Lucy Nora Miller Hippolyte 
Family photo, courtesy of Takevia Sauveur

Dear Professor Gates:

I’m 28 years old and on a mission to find out more about my roots, particularly on my mother’s side of the family. Unfortunately, everyone who could help me find answers is now deceased. Where can I look for answers, given that I really have no budget for this search?

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My mother’s family was from Colquitt County, Ga. Her name was Terri Nicole Harvey and she was born Jan. 19, 1969. Her mother was Lucy Nora Miller, born Sept. 14, 1945. Miller’s mother was Clara Jane Johnson. I don’t know her birthday, but I do know that her parents were Lula and Ernest Johnson.

Can you tell me how to find out more about my mother’s ancestors in Georgia, please, and let me know if you find anything? —Takevia Sauveur

Often people write to us seeking to learn more about their ancestors’ lives prior to the 20th century; however, it’s also very common for individuals to have little information—and many questions—about more immediate ancestors. Keeping your request for searching on “no budget” in mind, we conducted our search using tools that anyone can access for free.

Google Is a Good Place to Start

We started with a Google search to see if we could pull up an obituary for your mother, who, sadly, died while you were still a minor. Obituaries often contain a wealth of information that can be used in a genealogy search, such as the names of spouses and kin, place of birth and details about the life an ancestor led.

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When we put the name you provided for your mother into Google’s search engine, the result was a search page on Rootsweb’s database of obituaries showing a list of entries matching the search term “terri.” At the very bottom of the page the name Terri Nicole (Harvey) Russell can be found, and the listing shows this individual died at the age of 33 in Winter Haven, Fla., in 2002.

Following this lead, we cut and pasted the name “Terri Nicole (Harvey) Russell” into a Google search window, and at the very top of the organic results was a link to an obituary at TheLedger.com for Terri Nicole Russell. When we clicked on it, up came an obituary that listed your name as one of the survivors, assuring us that we had found a valid record for your mother, who was a homemaker and “lifelong resident of Winter Haven” married to John Lee Russell at the time of her death.

Grave-Record Databases Can Provide a Wealth of Leads

Starting with your mother’s obituary enables one to gather more clues for working backward in time. This one provides the various surnames of different members of the family, which can be helpful in confirming that any documents located are for the right family.

For example, the obituary identifies your mother’s parents as Lucy Hippolyte and Isiah Harvey Sr. The different surname for your grandmother suggests that Lucy had remarried or changed her surname since her relationship with Isiah Harvey. This information can be helpful when searching for a death record for her, since a person is typically buried under the last surname they had before their death.

While you should always work to confirm information gathered with original sources, there are many websites that offer free access to primary sources. Websites such as Find a Grave often provide pictures of gravestones, which can help you to confirm information. Graves can be useful in connecting family members and determining important dates, such as those of birth and death.

Using the name in your mother’s obituary, we were able to locate the gravestone of your grandmother Lucy Nora (Miller) Hippolyte in the Rolling Hills Cemetery of Winter Haven, Polk County, Fla. According to her gravestone, she was born Sept. 13, 1945, and died March 15, 2003. This is the same cemetery where your mother, Terri Nicole (Harvey) Russell, was buried, and according to the entries, they are buried in the same section. You could contact the cemetery directly to see if it has additional information on the plots, such as who purchased them and their proximity to each other.

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While searching for the other family members you noted in your question, we found a gravestone for Clara Jane (Johnson) Davis in the same section of the cemetery as your other kin. This seems a likely fit for your great-grandmother Clara Jane Johnson. According to her gravestone, she was born Sept. 7, 1920, and died April 12, 1998. From the information on the gravestones, we were able to identify a birthdate for your great-grandmother and know that she is the first ancestor in this line that should appear on at least two available U.S. federal census records, 1930 and 1940. (Census information is confidential for 72 years, and is only made publicly available after that period has elapsed. Census records from 1950 on can be viewed only by the person named in the record or his or her heir, after submitting a form. The U.S. Census Bureau website outlines the process.)

Now that we have a birthdate for your great-grandmother Clara Jane Johnson, we can begin to work back. Older records are usually more accessible, since there is less concern about privacy issues.

There Are Always Census Records; Here’s How to Search Them for Free

FamilySearch provides free access to a database of census collections, which will likely help you in your search, though you won’t always get the original census-record document through it.

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Searching the 1930 U.S. federal census for a Clara Jane Johnson born in 1920, we located her living in the household of her parents, Earnest (spelled “Ernest” in records for other censuses) and Lula Johnson in Militia District 0903, Miller, Georgia, United States. These names match the names you have for Clara’s parents, making us confident that this is a record for your correct family. You can gather a good deal of information from the transcription alone, including the names, ages and birthplaces of Clara Jane’s siblings.

If you would like to view the original document, you can order the microfilm to a Family History Center near you, or you can view it through Ancestry.com, but a subscription is required if you do.

We used the same searching methods to locate the Johnson family living in the same location in 1940. The original documents for this record are available to view for free through FamilySearch. Viewing the original records will provide you with information about their neighbors who may be closely associated with the family or even relatives.

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After gathering information on Ernest and Lula Johnson from the two census records, we continued to work backward to locate more information on the family. In 1920, Ernest and Lula were recorded with their son, Joe, in Militia District 903, Miller, Ga. However, if you gain access to the original page on Ancestry.com, you’ll notice that directly next door is a Mamie Johnson, 18 years old, who is the head of household with children Nora, Charlie and Clara Jane in the household. (You can also determine this on the free database through FamilySearch as well, by noting the sheet number, household ID and line number for both records, which are consecutive, indicating that they are directly next door to each other.)

There was a Mamie Johnson recorded as a daughter of Ernest and Lula in 1930, as were Nora, Charlie and Clara listed as offspring, but this record calls into question which record is correct. In searching for original records such as birth certificates, you may be able to determine if Mamie was a daughter to Ernest and Lula Johnson or another relative.

Go to the Source for Vital Records

Since it appears that the family was located in Miller County, Ga., at least between 1920 and 1940, you could search for more information regarding records that are available for that region, and determine where they are located and how you may access them. FamilySearch has a study guide for Miller County, which notes that Colquitt is the county seat, which may explain the information you provided, which states that your ancestors originated in Colquitt.

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This guide states that the county probate court has birth records available starting in 1919, the year before Clara Jane Johnson’s birth, meaning they may have records for her birth or the births of her siblings that may provide more information on her parents. You could call or write to the county probate court about obtaining a copy of the records. Keep in mind that often you can request a basic photocopy for genealogical purposes that costs less than the price of a certified copy, and it should contain all the same information. The records may even help you identify relatives one more generation back.

Reach Out to Libraries, Newspapers and Historical Societies

You could also contact local libraries and newspapers in Miller County, Ga., to see if they have records that contain information about your family. They likely hold obituaries or other articles about the family that may help you discover additional ancestors. The Miller County Historical Society may also be able to assist you. Its website contains a number of links to different resources on the county that may help you locate records of your family. Many of these are available to search for free or provide you with information to locate the sources they describe.

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There are plenty of avenues that will help you fill in your family tree that do not require a high monetary investment, but may just take more time and creative thinking. Take advantage of the multitude of records available on free genealogical websites. Always keep in mind that working directly with local repositories to locate records can also save you money since you are typically only paying per record and do not have to maintain a membership. You do not have to break the bank to uncover your family history.

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., 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 about researching African-American roots.