Ramage “Reliability” Video Recording Released

Michael Ramage, JD, CG, “Reliability: The Keystone of Genealogical Reasoning, with Judicial Comparisons,” BCG’s December 2015 webinar, is now available on demand from Vimeo.com, here. It is accessible for twenty-four-hour rental ($2.99) or for purchase of unlimited streaming and download ($12.99).

Go to the BCG Webinars tab at the top of this page for previews and links to all BCG webinar recordings.

The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.

Ten-Minute Methodology: How to Ask Good Research Questions

SpringBoard is pleased to present a guest post by Harold Henderson, CG, a Trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. 

Genealogists are often confused. It comes with the territory. We can’t always avoid it, but we would prefer not to wallow in it. Have you ever had a conversation (with yourself or someone else) that began something like this made-up one?

I would like to find out if Joseph born about 1785 who married “unknown” is my fifth great-grandfather, or sixth. Who did Joseph marry? Who were the children? When and where were they born? Is Joseph the father or grandfather of my Jerome J. Jenkins, and if Joseph is not his father then who? And what about Jemima living in Joseph’s household in 1850? Is she his wife?

To escape this confusion, we need to slow down. In particular, we need to ask one question at a time—and make that question specific.

A good research question does two things. First, it identifies a unique individual. (Sometimes it might be a group or an event, but let’s keep it simple for now.) Second, it specifies what we want to learn about that individual.[1]

We can improve the question by working from the known to the unknown and leave the suppositious Joseph on the shelf for now.  But even “Who is Jerome’s father?” doesn’t identify a unique individual. There are too many Jeromes. Better would be, “Who is the father of Jerome J. Jenkins who was born about 1832 in Kentucky and lived in Hamilton County, Ohio, in 1850?” This question identifies a specific individual (Jerome J. Jenkins) and the specific information we’re looking for (his father). It’s specific enough that we can measure a proposed answer against the Genealogical Proof Standard.[2]

Of course, as genealogists we really want to know all about Jerome, so this procedure may strike us as awfully narrow. But a specific question is a magical thing. By concentrating our attention we focus on the right person and learn more than we expected about him. For instance, we might

  • follow Jerome through later censuses and check to see if a possible sibling or a candidate father shows up in or near his household;
  • locate Jerome’s death record (Does it name a father or a county of birth?);
  • seek out a late second marriage record (Does it name a father or a county of birth?);
  • check for any appearance in county history “mug books” where he settled;
  • check his or his children’s marriage records for a church affiliation that might yield information; and
  • find what role Jerome played in the Civil War (If he served, did his muster roll name a county of birth? Did he or any dependents apply for a pension?).

If we find a possible birthplace and a candidate for a father and/or siblings, we can seek out their records, especially the candidate father’s probate. If looking forward doesn’t help, we might cast a wider net and

  • review the 1840 census for heads of Jenkins households in Kentucky containing boys aged 5–10; and
  • look for Jerome in Hamilton County land records and start building a list of friends, associates, and neighbors who might lead back to Kentucky.

And so forth, depending on what turns up in the process. Obviously any leads or contradictions (such as other census records saying he was born in Indiana instead of Kentucky) could redirect the search drastically.

Thorough research for Jerome’s father will inevitably pull in more than just that relationship. When we pursue the answer to this one question, we find ourselves gathering information that answers other questions and even starting to fulfill our original naïve wish to learn “everything” about Joseph.

And we’re sticking with our one question. We don’t start by googling a name and staring at dozens of probably irrelevant results. We follow a strategy that could provide a firm foundation for the next question we ask.

 Seek specifically, and ye shall find abundantly!


[1] Genealogy Standards: 50th Anniversary Edition (Nashville, Tenn.: Turner Publishing, 2014), Standard 10, “Effective Research Questions,” 11–12.
[2] “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” Board for Certification of Genealogists (http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html : viewed 22 January 2016).

The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.

Ten-Minute Methodology: Documentation and the Research Report

Some genealogists have been confused about whether to include source citations in research report introductions and summaries. SpringBoard is pleased to offer clarification of this question by the expert on genealogical source citations, Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA.

Documentation and the Research Report
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Certified Genealogist®, CGL

It’s a fact of life. In a world governed by laws and standards, rules for one aspect of life often collide with rules for another. So it seems with the research report by which we genealogists chronicle each block of research we do.

A research report has one basic goal: to provide written documentation of the research process we executed, the findings we developed, and the conclusions we reached. As a work product, a research report is expected to achieve an appropriate balance of both writing skills and documentation skills. Each of these two skills is governed by one fundamental concept.

For documentation, the basic rule is this:

Each “fact” or assertion we make, if it is not “common knowledge,” should be supported by credible evidence. That evidence will be presented in one of two ways:

  • For simple, direct evidence, that “fact” or assertion can be supported by a simple source citation.
  • For more-complicated evidence, our conclusion must be supported by a proof argument or a proof summary.[1]

For expository writing, the basic rule drilled in us since middle school is this:

Introduce your subject, then

  • say what you’re going to say,
  • say it,
  • then say what you’ve said.

