My Foray into African American Research

Boarding the trainWhile at the Ohio State Genealogical Conference a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend multiple presentations on African American topics. I wanted to learn more about the records and their availability, but my desire to learn wasn’t just driven by my genealogical interests. African American history is also a part of my history as a white person.

I am part Swedish. Swedish records start in the mid 1900’s and extend in an unbroken line back to the late 1600s. One of my ancestors has a calculated birth date of 1595. The stark contrast of the continuity of Swedish records and those of African Americans is not lost on me. African American genealogists speak of the “the wall” of Emancipation. This wall is not like the white genealogist’s “brick wall,” which is often one that is more of a “high threshold.” The “wall” of Emancipation is real—there is a serious lack of records for a people who were, in the minds of their masters, working animals. Even if the slave adopted a surname, a critical identifier for a genealogist, it was informal, sometimes changed and not recorded until after Emancipation. Nor could they marry, another record type that appears after Emancipation.

And, no, slaves didn’t usually accept the name of the master upon Emancipation and if they did, they might change it some years later.

I am working with an African American family now where it was stunningly simple to trace them back to 1867, up to “the wall”. The family resided in a single county in Texas coninuously. Atypically, the family did adopt the surname of their master, and kept that name continuously. They defied the norms of African American research up to the point of where I, too, hit the wall of Emancipation.

The records which exist after Emancipation tell a skimpy story about the slave life of Ben, the slave ancestor of my client.[1] The master moved from Tennessee to Texas around 1846. Ben was born in Virginia between 1832 and 1838, but it is not known if he made the move south from Tennessee with the slave owner or was bought later.  Was Ben purchased in Virginia and separated from his family when he was moved to Texas? Why did the master move from Tennessee to Texas? Was it just about the land? or, was it the desire of the master to move deeper south to secure his slaves.

What we do know is that in 1867, Ben registered to vote and recorded that he owned property–a brave and proud moment, but not without risk.

I know my next step—tracing the slave master. Slaves were property and as such had to be dealt with through the courts upon the slave owner’s death which occurred in 1858. If extant, the probate records will help. Also, it is possible that the plantation papers, the day to day working papers of the plantation, are available.

I have much to learn, but willing researchers attending the conference helped me take those first steps to learn more. And yes, I will continue the journey. I need to know more about plantation papers[2] and Freedman’s Bureau [3], and, about the records contained within the Historic Black Colleges and Universities[4]. (Many more were presented but these were some of the best.

At a minimum, for those of you who are “on the clock” consider attending a session at a conference or provided by your society which is other than the ethnic groups you primarily research. It is great fun to be a “beginner” again.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: worked on the BCG website, “played” President of the Seattle Genealogical Society (agenda, committee, reports, etc.) wrote briefing paper on online class for BCG who is very interested in the model.

[1] Name is changed.
[2] Andi Cumbo-Floyd, “The Wild Terrain of Plantation Papers for Research on Enclaved People,” Ohio Genealogical Society 2017 Conference, 29 April 2017.
[3] J. Mark Lowe, “Finding Former Slaves and Freedman Marriage Records,” Ohio Genealogical Society 2017 Conference, 29 April 2017.
[4] Deborah Abbot, “Researching Libraries and Archives of Historical Black Colleges,” Ohio Genealogical Society 2017 Conference, 28 April 2017.


I don’t do Research Logs…

IL court minutes 2016In fact, I really dislike keeping track of what I look at.  But, in my defense, I do keep a research log, but I do them differently.  I am far more successful and consistent in my record keeping if I combine the following three items into single document:

  • my research plan
  • my research log
  • my findings

But, those of you who looked at my research plan from the two posts know that the research plan, log and the findings morphed into a single report seamlessly. Each section is important but the report should be considered “organic,” i.e. it will change and grow as you research and analyze your data.

I found myself working in this manner while I was on my second road trip last summer. The three bullets melted together. The final write-up was a separate document.

Step 1: Develop the research plan. I would start by figuring out where I would be in the next few days — usually more than one respository–and develop a research plan for each. Each could be a separate Word doc. At that time, I would draft a citations using EE consisting of as much information as I could gather from the website for the items I wanted.

Step 2: Research. When I was at the repository, I would follow the research plan, and if the item was found, color the research plan draft citation green, copy the draft citation over to section called Findings. I would then complete the citation, do the research, and record the findings. (Of course, it was never that smooth, but you get the idea.)

