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(The Root) —

"My great-great-grandfather was named Issac Rowen. He came from Guinea to work as a fisherman sometime in the post-Civil War period. My late great-aunt told me that he came to the U.S. with a group of white men. He worked as a fisherman in New Orleans until was killed, by being thrown off a boat by the people with whom he worked. I am not sure how old he was when he died, but he was young and had children. His son, Issac Rowens Jr., was my father's maternal grandfather. The only thing I found out about him is his draft record for World War I, online with I really haven't been able to go past Issac Rowens Jr. in online records for this side of the family.

"I always wondered, why would someone of African descent willingly immigrate to the U.S. during that era of segregation and racial oppression? Do you have any suggestions on how to trace my ancestry to him, based on this story? Also, was it common for people of African descent to immigrate to the U.S. during the Jim Crow era?" —Andrea Hobby

African Immigration After the Civil War

To address your first question: Yes, a few did immigrate willingly. In 1870, the U.S. Congress extended naturalization rights "to aliens being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent."


However, only a trickle of Africans came to the U.S. before 1965, according to historian Ira Berlin, author of The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations. Furthermore, according to an article by Kevin J. A. Thomas in International Migration Review, the limited African immigration that occurred [during the first half of the 20th century] "was mainly driven by non-Black South Africans." In fact, according to the U.S. census, there were 2,204 foreign-born Americans from Africa living in the U.S. in 1880, less than double that number by 1910. Ten years later, the census recorded 16,126 such individuals.

So you see, it is possible that your ancestor came to the U.S. during the Jim Crow era, as difficult as that would have been. From your great-aunt, you learned several details of his life that can help you find documents that will provide more information about his life and heritage.

Pinning Down Details With Few Clues 

Since you are unsure of exactly when Issac immigrated, or even his age, a good first step in finding more information about him is searching for a record of Issac in the federal census (you can search the 1870 and 1880 records on Although you do not know his year of birth, you can narrow your search using parameters, such as race, gender and place of birth. Remember to search using spelling variations in the first and last names, like Issac, Isaac, Rowen, Rowens, Rowan, Roen. Also, remember the place of birth listed on the census record could also vary as well, as his birthplace could be listed as Africa or Guinea, based on what was told to the census taker.


Since the 1890 federal census was destroyed in a fire, a good substitute for finding information about people between 1880 and 1900 are city directories. City directories were published by private companies for larger cities, and they listed the name of the head of household, their occupation and sometimes date of death. For widowed women, the directories would often list their late husband's name also.

After the Civil War, some city directories began to include African Americans in their directories. Free African Americans were even recorded in some pre-Civil War directories, but the practice of including African Americans in these books became more common closer to the 20th century. Often the directories would have some delineation, such as an asterisk or an italicized "c." for "person of color," to show African-American households. In other instances, there were entire sections listing the African-American residents of a city, or they were included without designation of race. The decision to include African-American residents in a directory varied by publisher and place, so if you do search city directories, be sure to check a variety of different books to try to locate your ancestors.

There are digital collections of city directories listed on subscription sites, such as, and many local libraries have physical collections of city directories for their regions as well. For example, the New Orleans Public Library has directories as early as 1805 and directories for every year between 1866 and 1933.


Vital records — records of births, marriages and deaths — are other good sources of information for tracing an ancestor's origins. Before legislation was passed in the early 20th century, the recording of vital records in the state of Louisiana was inconsistent, and the availability of these records is dependent of the time and place of the event. It turns out that New Orleans Parish generally had better compliance in the recorded birth marriages and deaths. The Louisiana secretary of state has an online index of death and marriage records for events that happened more than 50 years ago and births that were recorded 100 years earlier. This index lists the name, year of death and volume and page number for each entry. Using this information, you can order a certified copy of vital records from the secretary of state for a $5 fee. Our researchers combed this index for a record of Issac Rowen's death using several spelling variations, but we were unable to find a record of his death.

Since Issac's death was not included in the index of vital records held by the state of Louisiana, you will have to rely on other sources to find information about his death. In this case, finding a tombstone and the cemetery where Issac was buried might give you more information about him (like if he belonged to a church) and other relatives who may be buried near him. There are many free websites that have searchable databases of cemetery transcriptions, including and There is also the site La-Cemeteries, a website that has headstone transcriptions and images for many cemeteries throughout Louisiana.

If you can find a burial record for Issac Rowen, this will provide you with a date of death and possibly a date of birth. If the cemetery is affiliated with a certain church, you can also contact the church to see if the parish records have a record of his marriage as well.


Fact-Checking Family Lore

Finding a record of Issac's death in a newspaper may also help confirm or disprove the tragic story surrounding his death. There are a variety of websites that provide access to digitized newspapers, including the subscription sites and, as well as free sites, such as Chronicling America and Google News Archive. When searching for a record of your ancestor's death in a digital newspaper database, check to make sure that they include papers for the region and time period you are researching. In this case, you are looking for newspapers for New Orleans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you are unable to find newspapers for the time and place you are researching, try local libraries.

Your family's story also indicates that Issac immigrated to New Orleans some time after the Civil War to work as a fisherman. If he immigrated directly to New Orleans, he may be included on one of the passenger lists that recorded the arrival of passengers into the port of New Orleans. The Family History Library has an online database of passenger lists arriving at the port of New Orleans from 1820 to 1845. A record of him in this database will give you an idea of when and where he immigrated.


As with most genealogical research, it is always best to work from your known ancestors and to use the information you find for them to keep working backward. In this instance, researching the children of Issac Rowen may be particularly useful because their death records may contain the place of birth of their parents and in some instances the occupations of their parents. Also, records of them in the census years between 1880 and 1900 will list their parents' place of birth.

You mentioned that you found a World War I draft registration card for Issac Rowens Jr. Using the year of birth and place of residence, you can search for a record of him in the 1920 U.S. census to find his occupation, marital status and place of residence. Using this information, continue to search for a record of his death to see if it lists whom his parents were and where they were born. By researching Issac Rowens Jr. you will find more information about his parents, which will hopefully give you more information about Issac Rowen's life and origin.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

 This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, 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.  

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