Recently a colleague of mine emailed to ask me, “Do you have any advice re. the request below? Not asking you to do the research, just wondering if you have any tricks?” She was working with a researcher who knew when her ancestor had died (in 1907, at age 95). The researcher knew that her ancestor had been enslaved and some other details of her life. The descendant especially wanted to identify all the children of this ancestor and to piece together family history in general.
Well, I do have my trusty go-to sources in a case like this. After I wrote up my strategy for my colleague, I decided to turn it into a blog post for beginning genealogists and those who are new to African-American genealogy. There’s plenty of genealogy advice out there, but this post is specific to tracing people of African-American heritage in Washington County, Maryland. Some of it will apply more generally, especially in western Maryland.
The first principle of tracing your family is to start with yourself and work back. The first sources to use are the people in your family, especially the elders. Ask them everything they know, and write it down. Now you have your starting points. (Of course it’s a lot more complicated than this, but there are whole books about this process.)
My Go-To Sources
First, my go-to source is always the U.S. Census, for any relevant years since the Civil War. The Census is a remarkable source and will almost certainly help you at some point. If you’re looking for people who were free before the Civil War, look in the 1850 and 1860 Censuses too. You’ll find only free people identified by name. The Census always counted enslaved people, but it never listed them by name. Before 1850, it listed only heads of households (black or white) by name. (See this separate post about using the Census in African-American research.)
Locally, another extremely important source to check is the book African American Manumissions of Washington County, Maryland, by Marsha Fuller (Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 2001). Despite its title, this book is not primarily about manumissions (the freeing of slaves). The short first part of the book reproduces an variety of sources on black history in Washington County, including a list of slaves who were freed 1798 and 1860. The rest of the book reproduces hundreds of “freedom certificates” that free African Americans (both freeborn and ex-slaves) were required to register for at the county courthouse. Most of the certificates include some information about the individuals, such as physical description, parents, or birthplace. If you’re doing African-American history or genealogy of this county in any extensive way, you need to have this book in your personal library. It’s also available at the Hagerstown library.
Using Your Black Ancestor’s Death Date
For our lady who died in 1907, I asked whether there was an actual newspaper obituary. Obituaries often name other relatives and give you useful information. But they can be hard to find, and they are very rare once you go back into the 1800s. African-Americans were much less likely than whites to have newspaper obituaries. In fact, before the Civil War, the Hagerstown Herald of Freedom & Torch Light had a specific policy not to publish the obituaries of African Americans, although it did occasionally note their deaths as news items.
Next, knowing the death date of this ancestor, I would look for her grave. I’d do a quick check online for that. If it comes up on Find-A-Grave or a similar site, you’ll want to verify it with more reliable sources, but shortcuts like this can be real timesavers that point you to wonderful information. In Washington County, almost all cemeteries were surveyed in the 1930s. The resulting lists of headstones are in volumes in the Western Maryland Room (WMR) at the Hagerstown public library. The WMR also has the Don Brown collection of materials on black cemeteries, in two boxes that they keep in storage. You have to ask specially for them.
Again, because we know this ancestor’s death date, and because it’s in the early twentieth century, I would look for a death certificate. The Maryland State Archives website has online images of the indexes of death certificates. Some of the certificates themselves are online, and the MSA is slowly putting more online. If the certificate itself is not online, but you can find the person in the online index, you can order a copy of the certificate by mail for $25. The certificate itself may list a cause of death, birth date, address, parents’ names, and other information. I recently ordered the death certificate of an African-American man born in 1859. Until we got his death certificate, he was the oldest ancestor known to his family. The death certificate had his parents’ names on it, revealing a previously lost generation.
Digging Deeper for Black Ancestors
Could there be a mention of your ancestors in the newspaper? The Washington County historic newspapers are mostly indexed, up through the Civil War, and that project is ongoing. So I would check the indexes for any mention of the person or family. I would also check to see if there’s anything on the family in the published family histories and vertical files in the Western Maryland Room. If the family was enslaved, do you know the names of the white enslavers? I would check for that family in T.J.C. Williams’s History of Washington County, in the files at the Western Maryland Room, and also at the kinship Family Heritage Research Center at the Washington County Historical Society. You can also get genealogical help at kinship; check their website for hours.
I’d also go to MdLandRec.net and look for records there. County governments recorded slave sales in the land records (when they recorded them at all). The land records also contain “slave certificates,” showing when slaveholders brought enslaved people from Virginia into Maryland. (Unfortunately, most enslaved people in these records are identified by first name only. If you know the enslavers’ name, you’ll be more likely to find enslaved ancestors in these records.) If your ancestors bought or sold land, those records will be here too. Fortunately, the Washington County records include good indexes. To use MdLandRec, you just need to sign up for a free account and then figure out how the indexes work. Select the “Active” indexes.
Finally, using some shoe leather, I’d go to the courthouse in Hagerstown and see whether the ancestor left a will. Wills name relatives and often tell us other interesting things. Depending on date and type, estate documents are variously available online at FamilySearch.org, at the courthouse in hard copy, online only at the courthouse, and only in Annapolis. In the future I hope to write a post about Washington County wills and estate or probate documents, and where you can access each of these sources.
I hope you’ve found some helpful tips or ideas in this post. Do you have favorite sources when you’re tracing individuals in African-American history or genealogy? Please share your tips in the comments section below.
This post was revised on September 21, 2021.