Step 3: Negative Search. If I did not find the item, I would leave the font black on the draft citation for the research plan and cut and paste the draft citation into a section called “Negative Searches.” I would add notes indicating why it was no longer available, complete the citation, and add notes.

Step 4: Negative Findings. If I found the item, but it didn’t contain information relevant to the research question, I would cut and paste the draft citation into the section “Negative Findings.”  Again, I would add notes if it was appropriate and complete the citation, noting particularly the range of my review.

Step 5. New Discoveries. If I discovered some sources that I had not previously identified, I would either enter the draft citation into the research plan and proceed with what I was doing, or put the draft citation in the Findings section and make the notes/transcription as appropriate. [Note: these might be recommendations from the Archivist, for example.]

At this point in the report there are four sections: the Research Plan, Findings, Negative Searches (didn’t find the document at all) and Negative Findings (found the document but nothing relavant).

I had a lot of deeds to gather in one respository as both my grandfather and my great grandfather bought and sold land for a living. This created a situation where there were many deeds in a single index. This changed my pattern of onsite researching a little.

When I was gathering deeds at a particular location, I still did a citation template. I first recorded all the deeds that I wanted from that index, carefully recording the grantor/grantee, brief abstract of property, and volume and page number of each.  As I photographed each original deed, I changed the index notation from black font color to green, the “code” indicating that I had taken the photo.  There were some deeds I purposefully decided not to copy, and I colored the index notation red.  I made sure I had all the information necessary for a complete citation and moved to the next deed. If I didn’t find the deed/document (rare) I left it black.

Some documents I transcribed while I was on site but that was a rare occurrence. For example, the county clerks do not want you photographing vital records. Where I was restricted from taking the photo, I transcribed the document. [Research hint: when BMDs are recorded at the local and the state level, get them both. You never know what additional information you will find.]

While there are many classes in how to develop research plans, and research logs and writing reports, all with elaborate spreadsheets, it always seemed like too much work. No spreadsheet, no matter how elaborate, can get me to enter everything I research as well as the system I have noted above. I think my method–for me–results in a more integrated report. All the information from a single repository is in a single place.

The next step is to write the report, but you now have all the information gathered together in a single spot. Congratulations.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: I am deeply trying to learn DNA analysis and attempting to solve a problem on my hubby’s mother’s side of the family.  I have also volunteered to assist in updating the content in the BCG website. There is a whole team of folks doing this….a herculean effort.

Certification Discussion Groups 2 & 3

Due to the overwhelming success of the “beta test,” I am getting ready to start the next Certification Discussion Groups, sponsored by the Seattle Genealogical Society. You may remember that about 4 months ago, I did a call out for individuals considering certification with the Board for Certification of Genealogists(R). I then conducted an online, 7-part series based on this blog and my experiences on the application process, the 7 elements and the aftermath.

I plan on conducting one or two of these again in the late summer early fall. The evaluations of the “beta” were extremely strong. I also appreciated the input as to where the program could be improved.

If you are interested in being considered in the next series of groups, you should drop me an email ( and ask to be put on the list. The priority is SGS members, WA residents, then everyone else in order of receipt. There is no charge to sign up, nor is there any commitment to agree to be a member. Date and times have not been set. Once the class is “built,” there will be a fee assessed to non-SGS participants, so please let me know if you are a member or a resident of WA.

Happy Hunting!


Strategy: Conference Session Selections

2017-04-28 16.15.27The Ohio Genealogical Society Conference for 2017 was a wonderful learning experience for me and I hope for the eager learners I had in my classes. But, if you have ever attended a multi-day conference you know that they give you so many choices for a single time slot that to pick the few that you attend is a challenge.

Here are a few of the ways I decide on one session over another. I choose my sessions in this priority rank. The presentations where:

  1. I am the speaker! 🙂 It’s kinda “mandatory.”
  2. the topic is one I need to know more about for my own research or for that of a client
  3. the presentation is given by a really knowledgable and skilled speaker. They are always worth listening to, even if you have heard him/her before. I especially gravitate towards those who teach intermediate to advanced skills
  4. a new speaker or a new topic is being presented. These are just for fun!

At this conference I did a little of all four.

Group 1: to teach others

I gave three talks and I showed up for all three!  [I heard at least one presenter did not show for his workshop. That is my new nightmare.]

Group 2: to learn something new
Ohio GS had a very nice collection of African American presentations and I attended as many as I could. In addition, there were a few other presentations that were germane as well.

