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.
1. Build a family tree. Starting with yourself, fill in all the names you can. Gather family photos and papers, from birth and marriage certificates to obituaries and wedding announcements. Pay attention to middle names and places. These get more important the further back you go, particularly if your family used the same handful of names in each generation, and stayed in the same area.
2. Decide how you’ll organize. It’s crucial to keep track of who said what, and in what document or website you found information. You’ll need to recall it if another record contradicts it.
3. Interview family members. Talk to everyone at least twice, and ask for names and dates, family Bibles, heirlooms and photos. Talk to neighbors and nursing home residents. If you have a camera, photograph anything you borrow with the person from whom you’re borrowing it. That will help you correctly return the items and document the connection.
4. Search public records, starting with national ones.
Ancestry.com is a great site, with access to volumes of records. It offers a free trial period, but then it costs $20 for one month. Full access can cost about $400 a year. But you have two ways to look at records for free.
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:
Military service records: www.archives.gov/research/military/index.html
Immigration records (ship passenger lists): www.archives.gov/research/immigration
Naturalization records (people from other countries becoming citizens): www.archives.gov/research/naturalization/index.html
Land records, but because the Carolinas were original colonies, you’ll need to go to state archives and microfilm, much available in libraries, to track land: www.archives.gov/research/land/index.html The Library of Congress has lots of maps, too: www.loc.gov/maps/
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.
5. State and county records hold a wealth of facts.
State archives at ncarchives.wordpress.com/genealogical-research/: You can find wills along with Civil War papers (diaries to pension lists) and other military information. Group records, from government agencies to fraternal groups to railroad records, are stored there, plus “private collections” of family papers. Most are on microfilm, with indexes online. Determine what you want, then go to the Raleigh building and request it. Most private collections are held by public and university libraries, such as UNC Chapel Hill’s: www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/shc/.
County records: Birth, death and marriage certificates and relatively recent real estate records are at meckrod.manatron.com/. Land records and deeds from long ago are at meckrodindex.com/instructions.pdf (this gives instructions on navigating the site). These are difficult to wade through, but detailed. You’ll find hand-written papers outlining sales and debt payments. (Another resource: www.glorecords.blm.gov/)
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.
6. Newspapers, city directories and yearbooks.
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/.
7. The Carolina Room’s website: cmstory.org. From the Geneaology tab at the top, you can get to manuscript collections (family papers), surname files (meaning files that are in the room that you can look through, cataloged by surname), Civil War rosters, even lists of Mecklenburg cemeteries, mapped, with some burial records that are searchable by name, geography and even funeral home. Librarian Johnson teaches genealogy classes, both for beginners and the more advanced searchers.
8. Don’t be discouraged. If you hit a dead end, try another person in the tree, and understand you’ll need cross-referencing – and luck.
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.
Then try the “slave schedules.” In the 1860 and 1850 censuses, these list each slave holder’s name, then list line-by-line the slaves held, noting only age, gender and “color” (B for black or M for mulatto or mixed race).
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.
Look closely at wills, newspapers. Slaves’ first names are often given, along with owners’ names, in wills. Newspapers published ads for runaway slaves, which can reveal first names, descriptions, previous owners and locations.
The HeritageQuest site (mentioned above) also includes records from the Freedman’s Bank, run from 1865 to 1874 for freed slaves.
Freedmen’s Bureau record indexes can be found at www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/#records. This was created in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Documentation ranges from school letters to medical records. Some are on microfilm, though they are not searchable by name.
Church records can be significant. Sharon Presbyterian, for example, recorded baptisms in 1850, listing not only the child’s and parents’ names but their owners’; it also listed “colored communicants” by first, middle and last names in 1866. Begin at the church, if it’s still in existence, then work up the denomination’s hierarchy to request records.
Plantation records are often donated to universities – librarian Johnson says the University of South Carolina and William & Mary have noteworthy amounts. The University of Virginia offers online indexes of some at guides.lib.virginia.edu/microformsouthernplantations. Use the index to find the reel you want, then request it through interlibrary loans. It comes to Charlotte’s Main Library for you to view.
UNCC’s Atkins Library (as well as state, college and university libraries) has a collection of links and documents and photos. www.history.uncc.edu/digitalhistory/meckslaveryhome.htm The Carolina Room website’s African-American Community tab leads to online photo albums and a memoir of the Brooklyn neighborhood.