Jan Daniel Knapp, Henderick Leth, 1720
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

I am a first-generation American whose family hails from Guyana (and, further back, Germany). My father has a German last name: Rohlehr (pronounced “Rohlair”). I would like to know more about my ancestors in that line who first came to Guyana from either Germany or the Netherlands.

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The story goes that during the Bismarck era in Germany, my ancestor Gertrude Rohlehr had seven sons. Six were killed in war, so she sent her remaining son, Swartz, away from Germany to save him. He made his way to New Amsterdam, Guyana, from Holland, where he ended up having two sons, Peter and John, with an unknown African woman.

I’ve been told that my family line originates from William Rohlehr, but William’s name is not mentioned in relation to either Peter or John, so I have no idea how he fits in. I have attached a PDF version of the booklet I received of my family history. Can you help me learn more about Swartz, his sons, and how they may be related to William? —Sharifa Rohlehr

The only English-speaking country in South America, Guyana is populated by people of many backgrounds, including African, South Asian, Dutch, British and Amerindian—a result of its history of colonization, the slave trade and migration.

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Following the independence of Guyana in 1966, the British left vital records for British Guiana (its previous name) in the country, so any birth, marriage or death records you are searching for are likely still located in Guyana. Since independence, however, there have been limited resources for the care and organization of the records. Therefore, you may have some difficulty locating the records you need, and it is possible that some of them do not exist.

So Which Records Are Available?

Starting with a how-to guide, such as My Ancestor Settled in the British West Indies (With Bermuda, British Guiana and British Honduras, by John Titford, will help you gain a better idea of what records are available and where they are located. Keep in mind that because Guyana had been under both Dutch and British control, some records may also be located in collections in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. For example, searching for “Rohlehr” in the U.K. National Archives catalog returns records for the Rohlehr family in British Guiana. The chapter on Guyana in Titford’s book outlines which records are in U.K. archives and which ones are held locally.

Ancestry.com (subscription required) does have some collections focused on the Caribbean and the British West Indies that also include records from British Guiana. One collection in particular, Slave Registers of Former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834, includes slave registers for Guyana. Start by conducting broad searches in these collections by searching for your surname. Because it is an unusual name for the region, it is likely that any results you find are related to your family in some way and can provide more clues.

When we conducted a search for “Rohlehr” in this database, we located a record of four slaves registered by J. Rohlehr Feb. 17, 1822. J. Rohlehr was in Berbice (the Dutch colony of Berbice that was merged with Essequibo and Demerara in 1831 to form British Guiana) and registered three men—Atlas, 25; Jonas, 24; and John, 21—and one woman, Grace, age 25. According to the record, all four of the enslaved were born in Africa, and J. Rohlehr had acquired them since the last filed return. It further states that J. Rohlehr acquired Atlas and Grace on April 27, 1820, and Jonas and John on Nov. 15, 1821.

This means that there was a least one Rohlehr in British Guiana by 1820. Your family lore suggests that your first Rohlehr ancestor arrived in Guyana during the Bismarck era, or the late 19th century. These records suggest that a Rohlehr family arrived in the region much earlier.

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It seems possible, based on the early date of the record for J. Rohlehr, that he may have been in Berbice when the region was still a Dutch colony (having been ceded to the U.K. in 1815, before the formation of British Guiana 16 years later).

From this, you also know that a Rohlehr owned slaves in British Guiana. With this information, you may also be able to locate another record for him in compensation records following the abolition of slavery in Britain. The University College London maintains an excellent database of British slave owners who filed for compensation for the slaves they had to free when Parliament abolished slavery in 1833. The project is called Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, and it includes records for the British colonies, including British Guiana.

You could search its database for the surname “Rohlehr,” but note that the spelling of the name may vary across records. If you are having difficulty, you may want to go to the advanced-search option and examine all claims for British Guiana to see if there is a name on the list close to your surname. (Note also that a profile on the site for a William Ross identifies him as the owner of the Skeldon plantation, which is mentioned in your family history, prior to his death in 1840.)

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One more thing worth noting: During our research we found an obituary for Dr. John Rohlehr (a “prominent doctor” named John is mentioned in the family history you sent us as the second son of Swartz’s son Peter), which indicates that he was born in British Guiana around 1858. If the Dr. John Rohlehr we found is your ancestor, then his father would have had to be born about 1835 or so, meaning that his grandfather would have had to be in Guiana prior to 1835. That timing does not fit the narrative of the family’s immigration to British Guiana in the Bismarck era.

How Can the Scope of Research Be Expanded?

You have options for searching records in Guyana beyond what is available to you on Ancestry.com. The Family History Library at FamilySearch has some records for Guyana available in its library and on microfilm. If you search its catalog for Guyana, it will list all the collections it holds relating to the region—including vital records, church records and guidebooks—to help you in your search.

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Some of the collections, such as Births, Marriages, Deaths, 1864-1880: Announcements as Reported in the Colonist Newspaper, Georgetown, British Guiana, are available either in book form or on microfilm. You can order the records and view them at your local Family History Center or at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, where this article’s co-author Meaghan Siekman works. When searching through these collections, be sure to start with a broad search for the Rohlehr surname and take notes on the records you locate so that you can begin to piece the family together.

The Family History Library also has a great list of online resources for records in Guyana that may also help jump-start your search from home. Some of these links include message boards that may help you connect with others doing research on the Rohlehr family.

You could also try to determine where the Rohlehr name originated. Because you know there was a Rohlehr in Guyana by 1820, there is the possibility that your original ancestor was Dutch and not German. FamilySearch has a number of databases for the Netherlands and Germany that you could search for the Rohlehr name to see where it is most prominent. You could begin by searching specifically for Swartz Rohlehr or his mother, Gertrude Rohlehr, since both of them were supposed to have been born in Germany.

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If you are unable to locate records for them directly, you could broaden the search to include just the surname. This may help you narrow a region where the name is concentrated in records, which could provide you with another location to search for records of the Rohlehr family.

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.