Tips for if you're tracing your genealogy in North America: (especially if you're a part of the African Diaspora)

If you're reading this post you likely saw how I traced my lineage five generations back in less than 14 days. These are the Candles I worked with that started me on my search. But below are tips I picked up along the way that I wanted to share with you in case you are considering doing your family tree, too. (Which I highly suggest!)

Ok, let's jump right into it... 
  • First and foremost, I recommend everyone start by doing their own research themselves (vs. hiring someone to do it). You know more about your family than anyone else. Even if you think you don’t.

  • Start by tracing Mother-Father, Mother-Father, Mother-Father. Don’t go off into siblings and cousins etc. until later. Make that a secondary or subsidiary search. Sticking to parents, and their parents, and their parents, helps you to go back as far as you can and get an idea about how many generations back you'll have access to. (This helps on saving time too if you're working within free trial periods like I was)

  • Be aware that many people may have the same or similar names within your family, especially the further you go back (i.e John Mitchell, Mitchell John) Noting the age/year ranges for each person is good for this. Even if you don’t have exact years or ages, ranges can be very helpful for making differentiations and being organized.

  • Utilize the free resources. There are many. Connect with your local genealogy chapters. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. Once you feel your way, the community is helpful because they know the tediousness involved. (Some chapters have memberships or private forums which also include exclusive access to certain sites. Reviewing this beforehand will save you bucks in the long run and keep you from overlapping subscriptions & bills.)

  • If you are able to, take the free courses BEFORE you start, to give you an idea and cut some of the confusion and red tape. Libraries are worth checking for what they offer locally as well as at-a-distance.

  • If you have African diaspora in your lineage, when you reach the Freedman Bureau papers, you have likely hit what is called “the 1870 brick wall”.

  • Beyond “the wall” you may want to start looking at plantation records/inventory, steerage, deeds, and wills.

  • The Census will be your VERY BEST friend. (When the 1950 Census was released in April 2022 it felt like Christmas to me. I stayed up until midnight for it to come out and everything.)

  • Watch Finding Your Roots to give you an animated look at the intricacies of what creating a family tree can look like

  • Read this article, it's an excellent case study of what the breadcrumb rabbit hole can be like and lead to

  • War records/drafts, voter registration, death certificates, marriage certificates, and sometimes even yearbook records, are also very good…Note facts like what political party your family registered as, how old they were when they passed away, who was listed as next of kin, what the cause of death was, the name of the hospital or doctors name, the name of the person who officiated the wedding, occupation, where they worked… this helps build the picture and create a fuller scope for context and understanding, and can give you other things to research later.

  • Look to see who lived in the neighborhood. A lot of the time, especially the further you go back, neighbors will be relatives that can help keep your search thread going

  • Save those pictures! That’s literally where I got the picture of Mary

  • Don’t get frustrated (You will, but I had to say it)

  • If you have African Diaspora in your lineage, your family may be listed as mulatto or white depending on how they were viewed. You may see the same relative listed as black/negro/mulatto/white on different records. I say this just so you don’t discount the relative as being yours or as one-and-the-same, just in case they aren’t always listed the same way across your search.

  • Have your notes organized in one place. There’s no way you’re going to be able to store everything by memory. And with all the names and dates rolling around you’re going to need to be tidy or at least develop a coherent system that you’ll be able to understand/read/refer back to later on

  • Cross reference everything. Ask your living relatives to confirm what you find. Even if they don’t remember much, those little tidbits go a long way when you’re searching

  • Search across multiple databases. You can even organize your research by database if you want as this can help with the cross referencing. Some platforms will have very little, but rare hard to find material that you won’t see anywhere else. That picture of Mary, yep, that was only on one data base, none of the others. It was also the only thing that database had on her. so search it all.

  • Pay attention to the stories being formed. Did no one in your family ever leave the same town, who did they live with? Siblings? Did people have children? Around what age? How many? What season? What climate? Did they divorce? Did they remarry? How many times? Were they in a war? Did they leave home? Alone? How old were they when their parents died? When did they have their first child? When did they become free? Were they sharecroppers? Did they have to file for any assistances? Who was the president during their time? Look for the milestones and patterns and circumstances. Paint the picture. Fill in the blanks.

  • Look at the documents themselves. Yes the transcriptions are amazing but sometimes not everything is transcribed. Look at the scanned document for yourself to get the full picture and pick up the small details that may have been overlooked, not noted, or even gotten wrong.

  • It will likely be very emotional and heart wrenching and angersome to see your relatives listed as property or listed as hashmarks rather than by name, or passed on as gifts in wills or to see the names of their “masters” or to even see an extensive tracing of their “masters” families, and very little if any of your own. Try to hold on to and remember that in doing this work you are bringing your people home. You are calling them, welcoming them, and giving them a safe place to return to.

  • That being said, tracing the "masters" family is often a good way to trace your family if you should find that they were enslaved. Some descendants of slaveholders have made their families records available for easier access. This is prevalent in southeastern states and large/well known plantation owners. There are also forums of descendants of the enslaved whose families shared last names or were from the same or neighboring plantation. Last Names hold many threads that can help keep your search going.

  • Ritual: As you find more names, write them down in a sacred place, offer them water, say their names out loud. Soon you’ll be talking about them like you knew them because you learned so much. Pray and ask for levity as you work; glimmers to keep you encouraged and hopeful and on the course.

  • Sign up for the free trials to see which platforms you want to invest in, take advantage of those package deals that include subscriptions to others sites (like to newspapers, obituaries, and war records...)

  • Visit cemeteries where you know your ancestors were buried. Your earlier ancestors were likely buried together on close plots. Some ancestors can be found this way if you can't find a paper trail on them. You can also visit older cemeteries in the towns where you know your ancestors lived and check for last names in common to cross reference anything that may have come up in your research. 

As I continue my search I will continue to share what I learn.

All of these tips are to help you keep your breadcrumb trail alive. You may come across dry spells or feel like you have no where to go from where you are. But throughout your search you can return to these notes and remember that the trail will never go cold as long as you are on it.

I am sending you so much luck love healing and joy as you begin or continue your return back to yourself. I am so happy you were chosen as record keeper to recollect those pieces of your family so that no one will ever have to look for them again.

Blessed Be your journey and your findings for you, for your past generations, and for your future ones.

Comment below and tell me where you are in your search. Ask any questions you may have. Or add to the tips with gems you've picked up along your way. Share with the community!

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