A good research report will embody both concepts. However, report writers sometimes perceive a conflict.  As a step toward understanding the issue, let’s outline the two types of work products.

An essay based on a research topic has three main parts:

  1. INTRODUCTION, where we
    1. Give readers the most-basic information needed to understand the subject.
    2. Tell the reader what our research will prove.
  2. BODY OF PAPER, where we
    1. Present our findings and analyses that, all together, make the case for what we said we would prove.
    2. Support each “fact” or assertion with a citation to a credible source.
  3. CONCLUSION, where we
    1. Reiterate our main points.
    2. Issue a call-to-action if appropriate.

A report based on a segment of research also has three main parts:

  1. INTRODUCTION, which consists of
    1. Background: the who, what, when, and where that we will be researching—i.e., the essentials about the problem that readers need to know.
    2. Executive Summary: an easy-to-find and quick-to-grasp overview of the results of the research—positive and negative; often presented as a bulleted list of conclusions.
    1. Present an item-by-item account of what we have searched, what we did or did not find, whatever significant problem or anomalies we encountered, and the conclusions we have drawn from this body of evidence.
    2. Support each abstract or transcript with a citation to the record; document each contextual “fact” we add from general study; and provide a proof argument for all conclusions we reached from indirect, complex, or conflicting evidence. We may or may not attach image copies of records, with citations on each image and a cross-reference in the report.
  3. CONCLUSION, where we
    1. Reiterate our main points.
    2. Make suggestions for future research based upon our latest findings and conclusions.

Both types of writing have the same essential needs. Both follow the same pattern. It’s a pattern we see in a variety of educational venues, from journal articles that often begin with extracts or abstracts, to textbook chapters and conference syllabi that often begin with bulleted lists of key points.

The perception of conflict arises when we overthink the documentation rule and assume it must override the basic rule for expository writing. The result is a new assumption with a logistical impossibility:

If every statement of fact must have a citation of source, then every fact asserted in the introductory background and executive summary must also carry documentation.

Logistical Impossibility:
Given that the purpose of the background and the summation is to provide an easily digestible recap of main points—and given that research conclusions are based on the whole body of evidence—then providing citations for any assertion in the introduction is possible only when a point is based on simple direct evidence.[2] Even then, in the background or the summation, the totality of the citations could easily overwhelm what is supposed to be a simple recap at the start of the report.

When our summary points are based on extensive and complex evidence, “documentation” of each point would often require a lengthy discussion of how that conclusion was reached. That discourse and all the citations necessary to support it would strip the introduction of its core function: a quick summation of the main points the paper will develop.

As genealogists who strive to meet all standards, do we violate the documentation rule when we summarize background facts or briefly recap conclusions in our introduction?

No.  Standard 2, the one most relevant, instructs us to attach citations for

  • each statement … that is someone else’s observation, deduction, or opinion;
  • each fact that is not common knowledge;
  • each image the genealogist shows of someone else’s creation; and
  • each conclusion the genealogist establishes.[3]

Standard 2 does not state that each fact or conclusion must repeat its citation or its supporting proof argument each time the point is mentioned.

In sum:
Each part of our research report has a specific function. The presentation of documented evidence is the function of the body of the report—the section typically labeled “Research & Findings.” The function of the introduction is to provide a directory or a road map of what’s to come, so our readers will not be lost in the maze of evidence that the body of the report presents.[4]


[1] Summarized from Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition (Nashville and New York: Ancestry Imprint, Turner Publishing, 2014), Standards 1–3, 53.

[2] For example, in the introduction, the set of “facts” we assert for a problem person might be simply cited to the client’s file or letter or to a prior report.

[3] Genealogy Standards, p. 6, Standard 2: Specificity.

[4] For additional guidance on the creation of research reports, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 20: Research Reports for Research Success,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-20-research-reports-research-success : posted 23 May 2015).

The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.

Researching African American Families that Came out of Slavery

SpringBoard is pleased to present the first in an occasional series of posts about diverse communities. Aimed at intermediate to advanced researchers, the posts will offer tips to those who are new to researching various racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Here LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, CG, offers guidelines on African American research.

Diverse Communities: Researching African American Families that Came out of Slavery

Researchers of African American families with slave ancestry face a significant challenge because antebellum records reflect the status of those ancestors as human chattel. Records rarely identified slaves by surnames and in some cases failed to record given names. The force of law also guaranteed that few slaves had the ability to record their own histories. Nevertheless, before and after slavery, sources were created that document the lives of the enslaved. What follows are descriptions of these sources, brief discussions of their value to researchers, and tips on how to access them.

First Steps

Family lore is always a good starting point and often provides the most important clues about the origins of slave ancestors. Most slave states did not fully implement statewide registration of births and deaths until the first two decades of the twentieth century. The 1870 U.S. census, the first to enumerate all former slaves by name, is a principal resource for locating a formerly enslaved ancestor in the postbellum era.

