Researching African American Family History



Searching for your African American Family History comes with a unique set of challenges due to the lack of records produced.

Only now are more publications being made to organize what information that does exist and to help people research their family history.

To begin, gather your records and write down your history from present time to as far back as you can. Be sure to include any family stories as these may hold valuable clues. Find a way to organize your information in a way that works for you and stick to it while searching.

Start here (resources that span the ages):

Census: 1940–1870  —  available online through CCLD at Heritage Quest (must have CCLD library card to access).

Birth, marriage, and death records

City Directories



Post Civil War era:

Freedman’s Bank Records: available online through CCLD at Heritage Quest (must have CCLD library card to access).  The Freedman’s Savings Bank was set up for African Americans after slavery ended. Though it operated only from 1865-1874, it is a valuable source of information for people tracing their African American ancestors back to the Civil War.

African American Newspapers: available online at Accessible Archives through CCLD. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s. The collection also provides a great number of early biographies, vital statistics, essays and editorials, poetry and prose, and advertisements all of which embody the African-American experience.

1867 Voter Registration

Civil War Era:

Records of United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War


Confederate Slave Payrolls

Pre-Civil War era:

Slave Schedules: “Population schedules used in two U.S. Federal Censuses: The 1850 U.S. Federal Census and the 1860 U.S. Federal Census. Slaves were usually not named, but enumerated separately and usually only numbered under the slave owner’s name. The National Archives has microfilmed all of the original manuscripts for applicable states.” More info and links to online access:

FREE AFRICAN AMERICANS OF VIRGINIA,  NORTH CAROLINA, SOUTH CAROLINA, MARYLAND AND DELAWARE. Listing of free African Americans in the Southeast during the colonial period extracted from primary source materials.

Plantation Owner’s Records:

I’ve traced my Enslaved Ancestors and their Owners facebook group:

The Beyond Kin Project: Donna Cox Baker and Frazine K. Taylor conceived the Beyond Kin Project in 2016 as a way to encourage and facilitate the documentation of enslaved populations, particularly by recruiting the resources and efforts of the descendants of slaveholders.
African Diaspora:
Trans-Atlantic Slave Database: Information on over 35,000 slaving voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866, manipulable into maps, timelines, tables, and graphs. Includes African Names Database, recommended websites, essays to provide context, and images (manuscripts, places, slaves, and vessels).

Further Reading:

Article about last names of enslaved persons:

Timeline of Black History:

FamilySearch guide to African American Genealogy Records:

African American Genealogy–An Online Interactive Guide

National Archives: Guide on African American Research



Genealogy Support through Coming to the Table: Genealogical Research rests at the core of the Coming to the Table Approach and its focus on Facing History openly and honestly. Many members of CTTT are active and skilled genealogists. If you would like help with your own research, or if you have skills you are willing to share with others in their research, please contact us.
31076451_10216096683151363_4836585920683573248_nOur Black ancestry ($)–Our Black Ancestry Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting the healing of wounds that are the legacy of slavery. Our primary activity is sponsorship of this Our Black Ancestry (OBA) website and member portal.:

Print resources at the Steele Memorial Library, Elmira NY:

Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives. 016.973 N552
Black and free : the free Negro in America, 1830 : a commentary on Carter Woodson’s Free Negro heads of families in the United States in 1830 305.896 317.3 ABR
Minority military service, Connecticut, 1775-1783 305.896 973.34 CT
Black courage, 1775-1783 : documentation of Black participation in the American Revolution 305.896 973.34 GRE
Minority military service, Massachusetts, 1775-1783 305.896 973.34 MA
Minority military service, Maine, 1775-1783 305.896 973.34 ME
Minority military service, New Hampshire, Vermont, 1775-1783 305.896 973.34 NH VT
Minority military service, Rhode Island, 1775-1783 305.896 973.34 RI
An index of African Americans identified in selected records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands 305.896 973.81 LAW
And they were related, too : a study of eleven generations of one American family! (Condol/Congdon) 929.2 CON
Places of the Underground Railroad : a geographical guide* 973.7115 C142
A Heritage uncovered : the black experience in upstate New York 974.747 HER
Zebratown : the true story of a black ex-con and a white single mother in small-town America 974.778 D676
The Black minority in early New York 301.45
Antebellum Black newspapers : indices to New York Freedom’s journal (1827-1829), the Rights of all (1829), the Weekly advocate (1837), and the Colored American (1837-1841) 305.896 ANT
A student’s guide to African American genealogy 305.896 929 JOH
Black genesis : a resource book for African-American genealogy 305.896 929 ROS
Guide to tracing your African Ameripean Civil War ancestor 305.896 973.7 SEC
The African Burial Ground in New York City : memory, spirituality, and space 305.896 FRO
The Black family in slavery and freedom, 1750-1925 305.896 GUT
African American historic burial grounds and gravesites of New England 305.896 KNO
Generations : the WPA ex-slave narrative genealogical resource database. Volume I, Ex-slaves with Virginia origins 305.896 ROS
A biographical history of Blacks in America since 1528 305.896 TOPP
Black Indians : a hidden heritage / Katz, William Loren 305.8969 KAT
Black Indian genealogy research 305.8969 WAL
Slave ancestral research : it’s something else 306.362 FEA
Slave genealogy : a research guide with case studies 306.362 STR
Help me to find my people 306.362 WIL
A history of Negro slavery in New York 326.974 MCM
A student’s guide to African American genealogy 929.1 J66A
Black genesis 929.1 R796
Case studies in Afro-American genealogy 929.1 THA
List of free Black heads of families in the first census of the United States, 1790 305.896 E34
Index to the Cherokee freedmen enrollment cards of the Dawes Commission, 1901-1906 929.373 PAG
The Genealogy of John W. Jones, 1817-1900 973.715 JON
The life and times of John W. Jones, 1817-1900 : a collection of facts and articles about Mr. Jones’ life 929.2 JONES 2
Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware : from the colonial period to 1810 305.896 HEI
Free African Americans of Maryland 1832 305.896 HYN
The slave years, 1760-1764 : Names and surprising details 305.896 PAT
Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina : from the colonial period to about 1820. Vols 1-2 305.896 HEI

Elmira Newspapers now digitized


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Thanks to our amazing friends at Northern New York Library Network and thanks to a grant from SCRLC, we now can say that Elmira newspapers as early as 1835 (the earliest we have in the library) are digitized and available freely online!

But, don’t take our word for it! See for yourself!


Erie Canal Exhibit at the Steele Memorial Library


February 2019 at the Steele Memorial Library: Erie Canal Bicentennial Exhibition

“Two Hundred Years on the Erie Canal” was developed by the Western New York Library Resources Council, with grant funding from Humanities New York, to celebrate the Bicentennial groundbreaking of the Erie Canal in New York State.

The DPLA has a digital companion exhibit located online via this link:

Elmira was connected to the Erie Canal through the Chemung Canal, which is now Route 14. This canal operated from 1833 through the 1870s.  For more on the Chemung Canal, click here:


View of the old Erie Canal at Lockport, Niagara County, showing the two tiers of five locks under construction, with a towpath on the right. The locks take the canal off the Allegheny Plateau down to the Ontario Lake Plain. Collection of NYS Archives, available online at DPLA:





Elmira through the ages: A Pictorial Review





Elmira, 1840.                                                                                             


elmira 1862

Elmira from East Hill, 1862. A nice view of the Chemung Canal and canal boats. Image courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society.


elmira 1873

Elmira 1873 by Bailey, H. H. (Howard Heston), 1836-1878. Library of Congress. Permalink:



1882:  artist: Burleigh. lithographer: JH Kirby. Image Courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society.




Elmira 1884 by John Moray and printed by Mensing & Stechep (Rochester, NY). Image courtesy of NY Historical Society.



Elmira NY 1901. Perspective map not drawn to scale. Bird’s-eye-view. LC Panoramic maps (2nd ed.), 559 Available also through the Library of Congress Web site as a raster image. Includes illus., directory, and view of “Elmira Heights, N.Y. 1901.” AACR2
LCCN Permalink


From the CCLD Collection:

dates unknown:

aerial view of elmira ny

aerial view of elmira ny circa mid 20th century


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New to the Collection: Register of EFA Alumni 1859–1909


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The volume finally gives us information about EFA graduates in Elmira before 1909. Check out some of the images below for a sample of what this volume has to offer. Do you recognize any names?

