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African American Research Steps (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 ($).

Defining Your Problem[edit | edit source]

The first and most important aspect of genealogical research, as with all research, is to define your problem. You must first ask yourself a question before you can begin looking for an answer to that question. For most genealogists, this question will start out as, “Who were my ancestors?” Instead of jumping haphazardly around from ancestor to ancestor, you will only have true success by defining your problem in a more specific way. The following examples of questions will help you focus your research:

  • Who was my father?
  • When was my father born?
  • Who was my father’s father?
  • When and where was my father’s father born?
  • Who was my father’s mother?
  • When and where was my father’s mother born?
  • Did my father’s parents marry?
  • When and where did they marry?

These questions, and others like them, will continue, and amass with each successive generation. You can define them in any way that you like, depending on your specific research goals. For example, one who would like to learn about their medical history might ask questions like,

What was the cause of death for my great-grandfather?

Once you have asked yourself a focused research question, you can then begin the search for an answer. Step-by-step, you will discover the answers you seek, and be able to prove the accuracy of these answers with sound analysis of the evidence collected.

Identifying and locating relevant records[edit | edit source]

As genealogists we will want to be as accurate as possible in our responses. The more records we locate, the more we discover that some records offer different answers to the same questions. It soon becomes obvious that some records contain accurate information and others contain inaccurate information. The only way to discern the correct answer to our research questions is to first locate all records that contain relevant information. To do this you must identify available records and outline a strategy to obtain the necessary information.

Example for Finding a Date of Birth[edit | edit source]

For example, say that you are researching your great-grandfather, who lived from 1897 to 1978. First, you must define your problem. Let’s say that we want to learn his date of birth. We must therefore locate any record that might possibly contain his date of birth or his age:

  • Depending on the state in which he was born, your great-grandfather’s birth itself may have been recorded. Check the laws of the state to determine when vital registration began. If it began before his birth, you should attempt to locate a birth certificate or registration.
  • Church baptismal records may have his date of birth as well as the date of his baptism.
  • His marriage license or marriage certificate may include his age at the time of his marriage.
  • His death certificate, obituary, tombstone, and entry in the Social Security Death Index, would all likely contain his age or date of birth. All of these records constitutes an individual source, and should be obtained. You should also request a copy of his original SS-5 (request for a social security number) from the Social Security Administration. (More on this unique record later).
  • The federal census records from 1900 through 1940, and any available state census records, should all be located, as these would contain his age.
  • His date of birth in 1897 would have required him to register for the World War I Draft in 1917¬-1918, as well as the Fourth Registration of the Draft during World War II, in 1942. Both of these draft cards should be sought and obtained.
  • If you know that he served in the military, you should request his service file from the National Personnel Records Center, in St. Louis, Missouri.

All of these records, and possibly others, contain information that is relevant to your search for his date of birth.

Example for Finding a Father's Name[edit | edit source]

Now, say that you want to identify his father. All of the above records would still be relevant, as some of them would contain direct evidence of this fact as well. For example, birth certificates and death certificates both usually contain the name of the father, as should any church baptismal records. The federal census records should show your great-grandfather living in his father’s household as a child and a young man, unless there was a reason otherwise, such as death or divorce.

In this case, other records would contain additional information relevant to the problem. Some of these would not be obtainable until you have identified a potential father. The father’s obituary, for example, may list his surviving family, including your great-grandfather. The father’s probate records may include a list of heirs, which should include, once again, your great-grandfather. These records will help to corroborate your preliminary conclusions, and should also be obtained.

Many less experienced genealogists consider the information-gathering stage to be research. The research process is a multi-step process. Information-gathering is only one of these steps.

Cluster genealogy[edit | edit source]

Sometimes, especially as you move back into more remote generations, you will have identified a research question, only to discover that your ancestor did not himself leave any records behind. The most effective way to overcome this obstacle is to use a technique known as cluster genealogy.

Cluster genealogy is a process by which you learn more about your ancestors by studying their associates.

Think about your own social circle. It probably consists of your immediate and extended family, close neighbors, current and former classmates or co-workers, and others with similar associations, such as membership in social clubs, etc. You are often tied to these associates on paper, as well, serving as witnesses to legal documents, co-signers for credit, and occasionally even intermarrying. Your ancestors had these same habits.

Keep a separate list of associates for each of your ancestors. You may find that the same names start popping up in different places. If you get stuck, try looking deeper into the relationships between your ancestors and some of their closest associates.

You are most likely to find associates of your ancestors in some of the following places:

  • Spouse’s parents and siblings.
  • Neighbors on the federal census enumerations. Keep in mind that some early censuses (pre-1840) were alphabetized in some counties, which negates this as a resource.
  • Neighbors who shared a common border, as described on deeds.
  • Witnesses to wills.
  • Witnesses to deeds. But be aware that some deeds were witnessed by Justices of the Peace or court clerks. These are not necessarily close associates.
  • Those who attended the same church. Many churches recorded periodic “member lists” in their register.
  • If your ancestor moved to another town or state, others in the new town who were born in the same place as your ancestor.

Also, make a list of others of the same surname living in the town. Do not assume any relationships until further research proves them. This does not apply to common surnames like SMITH, JOHNSON, BROWN, etc. Unfortunately, there will simply be too many to effectively keep track of.

Finally, remember that, just as you can “lose touch” with a former associate, so could your ancestors. A social circle is not a static setting; people form new relationships with new people just as they sever the bonds with others. It may help, when researching your ancestor’s “cluster” of friends, to take note of dates, and keep a separate “social timeline.”


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.