Jane Johnson watches people find their families in the quiet, carpeted Carolina Room of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
One woman, hoping for just a start on her family tree, found a book specifically about her ancestors. That’s not common. As librarian Johnson told a recent visitor, “It’s a long process. You’re working a puzzle that only belongs to you and your siblings.”
But she sees people learn more every day. “It may be their name, how they died, who they married, a story of interest ... possibly a story of conflict. People need to be prepared for anything!”
An astonishing amount of information is available online, as well as in public libraries and national archives. Much is free if you know where to look.
Here are eight suggestions to help you get started, and a few extra tips if you think you may be descended from slaves, which creates distinct challenges.
If you have a computer, Internet access and a library card, you can log onto HeritageQuest at www.nclive.org and search censuses by name. If you don’t have a computer, go to the third-floor Carolina Room of the Main Library. You can sign on to ancestry.com on the library computers for free. You need to sign in with your library card and have less than $5 in outstanding fines.
U.S. censuses are taken every 10 years, beginning in 1790. Because the government keeps each census confidential for 72 years, there are 16 available today: 1790 through 1940. A fire destroyed most of 1890’s, but pieces of North Carolina’s survived.
Until 1850, the only names listed were heads of households. In the 1850 census, each free person’s name in the household was listed, but slaves, unnamed, were on a separate “schedule.” Beginning in 1870, every person’s name was taken.
Remember: These are lists made by people knocking on doors and asking questions, then handwriting answers. The census taker might misspell a name. Some people gave wrong names or ages. Some people were out of town. Some hid. Some lied. But by comparing censuses to subsequent years’ and other records, you can often get clearer information.
Other records kept by the National Archives and Records Administration (called NARA, it’s got a good beginning here, and lots of additional links: www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/) include:
For people who had Social Security numbers (these began in the mid-’30s), check a searchable Death Index: stevemorse.org/ssdi/ssdi.html
Bookmark pages or make copies or printouts when you find relevant information. You are likely to return as you learn more.
On microfilm at the Carolina Room are more land records, plus such things as pleas and quarter sessions – that’s court minutes – and wills. All can be goldmines.
The website www.digitalnc.org/ is an opportunity to search for ancestors by name, but also by keywords that might turn up relevant news stories. The earliest journal for Charlotte is the Catawba Journal beginning in 1824 (before moving), but the Western Democrat is probably the newsiest: 1853-1868. Also consider searching nearby papers.
The Library of Congress also has historic newspapers you can read online (and search), at chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Additional tips for people who might have descended from slaves
The U.S. census never listed slaves by name, except in 1860, when census takers were asked to take the first name of slaves more than 100 years old. Of the nearly 4 million slaves counted nationally, about 1,500 were 100 or older, the census shows, and about half of them are named, according to an Ancestry.com study: freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ajac/slave100up.htm.)
So if you descended from a slave, you may be able to trace your history through the census by finding the names of your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, back to 1870 – but when you get to 1860, their names disappear.
These are organized geographically. Finding an ancestor in the 1870 census might help you track the area where they were enslaved. Sometimes freed slaves took the surname of the slave holder and sometimes rented or bought land nearby. That’s a place to start, by looking at the ancestor’s age and comparing it (minus 10 years) to the age of slaves in the area in the 1860 schedule.
You can also find, on microfilm, agriculture schedules keyed to each of those censuses. Those can tell you what grew on the farm or plantation – defined as land with more than 20 slaves.