Uncovering Your Family History
Researching family history brings us knowledge about our ancestors. This can be accomplished simply by conducting an interview with relatives who are knowledgeable about family lore, or it can be done in a more in-depth manner by investigating collections of census records; reading newspaper articles; scanning microfiche; perusing records from historical societies; studying slave rolls and slave purchase transactions; listening to recorded interviews, and by examining other government-sponsored cataloguing or enumerating programs.
Difficulties can arise when researching family history when working with census data–especially for certain ethnic groups or populations. Sometimes inferences must be made in uncovering family history that hopefully can be confirmed with further research.
In researching Native American genealogy, useful information can be found online through archives of tribal newspapers. From there, researchers can refer to the Dawes Rolls; the Eastern Cherokee Rolls, and the Wallace Roll. Another important source is the Tribal Leaders Directory. Minnesota, California, Oklahoma, and North Carolina also have extensive collections of Native American genealogical records. More recently, researchers can obtain detailed information for all these groups through DNA submission and examination programs.
For those with African-American ancestry, inferences related to shared genealogy can be gleaned when considering the listing of the surnames of both groups and the physical closeness of the location of their homes and/or land before and after emancipation. Slaves were given the last name of their owners because of their having no known or acknowledged ethnic or tribal surnames. In conducting research, varied spellings for first and last names and the listing or incorrect ages or dates of birth can also make it harder to verify family information later. Also, the listed ethnicity of the person being interviewed by the census-taker was affected by the interviewee’s appearance and by standard norms of ethnic classification then in use.
With the Jewish population, newspapers from Colonial America show an abundance of stories. Surnames were written as they were, with no attempt to change their spelling. Looking through entrance records for those arriving in the United States through Ellis Island, however, reveals surnames made more easily pronounceable to Americans, which obfuscated the names’ origins to give the next generation a start in life free from perceived slurs and disadvantages. Many synagogues and their genealogical records were burned during European pogroms; but today, archives in countries affected by Jewish expulsions have extensive research facilities.
Beginning to uncover an in-depth family history often starts with studying the information found in the census records, such as the full name (of recorded person/s); ethnicity; location (state/county/city/street address); date of birth; parents’ names (if both were known); birthplaces; name of spouse; name(s) of child or children; ages of all; occupations, and the ability to read or write.
Military service is also listed, and more information can be found (such as granted deferments, or physical handicaps) in various military service induction or examination papers. Newspapers, marriage licenses, birth records, divorce records and wills can also be scrutinized for information about life in the past. Land sales and property auction announcements are also good to research if the names of ancestors are included in the transactions.
Life in the past was difficult, and uncovering family history through these means can serve to point out how ancestral perseverance helped shape today’s family unit. Especially in the case of family history in African-American, Native American and Jewish families, the results of uncovering those past lives can be tinged with sadness, but can also be punctuated with instances of great strength.