RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees No. 25

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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 25:  Ethnic Roots

"In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness. "

—Alex Haley


In addition to utilizing online sources, basic genealogical research must be done in courthouses, libraries and archives by all family historians, regardless of ethnicity, since the great majority of original records of interest to genealogists are not online — yet, and may never be. Use the searchable databases and records that are online and take advantage of various mailing lists and newsgroups to find others researching the same and connecting families.

If you are not familiar with mailing lists at RootsWeb (how they work, how to subscribe, search and browse them) you will find that information under each one.  Ethnic Genealogy Lists can be found here. 


African American

Genealogy for many, especially African Americans, is not just a hobby, but a passionate search for identity. The Internet has become a powerful tool for making connections among our families and finding links that would have been next to impossible a few years ago.

Tony Burroughs, of Chicago State University, and an expert in tracing Black families, cautions against unrealistic expectations such as immediately finding the "slave ship from Africa" that brought your ancestors to America. Start with the present and worth back methodically.

While there is a tendency for African American researchers to focus on ethnic-specific sites, for those researching the slave period of American history, it will be necessary to research records of white families as well. Moreover, at least one out of ten African Americans was already free when the Civil war broke out in 1861. Adding to the complexity of the research is that many had racially mixed backgrounds encompassing African, Caucasian and American Indian ancestry.

Major online sources for African American genealogists are:

 Facts and Tips 

Digging up plantation records

The image of Tara — the fictional O'Hara plantation in Gone With the Wind — is one of opulence in the antebellum period, and while some Southerners were rich, most genealogists discover the so-called "plantations" of their families were nothing more than farms with modest homes.

For African American researchers trying to locate plantation records where their families toiled in hopes of solving some genealogical riddles, and for descendants of slave-owning Southern ancestors seeking to locate these valuable old records, two myths must be exposed: First, not all slave owners were wealthy, and secondly, not all slaves lived on plantations.

In 1860 there were approximately 385,000 slaveowners. However, of this number, the majority — more than 200,000 — owned five slaves or less. Don't  just assume your ancestors were enslaved and neglect  to check the U.S. Free Population Schedules of the 1860 census.

Plantation records are private business records, and some are still held by descendants of plantation owners and not available to the public. Many, of course, have not survived. Some can be found in archives and libraries that collect private papers and records, in private archives, historical societies, manuscript libraries, college and university libraries, and at the Library of Congress. The largest collection of plantation records that are rather easily accessible, because they have been microfilmed, are Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, by Kenneth M. Stampp. The so-called Stampp collection is in a series. Each series is accompanied by a guide. The first group from this collection contains more than 400 rolls of microfilm from eleven repositories in sevens states. The microfilming of plantation records is an ongoing project.

All or parts of the Stampp collection can be found in genealogical and university libraries and historical societies around the country. The records that have been filmed from the Southern Historical Collection are available via interlibrary loan, and possibly some of the others may be available through this program. The Family History Library  has the Stampp collection, along with the guides annotated with the FHL microfilm roll numbers. 

You might not find plantation records in the state in which the plantation was actually located because the owner might have owned several plantations in different states. Also, the owner's descendants might have sold the property and moved to another state and donated the records to a repository anywhere in the country. 

The vast majority of African Americans in the United States are descendants of the 400,000 black Africans who were transported to North America against their will. Most family historians are likely to discover their immigrant African ancestor arrived in America between 1741 and 1810. Most of these enslaved people that were brought to British North America came from a narrow strip of the West African coast — known today as Angola, southern Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Benin. Others were from what is now Mozambique.


Native American

A common tradition found in many American families is the one pertaining to an unknown Native American ancestor. Sometimes the legend can be documented, but not always.. Before you tackle tracing a Native American line, become familiar with genealogical research by doing some research on one of your other branches. This will prepare you for the somewhat complex records you will encounter in the search to ascertain whether you have any Indian blood.

Talk to all your relatives, and learn as much as possible about your Indian ancestors. If the name of the tribe is known, you will be able to take a shortcut and go directly to the tribal records. In most cases, the tribal affiliation will not be known, and it will be necessary to study the localities, especially the place of birth, where your Indian relatives have lived. Next research the Indian tribes that historically are known to have resided in those geographical areas and those tribes who now have reservations or live in those areas. This helps to narrow down the tribal possibilities.

For example, if the family story simply claims that your great- great-great-grandmother was part Cherokee (the most famous tribe), you must trace, generation by generation, the family line connected to her. 

Names are a frequent problem encountered in Native American research. In the 1880s, when the annual federal Indian census lists began, you may find your ancestor listed under two different names — one being his Indian name, the other an English one. Word of caution: Indian census lists do not prove tribal affiliation — you must find the enrollment lists.

One of the most recurring stories in American families is that one of your ancestors is an Indian maiden — usually a princess. Beware of accepting at face value any Anglo terms given to Native Americans. The second part of the tradition may be that the family was not necessarily proud of their mixed blood, and would not talk about it. There may or may not be any truth to such stories.

Examine carefully traditions that claim your Indian blood came through a female. While it is true that many of our mixed pedigrees are the result of a union of a white male and an Indian female, Indian men cohabitated with white females also.

There is an enormous amount of material available pertaining to our Indian ancestors.  Determine what tribe they were from and/or learn where and when they lived. Next determine what records, usually federal government ones, were generated that might pertain to them. If your Indian ancestors ever received monies or land from the government, there is a good chance you will be able to prove your Indian blood. 


Metis and French-Canadian Ancestors (See Guide 24 also.)



Jews have been coming to America since 1654 when twenty-three settled in New Amsterdam. However, the majority of Jewish family history researchers discover their ancestors arrived nearly 250 years later. Between 1880 and 1924 one-third of Eastern European Jewry left their homes, and more than 90 percent of them came to the United States. Of these, about 75 percent were from the Russian Pale, which consisted of the fifteen western provinces of European Russia and the ten provinces of Congress (that is, Russian-held) Poland. Another 18 percent of these Jewish immigrants came from Galicia, Bukovina, and Hungary — all regions of Austria-Hungary. About 4 percent arrived from Romania.

Thus, the American-Jewish genealogist frequently discovers within two or three generations his or her immigrant ancestor(s). And from there the trail leads, usually, to Eastern Europe.In most European countries Jews were required to register their vital events with a priest or minister of the state church. So, while many Jewish records have been lost, researchers may find their ancestors in the civil records or in other church records. Amazingly, many Jewish records in Europe have survived. 

Use the Family History Library's catalog to determine if records have been filmed that will aid your research. For example, this library has acquired extensive Jewish records of birth, marriage and death from Poland, Germany and Hungary. The former Kingdom of Hungary included areas now in Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union, Romania, former Yugoslavia and Austria. It has filmed all available Jewish records from modern Hungary up to 1895, including the 1848 Jewish census for several old Hungarian counties, some of which are now in Czechoslovakia and what was the former Soviet Union.If your Jewish ancestors came from France, Germany, Hungary or Poland, you are likely to discover many records pertaining to them have been microfilmed.

Also see information and links at  Ethnic, Religious and National Index of FEEFHS (Federation of East European Family History Societies).

Jewish genealogists have created impressive databases recently, and many of these are on the Web and easily accessed. Moreover, many articles pertaining to how to trace your Jewish roots are also  available online.





Unique Peoples 

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)


African American Section

Native American Section

Jewish Section

Melungeons Section

Unique Peoples Section

Suggested Reading & References Section

Additional Resources Section

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