African American Research in Common Record Groups (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Summary of common record groups

Each locale is different, from state to state, as far as the records produced and the records available. When searching for records at local courthouses and archives, you should know what you can expect to find there. Study the locale first. For example, many states did not begin keeping vital records until the twentieth century, so if this is the case, do not waste time looking for an 1880 birth certificate. In another example, many southern court houses were burned during the Civil War, and no records from before that time period exist today. Finally, you will need to understand the privacy laws in the jurisdiction. Many states restrict access to birth and death certificates for a given period of time. In Maryland, for instance, death certificates are restricted for ten years; in the District of Columbia, they are restricted for fifty years. To reiterate, learn the laws and history concerning records in your ancestral home.

Below are brief descriptions of the most common record groups, and what information you can expect to find in them:

Vital Records

This group consists of birth, marriage, and death registers and certificates. While marriage records often exist from the earliest periods of settlement, birth and death records generally do not become available until around the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, with some exceptions. More recent birth and death records may be restricted due to privacy concerns. In general, a birth certificate will provide the parents’ names and the date of birth. Not all children were named at the time of their birth, so the child’s name may or may not be included. Death certificates will note the date, place, and cause of death, and usually the age at death. More recent death certificates may also note the date of birth of the decedent and the names of their parents.

Marriage records generally only provide the names of both parties (including the bride’s maiden name) and the date of the marriage. Some states also include the parents’ names. Do not confuse a marriage license with a marriage certificate. A marriage license does not guarantee that the named parties were actually wed, just that they had obtained the appropriate permission to wed. Some licenses do, however, indicate a date of return, which would be the date of the actual marriage. The actual marriage ceremony usually occurred a few days after the license was issued, depending on state law.

Vital records may be held at the local/state archives, but may also be retained by the Health Department, which often creates the records. Vital records are the most important record group in terms of genealogy research, as they provide direct evidence of the three most commonly sought pieces of information.

Census Records

The United States Constitution set forth that representation in Congress was to be based on the population of the state or territory. As such, it became necessary to count the population. To accomplish this goal, every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau enumerates the entire population, counting each individual. From 1790 (the year of the first census) through 1840, only the names of the free heads of household appear, but from 1850 onwards, the names of every free member of each household are provided. Currently, the federal census is available publicly through 1940. The importance of federal census records to genealogical research is that households are treated as such. For those records beginning in 1850, the information is usually provided in family groups, making identification much easier than with other record groups. Furthermore, after 1850, the families appear listed in the order that the enumerator visited them, so that neighbors generally appear together. This will aid tremendously when using “cluster genealogy” techniques. Unfortunately, slaves were not named, with few exceptions. In 1850 and 1860, they appear listed by age and gender only, in separate “slave schedules.”

Probate Records

Probate records comprise any document created to distribute the real or personal estate of a deceased individual. The most widely-known example is a will, in which a living person specifies his desires as to the distribution of his estate after his death. Other examples of probate documents include letters testamentary or letters of administration, testamentary or administration bonds, estate inventories, estate sales, and administration accounts. Probate records will also aid in the recreation of family groups, as surviving heirs will usually be identified, including married names of daughters. Furthermore, relevant to African American research specifically, pre-emancipation wills and estate inventories often provide names and ages of slaves.

Inventory - Michael B. Carroll

Prince George’s County, Maryland, Inventories JH 2: 635, Michael B. Carroll (1853).

Inventory - Michael B. Carroll - Enlarged

Prince George’s County, Maryland, Inventories JH 2: 635, Michael B. Carroll (1853).


Land Records

Deeds and other land records record transactions concerning real property. In most states, these were recorded by the county court, in large “deed books”. The original deed remained in the hands of the owner of the land. In addition to standard deeds, you may also locate agreements for the division of land, or bills of sale for personal property recorded in the deed books. This last group constitutes a very important resource in African American research. Bills of sale will almost always identify slaves by name, and may also contain additional information; for example, approximate ages or relationships to other slaves. Mortgages are another valuable resource; slaves were often used as collateral on loans.

Church Records

Most churches record three events in their registers: baptisms, marriages, and burials. It was not unusual for Christian slave-owners to have their slaves baptized and to have slave marriages consecrated in a church. These records will often pre-date the institution of civil vital registration, and may pre-date emancipation as well. After emancipation, with religion playing a central role in the lives of many African Americans, church records remain a wonderful resource. Relevant church records may lie in the custody of a local archive, library, or historical society, or may remain in the custody of the church itself.

Bethel A.M.E. Church Membership

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Baltimore, Maryland), Church records 1882-1908; Maryland State Archives, Annapolis.



Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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