Genealogical Research in Manuscript Repositories

By ElBashir, Joellen | Negro History Bulletin, October-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Genealogical Research in Manuscript Repositories


ElBashir, Joellen, Negro History Bulletin


The kinds of repositories which are likely to contain records for genealogical research and family histories can be divided into four broad groups: research centers;

1. Academic, public and special libraries and

2. State, municipal and county archives (including county courthouses);

3. State and local historical societies; and

4. Organizational and institutional archives, including church archives.

In categories all their own are the Library of Congress and the National Archives and its regional branches.

One significant kind of repository that does not fit any of the above categories is the family home, which is without a doubt the richest repository of that family's history. Family Bibles, diaries, letters, financial records, and old photographs are all valuable sources of family history. A family's human resources are just as important to genealogical research. The memories of elderly family members as recorded in oral interviews can provide information that in some cases can be found nowhere else, and which may reveal vital clues about particular ancestors or other aspects of your family's history.

The National Archives

Research of the documentary evidence traditionally begins with the federal records of the National Archives and research in these records usually begins with the census records. The federal censuses provide the genealogist and family historians with one of the best overall sources of information. The census records from 1790 to 1920 are generally available for research. The 1850 census was the first to list by name every free person in individual households, in addition to age, sex, color, place of birth, occupation. The 1870 census is important because it was the first one taken after the Emancipation Proclamation and therefore it is the first census to include the names of all people counted: white, ex-slave and free persons of color. Prior to that, slaves were listed by sex and age only.

The Federal Military records at the National Archives are another rich resource. African Americans fought and distinguished themselves in every American War. For the Revolutionary War, the National Archives provides a useful reference work: List of Black Servicemen Compiled from the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records. The names are listed alphabetically, with reference to where more information can be found.

There are also many records documenting the participation of the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War. They include pay and bounty claims records from 1867 to 1885. Documents from the Freedmen's Saving and Trust Co. set up at the close of the Civil War, discuss former slaves who opened bank accounts, including their age, address, siblings, children and sometimes the name of the former slave owner.

Records from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, which was set up in 1865 to help free blacks are also useful. The Southern Claims Records are another source of genealogical information. These are the case files of approved claims from citizens in the South who had suffered property damage or loss by Federal Troops during the Civil War. Many of the claimants were black' especially those from the South Carolina Sea Island region. A typical file contains the claimant's petition, inventories of supplies and property that were damaged or lost and information.

If you are doing research on a tight budget, and a trip to the National Archives is not possible, you should be able to find some of these federal records at the National Archives branches which may be located nearer you.

State, Municipal and County Archives

The next level of research is traditionally at the county level. Until relatively recent years, the county most often represented the unit of greatest legal and social importance for the majority of Americans, white and black, slave and free. …

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