How to Research Your Family Tree

Getting started with genealogical research isn't as intimidating as it may seem. Curiosity about your heritage is your most important tool.


Trace African Americans by going back every 10 years to the 1870 census, the first one conducted after Emancipation and the first to count all African Americans. You can search for free African Americans in the censuses preceding 1870. If you know the county and state where your grandparents (or great-grandparents) lived in 1930, look for them in the 1930 census.

In all census records, African Americans may be identified as “black,” “mulatto,” “colored” or “Negro.” As you go back 10 years for each census, remember that the person you are searching for is 10 years younger and, if he or she is a child, may be living with a parent or other adult, who will be identified as “head of household.” Write down all members of the household.

You can use Heritage Quest’s filters to find black people and “mulattoes” with the same surname. is effective for grouping African Americans with the same surname on the same page.

Cite your sources as you go — you don’t want to repeat your efforts. You’ll also leave a trail for other family members to follow after you.

Once you have narrowed your search to the state and county where your family lived, check the state for documents such as wills, deeds and court records. Many states have designated Web pages that list sources for African-American research that are available at the state’s library or archives; the websites may also list records and resources that are open for public viewing. comes in handy for this type of search. Enter the state and county name and “African American genealogy” as keywords. For example, the keywords “researching african american genealogy kentucky” point to the Kentucky Historical Society, and Access Genealogy.

A Website Primer

The following are excellent sites to visit as you embark on your research:

AfriGeneas: Subtitled “African American & African-Ancestored Genealogy From Africa to the Americas,” has been named one of Family Tree Magazine’s 101 Best Websites of 2010. Its stated vision is “To find and document the last slaveholder and the first African in each family.” Besides message boards, live weekly chats and slave-related records, it has a great interactive Beginner’s Guide. This subscription site includes an African American Collections section. It contains the following records: Slave Narratives, U.S. Colored Troops, Freedmen’s Bureau Records, Freedmen’s Bank Records, World War I Draft Cards, African American Photo Collection, Southern Claims Commission and Freedmen’s Bureau Records.