelated management of the lighthouses and life-saving stations is crucial to utilizing records to find your relatives. If your ancestor was a lighthouse keeper or a member of a life-saving station crew, these records are essential to your research. If you have an ancestor who may have been lost at sea, or who may have been a sea captain whose vessel foundered on the rocks in a gale, records exist which may contain detailed specifics of their experiences or the circumstances of their deaths.

The United States Lighthouse Establishment

In 1789 the ninth act passed by the new United States Congress required that the twelve lighthouses, under individual state control during the colonial period, be ceded to the new federal government. The United States Lighthouse Establishment was created to oversee “aids to navigation” and was placed under the aegis of the Treasury Department.

At first, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, reviewed contracts and appointed keepers, but in 1792 he turned over that responsibility to the Commissioner of the Revenue, where it remained until Albert Gallatin, a close confidant of Thomas Jefferson, became the fourth Secretary of the Treasury in 1801. Following Gallatin’s two terms in office, the responsibility for the Lighthouse Establishment reverted to the Commissioner of the Revenue until 1820, when Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, assumed the responsibility. Local-level administration fell to the various collectors of customs.

By 1822 there were seventy lighthouses. Succeeding years saw a quantum leap to 256 lighthouses by 1842, in addition to thirty light vessels. Throughout the mid-1800s, the Army Corps of Engineers played an increasing role in choosing sites for lighthouses as well as in their design and construction. The quality of service deteriorated, however, to such an extent that by 1851 Congress was forced to investigate conditions at the nation’s many navigational aid facilities. This work resulted in the establishment of a United States Lighthouse Board that operated between 1852 and 1910.  By 1896 lighthouse keepers had become civil service employees and by 1910, there were 11,713 aids to navigation (lighthouses, light ships, buoys, etc.) throughout the country. During that year, Congress abolished the cumbersome Board and authorized the establishment of the Bureau of Lighthouses under the Department of Commerce. The Bureau remained in existence until 1939, when its responsibilities were transferred to the United States Coast Guard. Continue reading…

Holland Land Company map of Western New York.

Holland Land Company Records: Land Research in Western New York State

Editor’s note: The following post from our archives, written by author Karen E. Livsey, provides insight into the information contained in her two volume work, Western New York Land Transactions: Extracted from the Archives of the Holland Land Company. Ms. Livsey is the Library/Archivist at the Fenton History Center in Jamestown (Chautauqua Co.), New York, and she serves as the Ellicott (N.Y.) Town Historian. She has previously appeared as a member of the Genealogical Publishing Company booth staff at national genealogical conferences.

It has been over 200 years since Joseph Ellicott completed a two and one-half year survey of the Holland Land Company’s holdings and the main land office opened in Batavia, New York. My two-volume Western New York Land Transactions: Extracted from the Archives of the Holland Land Company (Volume 1 and Volume 2) provides detailed information that can solve land research problems in western New York State. An understanding of these records and their contents, however, is a must for their successful use.

Individual settlers accounted for the majority of the sales of land in western New York State by the Holland Land Company during its thirty-plus years of operation. In the 1790s, the Dutch banking houses that created the Holland Land Company had purchased large tracts of land from Robert Morris totaling 3.3 million acres. Today that land is all of Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, and Cattaraugus counties, most of Orleans, Genesee, and Wyoming Counties, and the western part of Allegany County. Many of the early settlers coming into that area of New York State were from New England and eastern and central New York, in addition to some from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They were followed by immigrants from Europe. Continue reading…

Battle of Lexington, Revolutionary War soldiers pensions

Revolutionary War Pension Records Restored, Consolidated, and Explained, Part II

Editor’s Note: Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck’s groundbreaking book Revolutionary War Pensions Awarded by State Governments 1775-1874, the General and Federal Governments Prior to 1814, and by Private Acts of Congress to 1905 identifies and recreates the Revolutionary War pension files generated prior to the disastrous fire in the War Department on 8 November 1800, and a second and even more disastrous fire on 24 August 1814 with the British invasion of Washington. Mr. Bockstruck has not only identified many of those pensioners whose files are commonly believed to have been lost but also reconstructed in varying degrees their contents. More than 16,500 pensioners are featured in this work.

The Introduction to Mr. Bockstruck’s book is a bibliographical essay that both explains the legislative and archival history of the Revolutionary War pensions and identifies the existing sources–primarily the pension records of the Original Thirteen States and various Congressional sources-that the author utilized in this massive attempt at evidentiary reconstruction. This article, published in three parts, is excerpted from that Introduction. Part One was published in last week’s Genealogy Pointers and here on our blog. Be sure to read the conclusion in the October 7, 2014 issue of Genealogy Pointers or here at GenealogyandFamilyHistory.com. 

Revolutionary War Pension Records, Part II

There were a number of pension acts after the one of 1776. The next was that of 15 May 1778, which authorized half-pay for seven years to all officers who remained in Continental service to the end of the war. It did not apply to foreign officers or officers above the rank of colonel. It also provided a gratuity of $80 to every enlisted man who served to the end of the war. The states were to make the payments on account with the United States. The act of 24 August 1780 extended the half-pay provision to widows or orphan children of officers who had died or would die in the service.

Following the resignation of 160 officers between January and October 1780, Congress addressed the problem of a lack of pensions. By the Resolve of 21 October 1780, all officers who continued to the end of the war should be entitled to half-pay for life. Congress did not, however, make any funds available to implement the program. On 23 April 1782 soldiers who were sick or wounded and were reported unfit for duty in the field or garrison were to be pensioned at the rate of $5 per month. The states were to dispense the funds annually and to draw upon the Superintendent of Finance for the money advanced. On 22 March 1783 Congress authorized full-pay for invalid officers for no more than five years or half-pay for life.

Continue reading…

'United_States_Marines_near_Reading,_Pennsylvania_revolutionary_war'

Revolutionary War Pension Records Restored, Consolidated, and Explained, Part I

Editor’s Note: Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck’s groundbreaking book, Revolutionary War Pensions Awarded by State Governments 1775-1874, the General and Federal Governments Prior to 1814, and by Private Acts of Congress to 1905, identifies and recreates the Revolutionary War pension files generated prior to the disastrous fire in the War Department on November 8, 1800, and a second and even more disastrous fire on August 24, 1814 with the British invasion of Washington. Mr. Bockstruck has not only identified many of those pensioners whose files are commonly believed to have been lost, but also reconstructed in varying degrees their contents. More than 16,500 pensioners are featured in this work.

The Introduction to Mr. Bockstruck’s book explains the legislative and archival history of the Revolutionary War pension records and identifies the existing sources – primarily the pension records of the Original Thirteen States and various Congressional sources – that the author utilized in this massive attempt at evidentiary reconstruction.

This article, published in three parts, is excerpted from that Introduction. Be sure to read the next two issues of “Genealogy Pointers” or visit our blog for parts II and III:

Continue reading…