Family History: Tools to begin exploring your genealogy

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - Genealogy has gained popularity in recent years. Through birth, land, marriage, and death records, genealogy allows people to trace their lineage back as far as possible.

RELATEDThe journey of one of America’s oldest documented black families 

Documents can reveal ancestors’ occupations, education, medical history, and so much more.
Tracing genealogy can also uncover important stories that may help shape the people we are today. 

There are factions of people who live in the United States of America that have a tougher time connecting the dots to their family trees because of the world’s earlier history of persecution.

While exploring genealogy may be tougher for some groups of people, historians and archivists say there are tools to help begin the journey.

“I think it is just important to kind of delve in for self-preservation, know who you are. I think that means a lot to every individual,” Maya Davis, a researcher, said.

Davis is the research archivist for the study of the legacy of slavery in Maryland at the Maryland State Archives.

Tracking genealogy in the United States can be tough.

She said tracking genealogy in the United States can be tough – especially before the 1700s when you begin to see black people petitioning the Maryland General assembly for freedom on the basis that they are descended from white women.

“It can be very difficult – especially for this very early period because what we know about them is pretty bare – bare bones. There is not a lot of information recorded,” Davis explained. “It is just very dependent upon the owner and how much they put out about their slaves.”

Historians told WUSA9 slaves were typically only tracked by first names, ages, and/or value while living on the plantation.

“You know genealogy is such a big field now and African Americans who have been greatly affected through separation during slavery are trying to reconnect their families and I think it is so important for that reason,” Davis said.

Resources to help you learn more about your family history

There are several resources in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia to begin or dig deeper into family history.

The Maryland State Archives in Annapolis and the Library of Virginia in Richmond have online databases where records for African Americans are most commonly seen in wills, deed books, freedom certificates, and land records.

Tom Crew, an archivist for the Library of Virginia, said records may differ from county to county.

Wealthier cities and counties, such as Fairfax County, store most of their own records instead of forwarding documents to the state.

Beginning in 1793 in cities and in 1803 in counties, free African Americans were required to register themselves in Virginia, according to a guide provided by the Library of Virginia. 

The registers often note whether an individual was born free or, if not, the name of the individual who freed him or her. 

If a Free Negro Register does not survive for a particular locality, a reference to the individual registering may be included in a court order or minute book, which provides a summary of every action that came before the court.

By 1801, a law required lists of free Negroes and mulattos to be submitted annually along with lists of taxable property. 

Crew recommended looking into the Freedmen’s Bureau cohabitation records or the National Archives which both have online databases.

"Everyone is searching for their African roots."

“Everyone wants to know ‘who was I connected to in Africa?’ Everyone is searching for their African roots, and I think that is where my biggest challenge comes in is that we just don’t know,” Davis said.

Find information and resources about how to search Genealogy in DC, Maryland, and Virginia below:

Washington, D.C.

Records in the District of Columbia are limited, and there is no online database.

Archive records that can be found through the D.C. Office of the Secretary include birth certificates (1874-1916), death certificates (1874-1932), marriage certificates (1870-1965), wills and probate records (1801-1999), administration cases (1879-1958), indentures of apprenticeship records (1812-1893), guardianships and administrative bonds records (1862-1939), and more.

It is important to note that birth certificates beginning in 1916 and marriage certificates beginning in 1966 are not yet open to the public.

The record pulling process is done manually in the District.

The D.C. Office of the Secretary suggests emailing your inquiry to archives@dc.gov or completing this public records research form.

Address: 1300 Naylor Court, NW, Washington, DC 20001

Maryland
The Maryland State Archives requires a photo ID to register before searching inside of the facility.

To assist with researching, staff will need to know the type of record (divorce, will, etc.), jurisdiction, court, agency, or department, date of record, names of persons, companies, or institutions involved, or other relevant information (street address, charge, etc.). 

The likelihood of finding records is higher the more specific the information provided is.

Follow this link to search records online.

Ready to order documents? Follow this link to view forms and pricing.

Address: 350 Rowe Blvd, Annapolis, MD 21401

Virginia
Documents held at the Library of Virginia varies by each county, but collections are available on paper and microfilm, and digital databases. 

An ID is required to search the databases, and an online registration can be found here.

The state library has also created a guide specifically to aid in African American research in Virginia.

Address: 800 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Additional Research Tools

•    National Archives
•    Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University 
•    Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum 
•    African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
•    DC Public Library
•    Historical Society of Washington, D.C
•    The George Washington University 
•    Maryland Genealogical Society 
•    Virginia Historical Society 
•    National Genealogical Society
 

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