Few things are more compelling than our own origin stories. Many of us ask: Where did my family come from? Who came before me? What does it mean to be part of my family? How have my ancestors shaped my life or identity? How might I contribute to this legacy? Uncovering the answers to these foundational questions can be difficult, but also revealing and rewarding.
No two families are alike; therefore no two searches are alike. All researchers will encounter roadblocks and while some obstacles will be only temporary, others will be intractable. Yet, it is important to embrace what you know, bring other family members into the process, and be encouraged that there will be much to explore, discover, and share.
We trust that this five step guide will help you launch (or expand) your search, a search that, ideally, will move beyond names and dates to reveal your family’s personal stories.
Family history can be a valuable tool of wealth education for rising generations. Your research is likely to reveal moments when your family experienced financial scarcity and prosperity. Or, perhaps, moments when their fortunes changed dramatically. Did they receive aid or lend a helping hand to others in their extended family or their community? What lessons related to their saving, spending, and giving might influence your financial decisions today?
1. Recall, listen, and learn
Researching your family history can seem like a formidable task, but can be made easier by thinking of it as a series of building blocks. The first critical step is a basic one: begin by mining your own memory for clues. Start with more recent history — your parents and grandparents — and then walk backwards in time, as you are able.
Use these prompts to add branches and leaves to your family tree:
- Names: Focus on capturing maiden names, to help you map maternal lines
- Dates: Birth, baptism, marriage, and death
- Places: Be as specific as you can, even recording street addresses, where possible
- Events: Examples include military service, school information, occupations, and employers
Once you exhaust your own knowledge, reach out to relatives who can fill in gaps. Perhaps there are relatives who are the keepers of your family’s history and stories. They may be your most valuable sources. Ask focused questions of them to glean particular facts, but also consider the value of asking open-ended questions, to elicit memories and stories.
Tip: Consider recording members of your family, to capture their stories and preserve their words and voices for future generations.
When connecting with relatives, also ask about any records or family trees that they may hold. Key documents include: birth, marriage, and death records, obituaries, funeral programs, family Bibles, newspaper clippings, diaries, school records, family letters, and photographs.
You will have a rich knowledge bank that you can use for ready reference. Draw and build upon this collection as you create a family tree or pedigree chart, launch searches in online genealogical databases, and reach out to experts and/or institutions.
Tip: Adopt organizational strategies that will centralize your knowledge bank, but also play to your strengths. Use digital tools, a paper filing system, or a hybrid of the two to capture all you learn.
2. Determining a focus
Look across your collection of information and family tree with a close eye. Where is there richness? Where are there gaps? What are you most curious to learn more about?
It is impossible to explore everything at once. Consider identifying a couple of places across your tree you would like to target first. Perhaps it is an individual who has always interested you, the details of an ancestor’s military service, or, maybe a part of your tree, such as a maternal line, that is less documented.
After compiling and organizing all that your family knows about its history and lore, it’s time to put this knowledge to work.
3. Leverage what you know
Everything you gather — voices, lore, and historical records — is priceless. You may choose to pause here and appreciate all that you gained in your fact-finding mission. Or, you can leverage what you’ve learned by launching a search into online genealogical databases.
These pieces of information — whether they be names, dates, or places — will aid your efforts to go back further in time. The tips below will help expedite your research as you take it online. Digging into online archives and genealogical databases puts billions of historical records from all over the world at your fingertips. Well-known databases that combine many available resources (such as familysearch.org and ancestry.com) can usually be accessed for free through your local library, in-person or through their online portal. Refer to the Additional Resources section to learn more about leading archives, organizations, and reference materials to support your research journey.
Federal census records are a fruitful place to begin your online research. The United States Census has been enumerated every 10 years since 1790 and records are made publicly available 72 years after they are created. These records help you trace names and estimate important dates (birth, marriage, death) which can lead you to other critical documents. Start by searching for family members in the 1940 census — the most recent year available to the public. Make note of all of the names and details included. Next search for them in 1930, and then trace your ancestors back decade-by-decade. Resist the urge to skip generations, as making leaps may introduce errors.
Your search may yield:
- The communities where your ancestors lived and worked and even their specific neighborhoods and addresses.
- The timing of your ancestors’ moves or migrations.
- Occupations held by family members.
Tip: As you read across the columns on census pages, look for the abbreviations Neg (Negro), B (Black), and Mu (Mulatto), intended to designate race. Keep in mind that the enumerator was recording his or her observation, rather than asking an individual to self-identify. An individual’s race might be “defined” differently across census records.
Lastly, do not take every date or detail at face value. Always try to corroborate what you’ve found with other materials. Name variations are common, and dates are sometimes mixed up, forgotten, or even changed intentionally in the record.
