Thursday, June 14, 2012

You Can See Past 1870

[Geder Genealogy has begun a series of 'Guest Posts' by African Ancestored genealogists, historians and cultural evangelists. Contact us at geder.genealogy(at) if you would like to contribute.]

Robin Foster; Social Media Strategist, Researcher, Writer,  Family Historian, Genealogist

You Can See Past 1870!

When I first began researching my family, I was told that I would not find any documentation on my ancestors before 1870.  That was before the influx of resources online, and while many online databases have the records that most people use in genealogy research, there are several more record-types that can assist African Americans move past 1870.

Most Overlooked Records

Because I refused to believe what I was told, I was able to identify several ancestors on different lineages.  The record-types I researched in South Carolina can be found in the holdings of other state archives.  The trick is that the year generated may vary, or the title of the records may be different.  I  shared a course that discusses several of these type records for South Carolina.  See Most Overlooked Record Types in South Carolina.  Some of the records that I refer to are:

  • agricultural census
  • voter’s registrations
  • pre-1870 state census
  • militia enrollments

 1868 Voter’s Registration of Beverly Vance and former slave holder.

These records are not the records you see introduced in lectures or by mainstream genealogists.   Some are sensitive in nature, and most are not found online.  Some have yet to even be indexed.  I recognize that records documenting the lives of African Americans do become scare before 1870, but there are too many avenues out there to just throw in the towel in your research when you come up against the perceived 1870 brick wall.  As we access records prior to 1870, we open up new avenues besides the 1870 US Census to identify possible former slave owners.  Then we can begin the long trek of researching their families with the hope of identifying our own.


We are pioneers for current and future researchers who do and will face the same challenge.  We must continue to do the hard work of looking past what is already out there.  Go straight to the source; do not suppose a website lists every available resource from a repository.  We must research the complete holdings of a repository and realize many records that can help us have not yet even been addressed as having genealogical value.  We are not only looking for ancestors among documentation, but we must locate overlooked records lying dormant.   Some ways to learn about records are:
  • Search the holdings of the archive. Sometimes all the records are not listed under “genealogy” or “research” This may be hard to do because sometimes the resources are buried deep within the site. The SCDAH has holdings listed by county: South Carolina Archives Summary Guide to County Records
  • Look for a research guides that highlight records for genealogy and for African American Research. Many archives offer links to these guides online. See the Alabama Department of Archives and History guide for African American Research.
  • Look for classes held at the archives.
  • Ask about specific publications highlighting collections that archives may have for sale.
  • Research the holdings at local college, university, and county libraries.
  • Research courthouse records. The record you need may be in a dusty courthouse attic.
When we find helpful records not traditionally used for genealogical research, we need to make sure we share them with other African Americans in communities both online and offline.   This will give each of us more time to focus on the important work of preserving our history and sharing it with our families.  Those of who, unfortunately, may never find the documentation we seek, can at least benefit from our stories.  Our collective history and perspective has great value to each of us.  You will not find it taught in any classroom.

A great place to share what we know where everyone can have free access anytime is the online genealogical encyclopedia Research Wiki at FamilySearch.
See African American Research.  We can add to the resources listed there by state.  The resources do appear in Google searches for those combing search engines.

Consider how rewarding it was for me to find the 1868 Voter’s Registration above of my great great grandfather, Beverly Vance. This record led me to a 1876 Senate testimony where he shared his experiences and much more.
See Records are Tied To Geography, Part 2.   If I had accepted the belief that I would not be able to document him, I would not have this record, or several others, or what I may yet find!

For more information about Robin Foster, go to:
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