Dear Professor Gates:
I am a first-generation American, and my family hails from Guyana (and before that, Germany). What resources are best for researching Guyanese roots? —Sharifa Rohlehr
There are excellent resources for genealogical research in Guyana, especially if you are willing and able to travel. It is important to know that Guyana was originally colonized by the Netherlands in the early 1600s, and then the British assumed control in 1796, with the Dutch formally ceding the area in 1814. By 1831 Guyana was a single British colony known as British Guiana. It achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966.
If you are able to travel to Guyana and visit the National Archives of Guyana, bookmark this list of holdings (pdf)—provided by the Guyana/British Guiana Genealogical Society—that you can view there. The National Archives also have Immigration Department Death Registers From 1825 Through 1931 (pdf) that you can view in person.
A helpful guide to records that date back to colonial times is Christina K. Schaefer’s Genealogical Encyclopedia of the Colonial Americas. Schaefer’s text states that most of the colonial records for Guyana are held at the National Archives of the Netherlands and at the National Archives of the United Kingdom (which hold the Berbice Land Grants 1735-1755, Mortgages 1737-1763, Tax Returns 1765-1794 and Court Records 1764-1793, according to Schaefer). Some records are also held at the National Library of Guyana in Georgetown.
In addition, church records can help with finding your ancestors. The Guyana/British Guiana Genealogical Society explains how you can request church records (usually accompanied by a donation) directly from the churches in Guyana. Generally, records are not digitized and must be manually searched; therefore, the genealogical society suggests telling the church that you are sending it a small donation to help facilitate its search for your ancestor’s records. The genealogical society’s website lists the contact information and holdings of many of the nation’s churches.
If travel is not an option, there are also online resources available. The Guyana/British Guiana Genealogical Society’s Web page has a plethora of information regarding how to start your ancestral research, either during colonial British Guiana times or in the postindependence period beginning in 1966. The Census transcription page contains the 1896 Essequibo Census, plus censuses of all British Guiana-born citizens in 1851, 1861 and 1871, as well as all British Guiana-born people in the United States in 1850 and 1860.
The genealogical society also has a page listing transcriptions of vital records (births, engagements, marriages and deaths), British Guiana directories, emigration documents, land grants and land-ownership papers, maps, lists of certain occupations (justices of the peace, schoolteachers in 1860, woodcutting licenses in 1857 and Colonial Office Lists from 1879), and plantation and estate papers.
There is also an index to a database of 18th- and 19th-century residents of the colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequebo (which were united to become British Guiana in 1831).
Guyana colonial newspapers have been transcribed and imaged by the University of Florida. Newspapers from the early 19th century through present-day Guyana are available.
Or Did You Mean These Countries?
If your ancestors came from French Guyana, records would be located at the French National Archives Overseas Section, in Paris, and at the Library of the University of the French West Indies and Guiana in Schoelcher, Martinique.
If your ancestors came from Suriname, or Dutch Guiana, the majority of colonial records are located at the National Archives of the Netherlands and at the Library of Anton de Kom University of Suriname in Paramaribo, Suriname.
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 Andrew Krea, 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.