New to the Local History/Family History Collection Winter 2018


The Fleming family of Bradford County PA and Chemung County NY:. Also allied families Gordon and Shoemaker

The Fleming family photographs



My Mark Twain by William Dean Howells

Foretasting heaven : talking to Twain at Quarry Farm

Quarry Farm papers : an occasional publication of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies at Quarry Farm



Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware : from the colonial period to 1810

Free African Americans of Maryland 1832

The slave years, 1760-1764 : Names and surprising details

The slave years, 1750-1759 : Names and surprising details

Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina : from the colonial period to about 1820



Onions, tomahawks and spoons : interesting glimpses into the local history of Canastota, Oneida, Sherrill, Vernon and the surrounding region

History of Brulé’s discoveries and explorations, 1610-1626, being a narrative of the discovery, by Stephen Brulé, of lakes Huron, Ontario and Superior; and of his explorations (the first made by civilized man) of Pennsylvania and western New York, also of the Province of Ontario, Canada; with a biographical notice of the discoverer and explorer, who was killed and eaten by savages



Surname index, 1800 census, Westchester County, New York

New York biographical dictionary

Proceedings of the Elmira Academy of Sciences

A bird’s eye view of New York : views and viewmakers of New York State, 1836-1892

Historical sources for Jewish heritage in Elmira : collected from the archives of the Chemung County Historical Society and Congregation Kol Ami



Naval records for genealogists

The Norman people and their existing descendants in the British dominions and the United States of America





Online research for Elmira Newspapers


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Here is a step by step guide to finding years available online for Chemung County Newspapers on NYS Historic Newspapers.  I have also included some other search strategies for local newspapers.

We currently have 1891-1907 of the Elmira Gazette online through NYS Historic Newspapers.

Here is a link to their homepage:
To view a full list of Chemung County papers online, please click on Chemung County in the NYS map.
To the right of the page, you will see the titles and the years the title was in publication. Question marks are often used if it is unclear when the paper ceased publication.
This is due to many assorted reasons.  If you would like to see a list of the issues digitized and available online right now, please follow these steps:
First, from the Chemung County Page, click on the title you would like to see.
In this case, we are selecting “The Elmira Gazette.”
On the right of the page, you will see a thumbnail image of a newspaper and a little calendar icon with a prompt that says “Browse: calendar view.”
The “Calendar View” prompt is clickable.. Please click on it. That will take you here:

On the left side of the page, you will see “Issues For: [YEAR}.
The year for the Elmira Gazette starts at 1891.
You can click on the year and a drop-down box will appear which shows you all the years online that are available.
In this instance, you will see that the years available digitally for this title go up to 1907.

For researching the Star-Gazette online, the Star-Gazette website has an archives function. This is a personal subscription page that does cost money to view the full articles. However, one can still lookup things on the site and get thumbnails of articles complete with date and page number without paying to subscribe.
To find the Star-Gazette Archives feature, go to their home page,  and click on “Archives.” This will take you here:

The Star-Gazette is also available online through a paid personal subscription through
Institutional subscriptions that include digital access to this title are available through ProQuest, but run upwards of $4,000 per year for access.
This proves to be unsustainably cost-prohibitive for the Genealogy Department to offer to patrons.

We offer full-text of the Star-Gazette on microfilm to patrons who come in to research.
They can procure dates and pages numbers from the Star-Gazette archives site, or from searching the newspaper index through the library StarCat catalog.
To search for local history articles on the StarCat catalog:
1. Go to the StarCat page:
2. Type in keywords, or the [LastName, FirstName] of the person you are searching for.
3. I typed in elmira airport.  I got to this link with all the newspaper results for the airport:

4. To limit your search to just newspaper articles, click on “Newspaper” under “Material Type” in the left-hand column.

We also offer a distance research service to out-of town researchers.  The directions on how to do this can be found here:

NYSHNPlease do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions on this or any other matter.

All the Very Best,

Maggie Young

Genealogy and Local History Librarian

Steele Memorial Library
Chemung County Library District
101 E. Church St.
Elmira NY 14901
P: (607)733-8603
F: (607)733-9176

Problems with Ancestry Library Edition


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Click on the link for a slideshow on how to find related records in Ancestry Library Edition.

Problems with ancestry library edition

Another problem on the search function–the algorithm seems to be ignoring location info. For example, if I put in a specific city I may get 20 matches from other states before the one for my search, though all have the same name. It seems to be forgetting to prioritize my results by location. This seems to be a recent, but pervasive, change.

If you see strange results in your searches, please copy the URL of the page and send it to me and I can notify the good folks at Ancestry.  (

Workarounds in Ancestry Library Editio!