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Dear Professor Gates:

I believe I have discovered that I come from free black mulattoes who lived in Tyrrell County, N.C., in the 1700s to 1800s. Their last name is Hill. The last people I have confirmed in my family tree on that side are Charles Hill (born circa 1827), Joyce Bryant (born circa 1831) and her father, Moses Bryant (born circa 1790). I believe that Charles’ father was named either Charn or Augustus Hill.

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I have heard that they were actually Native Americans or descendants of them. If I am not able to travel to North Carolina to gather information, how can I learn more about the Hills and Bryants of Tyrrell County, other than using sites like Ancestry.com? —Shontae Woodard

Sometimes it is difficult to travel to the places where your ancestors lived, and your research is restricted to what you can find online or in other local resources. Fortunately, genealogy websites are adding more records and making more documents available all the time. Here are a few tips for researching from a distance and going beyond the basic search boxes.

Getting the Most Out of Online Genealogy Websites

Websites that specialize in genealogy, such as the subscription site Ancestry.com and free site FamilySearch, do have a wealth of information to aid your research. You mentioned that you had already started with Ancestry.com, but here are a few tips for getting more out of such websites.

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Although there is some overlap in the major collections, these two aforementioned websites have different collections and documents available. Using advanced settings, we restricted our search for records to Tyrrell County and used several spelling variations of your ancestors’ names to find more records of the Hill family. In our search, we found that a “Charm” Hill was listed as a free mulatto in the 1850 U.S. census. We also found that he married Gracy Bryant on June 20, 1825, in Tyrrell County. You will want to search for more records of the Bryant family. Be sure to search using different spelling variations and using advanced features to narrow your search by criteria, such as race and gender.

The information you can get from ancestry research sites comes in a variety of forms. There are digital images of original documents, as well as collections that are just indexes or transcriptions of records. The search results that link directly to original documents are useful because they show you exactly what an original document looked like at the time it was made. These documents are posted online, along with an index, which is a transcription of the records. This helps you search for the documents available in the databases.

The original record can give you more information that might not be included in a basic index. Also, you can see the actual writing on the document, so you can look at writing that is hard to read and determine for yourself if the index transcription is correct or if the name was really spelled differently. Indexes and transcriptions of records are great starting points, but if possible, you want to look at the original record to verify the information for yourself and to see if there are any additional details that were left out of the transcriptions.

In our search of both FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, we found an index entry for the marriage of Charn Hill and Gracy Bryant. Note the spelling of “Charn.” You shared with us an 1860 U.S. census return, which showed that Charn and Gracy Hill lived next door to your ancestors Charles and Joyce Hill, and you think that Charn may be the father of Charles.

The entry for this couple shows that they were married on June 20, 1825, in Tyrrell County. If you scroll to the bottom of the page for this record on FamilySearch.org, you will see that it lists the source of this information as FHL Film No. 6330302. Ancestry.com states that the source of information for the record on its database is “County Court Records - FHL # 0296809-0296811 and 0418151 item 2.” “FHL” stands for Family History Library (the group that operates FamilySearch), and the number references a reel of microfilm that can be borrowed for viewing.

After you have collected the source information, you can then search the Family History Library’s catalog for the film number by clicking the “Film/Fiche Numbers” option and typing in the number. First we typed in “6330302,” and we found that this microfilm contains just an index of marriage bonds held at the State Archives of North Carolina and does not actually show the original record.

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We then typed in the other film numbers and found that 296810 holds North Carolina County Marriage bonds between 1752 and 1862 for the surnames Daley to Russell, alphabetically. We see that these records are in the process of being digitized online, but the records for Tyrrell County are not yet available. A copy of the microfilm of the index can be borrowed for a fee of $7.50 and sent to your local Family History Center, where you can borrow the microfilm for three months. You can find your nearest Family History Center here.

Although most of the indexes and transcriptions you find online are usually accurate, if you are stuck on a certain person, finding original records just might give you the extra information you need to help get back to the next generation.

The site FamilySearch also has images of records available online that are not yet transcribed or indexed. This means that any matches for your ancestors won’t appear in a search of the site, but the original documents can still be viewed online. To find these records, click on the Search button at the top of the main page and then click on the Records button. From this page, scroll to the bottom and click on “United States.” You will then see a list of collections available by state.

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If the collection has a number of records, you know that it is indexed and it will show up in a text search. If you see the words “Browse Images,” that means there is no index and the images must be searched manually. To do this, click on the Browse Image option and then find the records of the county you are researching. In your case this would be Tyrrell County. Then see if there is an image of the index.

Occasionally, for records like probate documents, the index is at the front of each original book, or maybe the records are in alphabetical order. It does take some time to browse through these records, but they can have a wealth of information. Here is a list of all records that are available for North Carolina.

In addition to the general genealogy websites, there are other specialized sites that you may find useful in your research. The paid site Fold3 specializes in military records and has digitized versions of military service and pension records for the United States. It has some census records, city directories and naturalization records. Archives.com is another paid site that has many different birth, marriage and death records. As you do your research, also look for additional specialized websites that might have additional documents about your ancestors.

