free blacks, african american, georgia

Books reveal vital details of African-American history

We are pleased to share that two of our new releases were reviewed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on November 14, 2015. Georgia Free Persons of Color, Volume I and Georgia Free Persons of Color, Volume II, by Michael A. Ports. Both of these volumes provide crucial information which will help researchers trying to trace their own African-American history.

An 1818 statute of the Georgia legislature required all free persons of color to register with the inferior court of their county of residence. According to the statute, county clerks were required to inscribe each freed man or woman by name, age, place of birth, residence, year arrived in Georgia, and occupation. While not all clerks performed their duties to the letter of the law, these source records contain vital identifying information for African-American Georgians long before the Civil War or the watershed 1870 U.S. census. The ensuing registers, varying in their completeness, survive for twenty-one Georgia counties. (Incidentally, the only way to emancipate a slave in Georgia was by an act of the legislature. Antebellum manumissions, though rare, were granted for unusual acts, such as defending an owner’s property during a British incursion during the War of 1812, extinguishing a fire at the state capital, and other faithful service.)

Please see the review by Kenneth H. Thomas Jr. excerpted below. You can read the entirety of the review at my ajc.com:

Two new books compiled and edited by Michael A. Ports of Jacksonville contain copies of the Georgia laws from 1818 to 1834 relating to “free persons of color.”

“Georgia Free Persons of Color, Volume I” contains lists from Elbert, Hancock, Jefferson, Liberty and Warren Counties. “Volume II” contains lists from Appling, Camden, Clarke, Emanuel, Jones, Pulaski and Wilkes Counties, as well as Morgan County from an original manuscript at the Georgia Archives (though that county was omitted from the cover).

That volume includes legislative manumissions, or freeing of slaves. The author used the original county records on microfilm from the Georgia Archives, while the originals remain in the courthouses.

Each entry contains the name, age, place of nativity, residence, date the person came to Georgia, occupation and date of registration. Under occupation, some give the name of their employer, and some counties used this column to list the white person who was named guardian to the free person. (Under Georgia state law at the time, free persons of color had to have a guardian.)

These books are a very important source for African-American history, bringing to light a source that has long needed to be accessible. They also can help genealogists connected to either the free persons or their guardians find a link back to some other states, since nativity is listed.

Image credit: Card showing African American slave reaching freedom. Stephens, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1824-1882, artist, via The Library of Congress.

Dennis Wolfe, a full-blooded Cherokee indian in Cherokee, North Carolina

Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?

When I lived in the Southern US, I didn’t pay much attention to someone claiming Cherokee ancestry. Generally, I brushed off friends’ claims of being some minuscule fraction Cherokee, as when pressed on the source of this information it was always a mix of word-of-mouth, distant relation or family lure with a healthy measure of questionable math.

However, now that I’ve read the following piece, Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood? written by Gregory D. Smithers, associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The Cherokee Diaspora, I am giving these claims some additional thought. I hadn’t thought about the political ramifications, or the air of antebellum legitimacy associated with these claims. I am reposting the Slate article in its entirety as Mr. Smithers provides an interesting and concise explanation of why so many people – of both white and African-American descent – believe they have Cherokee blood.

If you are one of the many who have heard family stories of an “Indian Princess” or a Great-Great-Grandmother who was Cherokee, it may be worth not only reading this article, but doing some further original source material research into your bloodlines.

Continue reading…

Paul Heinegg

Surprises in the Family Tree, Thanks to Paul Heinegg

John Archer first appears in Northampton County, Va., in the mid-17th century. He started a family that prospered, fought in the Revolutionary War and built a mansion. Generations later, Archer’s blood trickled down to me. It mingled in my veins with DNA from a gravedigger in 17th-century Wurttemberg, Germany; from an Appalachian clan with a recessive gene that turns their skins indigo blue; and from a rich young widow in Jamestown, Va., whose fickle heart led to America’s first breach-of-promise suit, in 1623.

I have been researching my past for two decades, since I was in high school, so finding a new ancestor is hardly startling. Learning about John Archer three years ago, however, was startling. He was black, a slave or indentured servant freed around 1677. I am white. That’s what it says on my birth certificate. Now I know better, thanks to Paul Heinegg.”

When New York Times Columnist Mitchell Owens’ wrote a story entitled Surprises in the Family Tree, he credited uncovering his own surprises due to the work of Paul Heinegg. While this may have been a new and welcome discovery by the author, we bet that many serious students of 17th-, 18th-, or early 19th-century African-American genealogy would have heard of him. Heinegg is the author of two authoritative books published by Clearfield Company: Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to About 1820 (now in its Fifth Edition) and Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware from the Colonial Period to 1810.

Paul Heinegg’s interest in the early roots of African Americans goes back to 1985, when he started to research his wife’s maternal line. His findings confirmed that the blurring of lines between servitude and early slavery, occurring until about 1715, made for what Professor John Boles has described as a “biracial camaraderie” and frequent unions between blacks and non-slave-owning whites of the same class.

Such novel results encouraged Mr. Heinegg to expand the scope of his work; in fact, his goal is now to trace the roots of every free black family living in the Southeastern colonies. Working from microfilm copies of deeds, wills, tax records, and other local sources, he has been able to trace the origins of over 12,000 individuals who are related to colonial freedmen. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable when one considers that he conducted most of his research from places like Tanzania and Saudi Arabia, where his livelihood as a petroleum engineer took him and his family.

Mr. Heinegg’s books are important in other ways. From the standpoint of social history, they dispel a number of myths about the origins and status of free African Americans, such as the “mysterious” origins of the Lumbees, Melungeons, and other such marginal groups, and they demonstrate conclusively that many free African-American families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia were landowners. Considered from the standpoint of methodology, Heinegg’s work illustrates how to get the most mileage out of the scant records, particularly for African Americans, of the colonial period.

Image credit: Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville. Archival family photograph from the 1920s, provided to http://www.geocities.com/melungeonorigin/maomg2.html by Barbara Goins. By Badagnani at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by John at en.wikipedia. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

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…