A common challenge and potential solutions
If you can trace your ancestors back to 1870 with census records, this is a meaningful start. Before the Civil War, only free Black Americans (just 10% of African Americans at the time) were listed by name in the census.1 Enslaved peoples were not. This makes tracking Black ancestors to the 1860 census, recorded before the Civil War, especially challenging. If you search the 1860 census and cannot find your relative, you may have encountered a common obstacle often referred to as the “1870 wall.”
Persistent researchers may be able to uncover additional ancestors by employing advanced strategies. Try searching the 1870 census in the same area for the same family surname as your ancestor. About 15% of Black Americans took the surname of their last enslaver.2 Scrutinize a dozen or more households listed before and after your ancestors on the census. Most freed people did not travel far by 1870 and continued to live on or near a former owner’s property. A white person or family with the same surname might be the former enslaver(s).
A search of records related to a potential enslaver and their family may prove the connection, and eventually shed light on your ancestors. A host of records created at the federal, state, county, or municipal level can help you uncover more. Special census schedules enumerated in 1850 and 1860 list an owner's enslaved persons, but simply note their age and gender. Because enslaved persons were considered property, related transactions created a paper trail. Thus, having an enslaver's name can assist in locating property deeds, chattel and probate records, estate records, and bills of sale that may list your ancestors. Unfortunately, the destruction of courthouses in some southern counties during the Civil War can pose a challenge or dead ends.
Vital records and registers
Births, marriages, and deaths may help establish familial connections and valuable information for your family tree, if they can be located. Remember, census records may give you the approximate year and state of birth, suggesting when and where to search. Holdings vary by location, and rules related to availability vary.
Church and cemetery records
Church record books, congregational publications, and gravestone images or transcriptions can enhance or even serve as a substitute for vital records. Additionally, they might provide details about family and faith institutions that may have been a meaningful part of your ancestors’ lives.
Military service and draft registration records
Most males were required to register for the draft during World War I. These cards provide important information for male ancestors born as early as 1873. World War II draft records offer similar details and may be equally valuable. Other avenues to explore include military records, such as the U.S. Colored Troops service records that date back to 1863.
Records specific to African American family research
1. Freedmen’s Bureau records
Organized in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands provided relief and education to refugees and freedmen. Records created from 1865–1872 relate to marriages, education, hospitals, and military service, along with the issuing of rations and clothing.
Other categories include labor contracts, land and property records, and court records. Documents contain names, ages, occupations, and may even include the names and residences of former owners.
2. Freedman’s Bank records
This collection of records stems from a savings and trust company set up to assist freed people and Black soldiers. It contains valuable genealogical details on more than 60,000 depositors. Bank registers list names, residences, names of family members, and sometimes more.
3. Other valuable resources
There are many ways to continue your research. Indexes to manumission and indenture records and court proceedings, along with voter registration lists created during Reconstruction, are also available to researchers.
Mine databases that aggregate newspaper advertisements for freedom seekers, biographies of enslaved and freed people, as well as articles, published records, and interviews with formerly enslaved persons, to potentially learn more about your ancestors and the texture of their lives.
Tip: Always check if libraries in the places where your ancestors lived maintain genealogy collections and/or local history rooms. Staff members most familiar with local resources may open up new leads and save you time.
The availability of records varies nationwide, so be certain to explore what types of materials exist in the community, county, or state you are investigating. Though many collections have been digitized, many more are carefully preserved in archives and may require in-person research. Keeping a research log and notes of where you’ve searched will help you remain focused and efficient.
Family history research can be incredibly rewarding, but also frustratingly slow work. The discovery process takes time and may move in fits and starts. It can be helpful to regularly review your research goals and what you’ve learned along the way. As you accumulate information, question and cross-reference your findings. Compare names, dates, and other genealogical information as you work back in time. Continue to check in with family members to share what you’ve found and learn what stories these insights might unlock. It may also be useful to regularly retrace your steps. New records are indexed, transcribed, and posted online all the time. Circling back may lead to an unexpected breakthrough.
Finally, be sure to network with others interested in similar families, regions, or records. African American genealogical societies and their members publish newsletters, provide tutorials, and specialize in helping Black families uncover their ancestral roots. Active online genealogical forums for researchers to swap information, along with social media groups, can inspire new research directions.
4. Adding texture and color
At a point in your discovery process, you may find yourself at a crossroads. Some family history researchers find themselves with an abundance — maybe an overabundance — of information. Perhaps you have been able to trace several lines of your family back several generations and you have names, dates, and a handful of personal and online records to map their life journeys. Alternatively, you may have encountered more difficulties than expected and have lingering curiosities.
Whatever the outcome, seeking “the rest of the story” can help breathe life into your findings. No matter the time period or ancestor you are researching, a variety of sources and techniques will help you make their lives even more personal. You might think of this as adding color to the leaves on your tree.