  • “Researching African Americans in the Wake of the Civil War,” a Case Study by Weyonneda Minis
    This was a good overview of records that relate to the African American experience. More importantly, I had a wonderful conversation after the presentation with the speaker and two other attendees.
  • “Researching Libraries and Archives of Historical Black Colleges & Universities” by Deborah Abbott
    I was very interested in knowing what types of collections they might have and how those may differ from other predominantly white institutions. This could have been under Group 4 as I have not heard her speak before. At the end of the conference we had dinner together.
  • “The Wild Terrain of Plantation Papers for Research on Enslaved People” by Andi Combs-Floyd
    I was unaware of this rich resource for the enslaved and the owner. Later, Ari Wilkins helped me find out where to access the records and our own UW Library has the set of microfilms and index! Field Trip! Andi wrote a book about her experience and I will review it here after I have read it.
  • “My Father’s War: WW II Research” by Gagel
    In July, I will attend Gen-Fed, a week-long institute focusing only on the records held at the National Archives in Washington DC. I thought attending this session might help me as I prepare for that institute and in finding my father’s Office of the Secret Service records.
  • “Urban Research: Finding City-Dwelling Ancestors in Ohio and Beyond,” by Sonny Morton
    I know nothing about urban research because all of my ancestors were farmers or residents of very small towns in the Midwest. The resources discussed were ones I was already familiar with. I recognize that in some ways that was reassuring.
  • “Did Great-Grandmother Really Disappear Without a Trace? Using State Asylum Records”
    Wevonneda Minis focused primarily on the 1900s, an era I only cover superficially in my talk about “Finding Dirk: Insanity in the 19th century.” She did however, mention the presence of Civil War soldiers in asylums and is going to send me her link to where she read about that.
  • “Finding Former Slaves and Freedman Marriage Records,” J. Mark Lowe. My biggest “takeaway” was that the individuals from different states invested in the Freedman’s Bank with differing levels of participation and it is important to know if you are trying to find something that will not be in the record.

Group 3: to learn new speaking techniques from a solid presenter

  • “The Gone, the Missing and the Misindexed: Finding Lost Families,” by J. Mark Lowe.
    Mark is a consummate story teller. I love how he weaves the story into what could be a dry topic—indexing challenges. I tell somewhat of a story, but the integration is lacking. Mark is a master.
  • “Focusing on Pathways across the Arkansas Territory,” by J. Mark Lowe
    This presentation could also have fallen into Group 2 above as Mark focused on the middle south and the colonial to the 1850s, an area and an era I rarely research.
  • “He Used to Be My Ancestor: Seven Common Research Mistakes” by Chris Staats (that’s Chris in the photo above)
    Chris shared seven research mistakes that he has made with “wonderful” examples. The last mistake was research bias: he discovered, and had to tell his mother that her father was not her biological father. Chris then proceeded to identify his grandfather using DNA. As he said, “Overnight one-fourth of my family tree was lopped off.” I had never heard Chris speak before.

Group 4: to listen to a speaker about whom I know nothing

  • “Trolling the Virtual Cemeteries and Using Cemetery Records,” by Amie Tennant
    I wouldn’t have normally stopped in to hear about FindAGrave, and BillionGraves, but I had never heard Amie speak. She and Sonny Morton (“Urban Research”, above) have similar presentation styles—very personable and approachable, peppy and bouncy.
  • “Introduction to Tracing your Roots in Eastern Europe” by Amie Wachs (This also could have been in Group 2, as one line of my husband’s family (Frisch) comes from the Czech Republic, just south of Prague.) Again this is a topic I know very little about and a speaker I only knew by reputation. Amie is a solid presenter who moves through her slide transitions easily.

I love conferences! They provide the opportunity to teach, and the opportunity to learn. And, an opportunity to expand my Genea-buddies around the entire US. I certainly did all of these this past week! So, “hat’s off” to the many volunteers and the speakers involved in the conference. It takes many to put on a large regional conference like this. They all were friendly and helpful. And, thanks for inviting me.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last blog: I hadn’t realized it had been so long since the last blog posting. I certainly hope in the coming months I can improve my frequency. I like to post about once a week. Since the last blog…or thereabouts, I have been working on presentations for Federation of Genealogical Societies—two new ones, and applying for conferences in 2018, including Jamboree, Florida Virtual and National Genealogical Society. The latter will be held in Grand Rapids and I have cousins and an archive that I want to see there (my fingers are crossed on that one!). This month the OGS proposals are due for the next conference in 2018 and I will submit for that as well. May is slow–may make a trip to CO to write!