“How can I research Ghanaian genealogy online?” —Hillary Osei
Letting History Point You in the Right Direction
Before you begin your research in Ghana, or anywhere in West Africa, it is useful to have an understanding of the country’s history and how the ruling powers changed over time, since this will give you information that will guide your search for ancestors.
In 1957 the Republic of Ghana became the first West African nation to become completely independent from colonial rule. (Sudan was the first country in Africa south of the Sahara to gain independence, a year earlier, and parts of the country that we call Ethiopia were independent dating back to before the Christian era.)
Prior to this, the region was dominated by a variety of foreign colonial powers. The Portuguese were the first to establish a trade, in the 15th century. By the late 16th century, the Dutch had overtaken the Portuguese and set up trading centers of their own. Between the 17th and early 19th centuries, there were a variety of trading forts built and controlled by the Dutch, British, Danes and Swedes.
By 1874 the coastal region had become an official British colony under the crown, and it was commonly referred to as the Gold Coast. And as the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton have pointed out, the rest of the area that we now call Ghana, including the Ashanti Kingdom, was conquered and integrated into the Gold Coast colony between 1896 and 1901.
In addition to foreign nations that occupied the land, there were also many ethnic groups that occupied the area, including the Akan (Ashanti), Ewe and Mole-Dagbon. Occasionally there have been tensions among some of these groups that have led to conflicts. The region is located on the west coast of Africa, and its abundance of natural resources made it a hub for trade as early as the 15th century. It was also one of the regions that slaves were taken from to the New World during the height of the slave trade.
Given Ghana’s complex history, with many different influences over time, you can see that the sources you use, and how you find them, may depend on the specific time period and place you are researching. For instance, you may find some information in British colonial records, or the names used by your ancestors may depend on the ethnic group to which they belonged.
Records From Ghana Available Online
If your family’s connection is fairly recent, FamilySearch has a few collections that may be useful. The first is the Ghana census of 1984. The census records are divided into 140 different localities, so you will need to know approximately where your family was living in order to use this collection. Because these records are not yet indexed, you have to browse through every image to find the record you are looking for.
Each census record lists the address for the household and the name and gender of the head of the household. It also lists the name and gender, along with the relation to the head of the household, for each person living in the house. In addition to listing members of the family, it also shows if there were any visitors to the house that day and, if so, gives their name, gender and relation to the head of the household. Note that although the date on the printed title pages says 1982, the census was actually enumerated in 1984.
A second collection that is viewable online is Ghana, Accra, Marriages, 1863-2003. This is a compilation of both marriage and divorce records for the city of Accra, the capital city of Ghana. These records generally contain the age, gender and occupation of those married, as well as information about their parents. Once again, this collection can be browsed only by page, but the collection is divided by record type (marriage or divorce) and year.
Another source of genealogical information from Ghana is the Gold Coast Database. This academic project is a compilation of biographies, photographs, newspaper articles, cemetery inscriptions and other historical documents. The records on this site are primarily centered either on Dutch families in Ghana or on Euro-African and African families who have a connection to the Dutch. The site is free to use, but registration is required. If you suspect that your Ghanaian ancestors have some connection to the Dutch, this site may be useful.
In addition to these collections, there are some Ghanaian newspapers that are searchable online in the African Newspapers collection by Readex. Titles include the Gold Coast Independent (Accra, 1895-1922), Gold Coast Leader (Cape Coast, Ghana, 1902-1922) and the Gold Coast Times (Cape Coast, 1874-1885). If you know the names of your ancestors in Ghana, you can look them up in this collection to find clues that will help you trace them further. This is a subscription site, but you can check with your local library to see if it has access to the database.
The Public Records and Archives Administration Department of Ghana, or PRAAD, is in charge of managing important records that would be useful for genealogical research, such as vital, census and probate records. Unfortunately, because of various financial and logistical constraints, the department faces great challenges in maintaining its physical collections. Because of this, it has not yet had the opportunity to make any of these records accessible online.
Registration of vital records began in Ghana as early as 1888 but was limited mostly to larger cities. Registration of births was not enacted nationwide until 1912, and even then, compliance was limited. It was not until 1965, after independence, that registration of births and deaths was required. Although an index of births and deaths is not available online, certified copies can be ordered. More information can be found at the Births and Deaths Registry website.
General Tips for Research in Ghana
An understanding of the naming customs used in Ghana may also help guide your research. For instance, in the past, when Akan children were born, they were first given a traditional name that was based on the day of the week. Later in life, usually by the time they started school, the children were given a Christian name that they would use. The custom persists to this day.
Surnames in Ghana also followed a different pattern from surnames in America, in that all members of an immediate family could use a different surname. For example, sometimes a son would use his father’s first name as his surname, or maybe a woman who was married would not take her husband’s name. Although not all Ghanaians followed these conventions, being aware of these practices can greatly aid your research. ProGenealogists provides a detailed explanation of Ghanaian naming conventions on its website.
Your ancestors’ experiences and family traditions were also shaped by the ethnic group with which they were affiliated. If you hit a roadblock in your research, perhaps you could learn more about your ancestors’ daily lives and familial traditions by researching their ethnic affiliations. For example, the Ashanti people have a matrilineal society, meaning that entrance into the group was inherited from one’s mother. A brief overview of some of the larger ethnic groups in Ghana can be found at the news site Vibe Ghana.
The lack of records that are easily accessible online may present challenges for you in trying to find your ancestors in Ghana if you are unable to travel there. An understanding of the history and development of Ghana, as well as the history and traditions of the various ethnic groups, can help guide your research by giving you an idea of the traditions your ancestors followed and how the occupation by other nations influenced their lives.
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.
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.