Newspapers are a popular way to learn more about the communities and lives of your ancestors. If you know the location and approximate dates of birth, marriage, and death of your ancestors, articles and obituaries can fill in more details about their daily lives, their relationships with other family members, and the impact they made.
African American newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries have been digitized and made available through online databases. They can be a treasure trove. The Black press covered the news and social lives of local Black communities, and republished articles from other influential papers nationwide. The newspapers also provide context about the broader African American experience.
Tip: Always try a variety of searches in newspaper databases. Using alternate spellings of last names or initials for a first name might result in hits. If you know a street address, that may help too.
City directories often list family head and spouse, occupations, and physical addresses. Look also for grown children who live in separate or combined households in the same locality. Information about churches and social organizations, and advertisements for businesses provide additional insights into the communities.
Local histories about communities of all sizes, and even county and state histories, are important sources for family historians. Photograph collections illustrate the streets, buildings, and landscapes your ancestors may have been familiar with. Finally, city, state, and even transportation maps, may help bring their lives and journeys into finer focus.
Consider what you might want to learn:
- What was life like in your relative’s neighborhood at the time they lived there? Who lived next door or in the unit upstairs?
- What do maps or other visual sources tell you about the sights and sounds of your ancestor’s daily life?
- Maybe you want to explore the hurdles they overcame to join the Great Migration and start again in a new city?
Family history can be much more than dates and names on a tree. By seeking to understand your ancestors’ lives, you may uncover many sources for putting your unique family stories into context, from fiction and nonfiction books, to podcasts and documentaries, to museum exhibits and first-person accounts. Exploring different mediums can invigorate your research and inspire others to join you in the discovery process. Over the course of your research, you may also find interests, passions, or experiences in your ancestral history that are meaningful to you today.
5. Sharing your stories across generations
For many family historians, their journey begins and ends with the search. Yet, sharing stories about your family’s past can help keep it from being forgotten, especially if your audience is multigenerational.
Bring intention to the ways in which you pass down your family’s most important stories and core values.
If communicated with purpose and frequency, stories can become a form of family currency, of intellectual capital. History can bind a family together through inspiring individuals or storylines. Perhaps there are instances of hard won success or obstacles overcome. Maybe there are themes of sacrifice, service, and daily toil. Look for patterns as well as moments of disruption. Finally, look for the core values that guided your family and may still serve as a compass today.
Whatever your story, family history can resonate with all generations, especially if you appeal to all of your senses, make it interactive, and keep it fun. Consider these three ideas for sharing and perpetuating your history:
- Food and folkways: Choose a tried and true family recipe or one that reflects your heritage. Share recollections and insights as you chop, mix, or bake. Whose favorite dish is it? When is it usually served? Is the recipe card or cookbook page well-worn? Or, maybe it’s a recipe that you’ve committed to memory and has been passed down from cook to cook, with some memorable modifications over the years. Tell those stories.
- Capturing voices: Encourage younger members of your extended family to record an interview with a parent, grandparent, or community member. You may want to consider focusing on specific events in history, culture, or different stages of life. For example, “what did you like to do when you were my age?” or “what was your home like?” You can help children construct a list of questions before the interview starts. Ending interviews on reflective questions is a good way to emphasize legacy.
- Family reunions: History is the perfect addition to family meals or celebrations. Stories can be shared briefly, through a toast, or by showing a brief slide show or clips from old movie reels. Photograph albums can be displayed and the individuals in the pictures identified and recorded, so names and events are not lost to time. Ask attendees to leave a brief message in a guest book, sign a tablecloth, or pose for a family photograph, so that the event becomes part of your family history and archive.
The importance of reclaiming your roots and identity cannot be overstated. Family history research is a meaningful way to connect with your family in the past, present, and future and, through sharing, a way of carrying forward what matters most.
Our Black Ancestry
Nonprofit organization and website dedicated to providing resources for Black genealogy that includes tutorials, databases, and opportunities to connect with other researchers.
African American genealogy research website that offers tutorials, links to resources, message boards, and more
Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society
Based in Washington D.C., this forty-plus-year-old membership organization provides online resources, supports regional affiliates, hosts an annual conference, and publishes research on African American history and genealogy.
Research guides and resources
Quick Guide to African American Records from the Family History Library
The FamilySearch website is a free resource for family historians supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints. Located in Salt Lake City, the Family History Library is the largest genealogical library in the world.
FamilySearch Wiki Page on African American Genealogy
Steps for Researching African American Genealogy
African American Genealogy guide from the New England Historic Genealogical Society
Established in 1845, NEHGS is the oldest genealogical society in America.
Researching African American Ancestors from Ancestry.com
Ancestry.com, a paid-subscription genealogy service, provides online access to upwards of 10 billion family history records.