Understand what you’re up against
“When I started, you had to do all of this manually,” said Sharon Morgan, founder of OurBlackAncestry.com. “You had to actually go to the place where your family came from and do the research in the courthouse.”
Now, many documents have been digitized and are readily available online. But what’s been documented certainly depends on the location or type of the documents. For instance, I can find baptism certificates from English churches in 1600, but I can’t find any documents from India. And on a smaller scale, one county may have their marriage licenses available, while another has yet to put any online.
If you’re descended from slaves, this is a particularly tricky battle. Because while you might be able to find your ancestors up until 1870, “prior to 1870, as you may know if you’ve done any research, we were not in the people records. So you have to look in the property records,” Ms. Morgan said.
To do that, she said, look in the same area and county for slaveholders with the same surname. “If you are lucky, they took his name.” Also look for wills or tax documents, or anywhere transfers of property would have been recorded.
Be skeptical of what you find
Since so many documents rely on self-provided information, things get tricky, especially with names.
“Your name is not your name,” Ms. Koch-Bostic said. “You have many surname variations, and they’re created for all different reasons. We’re talking about people who had different accents. And the ability to read and write — literacy is really not prevalent until the 20th century. And the bigger thing is phonetics. There was no such thing as standardized spelling until almost the 20th century.” Names had a way of morphing through different documents: “Ross” could be heard by one census taker as “Russ” and another as “Roth.” Arrival years get rounded up. Maybe someone was trying to hide their age, or just didn’t remember the exact year they were born. Nothing is ever 100 percent clear.
All of this means that you need to ask more questions. In a common sense guide to getting started with genealogy, the genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn writes, “If you’re searching for a birth certificate for your great-grandfather John Williams, who you think may have been born in New York City in 1907, you can’t simply accept that the first birth certificate you see with that name and year is the correct one.”