Other Online Sources

Once you have found as much information as possible about your ancestors using the major genealogy websites, you can then begin to search for other sources of information online. Many local genealogy groups have websites with transcriptions of records available for research. You will want to search for North Carolina websites as well as sites specific to Tyrrell County.

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For North Carolina or any other state, state archives are a great place to start. Many have digital collections online or can give you a better idea of which documents are available for the state (such as state census records, tax lists and land records).

The State Archives of North Carolina has some of its collections digitized and online. It also has its compete catalog and guide to finding aids (which are descriptions of archival material) online. You can browse through its holdings and see if you find documents that you think will be useful in researching your family, such as Tyrrell County will documents or land records. If you do find something that may be of use, you can request documents by mail.

Genealogy websites that focus on one specific geographical region are also helpful. The USGenWeb site for Tyrrell County has many transcriptions of historical documents online to search, which it calls its “‘virtual’ court house.” It has a website search box where you can type in a name and look for records on the site. You can also browse by record type.

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We just typed the surname “Hill” into the search box and found more than 200 results. One interesting document we found was the transcription of the will of Charles W. Hill, which seems to be a will document for your ancestor. The will is dated March 21, 1907, and was proved on March 2, 1917, so you now know that he most likely died between these years.

Statewide registration of vital records in North Carolina began in 1913, but general compliance with this did not really occur until 1920—meaning that before 1920, the registration of vital records was inconsistent. North Carolina death certificates from 1906 to 1930 are available online, but with a quick search we did not find any records for Charles Hill’s death after 1907.

So far we have found some circumstantial evidence that Charn and Gracy Hill are the parents of Charles Hill, only in that they were married a couple of years before his birth and the two couples—Charn and Gracy Hill and Charles and Joyce Hill—were living next to each other when the 1860 U.S. census was enumerated.

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Next, let’s search the Tyrrell County GenWeb to see if we can find more information about Charn/Charm. One collection in particular that is interesting is the index of the Tyrrell County, North Carolina Apprentice Bonds, 1739-1884. In this list we found several entries for both the Bryant (or Bryan) family and the Hill family.

The first interesting entry shows that on April 30, 1800, Mourning Hill, an orphaned mulatto girl, and Charlton Hill, an orphaned mulatto boy, were apprenticed to Laben Hayman. Perhaps “Charn” is an abbreviation for the name Charlton.

We also found an entry that states that “Charles (9-10), Sally (8-11), Agga (7-8), Bill (6-7), children of Cha— Hill” were apprenticed to Dempsey S. Godfrey on Oct. 25, 1836. Charles Hill is about the right age to be your ancestor, and the names and ages of the siblings seem to match the names of the young adults living in the household of Charn Hill in the 1860 census. This provides more support that Charles Hill was the son of Charn Hill.

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This list gives us even more information about the Bryant family. We found several entries for Jocey/Joicy Bryant, including one entry that shows Joicy “Bryan”—a free girl of color and the 10-year-old daughter of Nancy “Bryan”—who was entered into an apprenticeship for farming under Thomas L. Hassell on July 26, 1842. From this, you now know that Joyce’s mother was probably named Nancy.

This is a good example of how you can extract pertinent genealogical information from unlikely sources.

Going Beyond Internet Research Without Traveling

Once you feel that you have exhausted all your options for online research, there are other ways that you can continue to gather information about your family. As we stated before, the Family History Library will lend microfilm to your local Family History Center. Even if you don’t find an index entry online, there are still many microfilmed records that may be useful for your research.

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To look at the records available in Tyrrell County, search FamilySearch’s catalog by place. Type “Tyrrell County, North Carolina” into the search box and browse all the types of records that you can borrow on microfilm for Tyrrell County. One collection in particular that you may want to search is the Slave and Free Persons of Color Records, 1793-1868 (Film No. 398114). You may also want to search land and probate records for Tyrrell County. Start by searching the indexes, and if you find records of your ancestors in the index, you can then order the corresponding microfilm that has the original record.

In addition to borrowing microfilm from the Family History Library, you may find books that are useful for your research. Most local libraries have an interlibrary loan system through which books that are held at other libraries can be sent to your local library for your use. Check sites like Google Books and WorldCat for books about the lives of free African Americans and Native Americans in North Carolina and Tyrrell County.

Finding Out More About Your Possible Native American Ancestry

Learning about the lives of free mulattoes and African Americans in North Carolina before the Civil War can also provide an idea of which record types to search. You’ll want to research which Native American groups lived in Tyrrell County during the 17th and 18th centuries. Were there instances of African Americans and Native Americans marrying and having children in Tyrrell County?

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In addition to researching the history of Native American groups in Tyrrell County, you might want to consider an autosomal DNA test to see if it there is any evidence of Native American ancestry in your DNA. The companies AncestryDNA, 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA all offer autosomal testing, which gives you a broad overview of the different genetic components of your ancestry.

If you do find evidence of Native American ancestry in your DNA results, please see our previous articles on finding Native American ancestors and when and where blacks and Native Americans were most likely to intermingle. Keep in mind that Native American ancestry is often included in the family stories of African Americans, but DNA results frequently prove otherwise. Keep an open mind and see where the documents lead you as you continue to learn more about your ancestors and their lives as free African Americans in the antebellum South.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.