Researching my Family History this Black History Month

As I have said in many of my previous posts I love History! One of first adventures with History was researching my own family tree beginning when I was about fourteen.  Working with my mother we started the process that I would later pick up about ten years later.  As an African American the information out there is limited but there is still a lot of information that is worth discovering.  For about the last two years I have researched primarily using my family history off and on.  I picked up my research again this month, ironically black history month.  The experience has hands down been my favorite research project.

My favorite genealogy moment was finding out that my great great great great  grandfather, a farmer, lived in Boone County, Missouri, the same county that is home to my alma mater University of Missouri.  Before I found a census record with his name John Barnes, I was unaware that my family lived in Boone County in the 1800s.  It was such a wow moment for me! Although I was born in Kansas City, I grew up in Houston but for some reason I decided to venture back to Missouri to attend college and stayed for law school.  It was like coming full circle for me!  Mizzou was founded in 1839 and my 4x grandfather was born in 1849.  I wondered if he was aware of the nearby college that young white students were matriculating to every year.   Was it even fathomable to him that some day blacks would be able to attend this institution?  Could my 4x grandfather even imagine that he would have two 4x great grandchildren graduate from this institution about 150 years after he was born?  I walked across a stage in a county where my ancestors were farmers and marginalized.  That honestly made my degrees from the University of Missouri mean even more to me.

This is a picture of my great grandfather Homer with his father Willie Sims.  Before this picture Homer had not seen his father since he was seven years old and believed that he was deceased.  Finding anything else on Willie Sims including his parents names has been difficult and one of my biggest frustrations in my research.  Researching your family history is a rewarding and a frustrating experience at the same time but I will say that it is totally worth it! Here are a few tips that I learned over the years.  I do not consider myself an expert in genealogy but I have found quite a bit so far.

1.  People did not use their “government names”

You are going to find varying spellings of your ancestor’s names.  Do not discount a record because the name is a little different, or a nickname. For example my grandmother told me that she had an Aunt Gussie and Uncle Babe.  I found a census record with those exact names, so I thought wow they really named this man Babe! Well then I found another census record that matched up with birthdates but the name was Isaiah.  Another example is my great grandfather.  His name was likely James Monroe Harrison but I constantly see the name flipped as Monroe James.  It could be that everyone called him by his middle name. The changing names makes for very frustrating researching, but the birth dates or years helps cut down the confusion.

My great grandfather listed here as Monroe Harrison but often referenced as James Monroe Harrison.  I am starting to think Monroe may have been his middle name but what everyone called him.

2. Can’t find birth certificates? Don’t worry go for death certificates!

Death certificates are actually better because they give more information than a birth certificate.  The state of Missouri has death certificates from all counties from about 1900-1961 online for FREE!  I found death certificates for a lot of my ancestors and they included not only their birth date but also their date of death, their spouses’ name, their parents’ name, the state their parents’ were born in, and what their occupation was.  It will also tell you how they died.  From a death certificate I confirmed a rumor that a great great grandfather died from syphilis! This is one document that if filled out in it’s entirety is a great source of information!

This is what I believe is my 4x great grandfather’s death certificate. Notice the different spelling of his name.  Here it is listed as Jno but other records including census records list his name as John Barnes. His date of birth and place of birth also indicates that he was born into slavery.

3. Remember important dates!

1890- In 1890 there was a census but unfortunately a fire ruined it about a hundred years ago.  I was SO mad when I found this out!  I think it may have held the information about my one elusive ancestor.

When slavery ended- Understand that there really is not one date for this and it really varies depending on the state.   I have kind of used the date of the 13th amendment, 1865, a few years after the emancipation proclamation was signed. This is benchmark date because before then you likely will not find you ancestors in census records.

-The Great Migration around 1910-1930 – This was the point where African Americans began to migrate north for better opportunities.  During this time frame I found my family moved from Southern states like Tennessee and Mississippi to Missouri.  This may be the time frame that you will find your ancestors moving as well so keep that in mind.

4. Don’t forget siblings!

At first I was only researching direct lineage and was not bothering with my ancestors’ siblings.  One day I got bored and started adding siblings and I discovered even more information just from them.  More importantly this will give you more sources for your direct ancestors.  For example my great great grandfather’s sister’s death certificate gave me an alternate name for their father, which was helpful with my research.

5. Realize that some information will be wrong and be open to conflicting information.

The main thing I find that is often wrong is birth dates.  I assume that many of them may not have really known their birth date.  Oral history is also helpful but can be wrong as well.  Be open to information that conflicts with what you heard from grandparents and others. Even more frustrating are official government documents that are completely wrong. Early on my in research I found my great great grandmother Gertrude’s death certificate which listed her mother’s name as Gertrude as well but no maiden name.  I was never able to find other supporting documents that her name was Gertrude but I went with it for about two years.  Just recently I finally found a census record that proved Gertrude’s mother’s name was in fact Cora and her death certificate was wrong.  I initially did not trust what my research uncovered particularly since my initial source was a death certificate but things seemed to fit with Cora better.  I was never able to find anything about Gertrude Sr. that fit other details I knew.  Once I switched to Cora I found a lot more information.

It is so easy for these things to happen!  Many African Americans could not read or write and had to depend solely on the staff at these government offices when filling out these documents.  That opens the door for plenty of room for error.   Then I cannot help but to question how their race played into how seriously their death certificates were taken by workers at these offices.   Then there is just plan human error on the part of the informants.   If they did not really know they may have guessed just to put something down.  Whatever the reason is you will find errors but you will have to use logic and other clues to find the real answer.

6. Keep your tree open!

If you decide to use to compile your research (I do recommend it) make sure that your tree is visible to others on the site. will not allow the public to see living people on your tree for privacy reasons..  This is a great way to find long lost living relatives as well as a source for more information for your tree.  Not long after I joined I found one of my mother’s first cousin who she’d never met.  It was great to connect and share information.

Good luck researching! Let me know if you find anything interesting!

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3 thoughts on “Researching my Family History this Black History Month

  1. LadyJsVoice says:

    WOW!! really amazing Erika. Thanks for the info. I think I may do this for my mom’s side of the family.

    I really appreciate you pointing out the frustrations attached with it because without expecting them it may have provoked me to give up.

  2. erikastruth says:

    I will email a link to the Harrison family tree. Oh and I forgot to mention that most libraries have subscriptions to so you can go to a library and use it for free.

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