A Name for the Research Subject

The surname used by an ancestor in the 1870 census may point to the identity of former slave owners. Documents created by or about them often provide genealogical information about enslaved African American families. For example, names and relationships among slaves might appear in deeds of gift or sale, mortgages, or probate files.

Not all slaves used the name of the last slave owner. A small child who was separated from his extended slave family might use the last owner’s surname after slavery, but if he was old enough to remember his origins, he might reclaim the surname of an earlier owner. Other freedmen took the surnames of slave owners who held their remote ancestors. The surname used by a family in the 1870 U.S. census may differ from the name used by the same family in the 1880 U.S. census. Comparing first names may identify the same family in a household a decade later.

Free Persons of Color: Local and State Records

The majority of African Americans who lived during the antebellum period were enslaved, but some of these ancestors became free persons of color (FPCs) who obtained their freedom during slavery. Records relating to an ancestor’s status as a FPC might be located at the local or state level, depending on how emancipation was effected. A former owner’s “deed of manumission” might have been recorded in county record books with real property deeds. Where a slave was freed by the terms of a testator’s will, such evidence would be included in a probate file. The legal requirements for emancipating slaves differed from state to state and in different eras. In South Carolina, for example, legislative action was required to free a slave after 1820 and so would have been noted in legislative papers.[1]

After emancipation, FPCs may have generated the same types of records as everyone else, such as tax lists and city directories. In addition, certain states and counties maintained registers of free Negros, some of which are online.[2] A FPC should also appear in pre-1870 census records, as FPCs were enumerated in the U.S. census beginning in 1790.[3]

Federal Records

Many Federal records relating to formerly enslaved African Americans not only predate the 1870 census but also include more biographical information.

The War Department’s General Order 143 established the U.S. Bureau of Colored Troops in 1863, pursuant to which African Americans were recruited without regard to their status as free men or former slaves. Compiled military service records, pension applications, and Civil War service payments also provide information about the lives of former slaves.[4]  Widows’ pension records are being digitized slowly, and a small percentage can be accessed online.[5] Most are textual records, so the file must be ordered from or viewed at the NARA in Washington, D.C.

The Field Office records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (“Freedmen’s Bureau”) cover the period 1865–1872 and contain extensive documentation of African American lives immediately after the Civil War era. This collection includes labor contracts—overseen by the Freedmen’s Bureau—between former owners and freedmen and women and other records containing names and personal information about former slaves. The original records, part of NARA Record Group (RG) 105, are not indexed, but an ongoing project is making them searchable online.[6] At present, eighteen of twenty-two record sets can be accessed online free of charge.[7]

The Freedman’s Bank, which operated from 1865–1874, was separate from the Freedmen’s Bureau and created records that are rich in biographical detail. The questions asked when accounts were opened include the names of former owners, parents, and siblings and the last known whereabouts of family members. Thirty-seven branch offices were opened in seventeen states and the District of Columbia. Records of twenty-nine branches of the Freedman’s Bank are available through NARA and online.[8]

An interactive website assists researchers in locating the sites of Freedmen Bureau offices and other institutions such as Freedman’s Bank branches. The website includes sample documents and links to the NARA descriptive pamphlets for the states where the Freedmen’s Bureau operated.[9]


It is difficult but not impossible to prove “marital” relationships in slave populations. Slaves could not enter into the legal contract implied by “marriage”;[10] however there may be evidence that a slave couple entered into a committed relationship that predated emancipation. On 30 May 1865, the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau issued orders regarding the conditions for solemnizing marriages of former slaves and the maintenance of records.[11] State legislatures enacted legislation to validate pre-existing unions.[12] Files of the Freedmen’s Bureau contain hundreds of marriages recorded by field offices in southern states, accessible at NARA and online.[13]

Even during the antebellum period slave owners sometimes recognized relationships by describing a couple as man and wife in a will or other legal document. Evidence of antebellum relationships might appear in Freedmen’s Bureau labor contracts that recorded freedmen and women in family groups.

Fleshing out the Stories

Another source worth consulting is the online collection of “Slave Narratives” compiled by the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression and accessible on the website of the Library of Congress.[14] This collection includes 2,300 typewritten narratives with searchable text and links to 500 photographs of former slaves. The narratives are first-person accounts of life as a slave and often include locations, names of former owners, and information about a former slave’s ancestors and other relatives.


Researching slave ancestors requires both the use of unique record collections and a slightly different focus when using common sources such as probate records and county deed books. The reference books listed below provide additional background and detailed information about these resources.

Recommended Reading

Abrams, Alan. 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.” Sylvania, Ohio: Doubting Thomas Publishing, 2001.

Burroughs, Tony. “Finding African Americans on the 1870 Census.” Heritage Quest (January/February 2001): 50–56. Online edition. http://www.tonyburroughs.com/uploads/1/3/2/8/13281200/finding_african_americans_on_the_1870_census.pdf : 2015. Guidelines for making an effective search, including ways to tackle the issue of different surnames on different census records for the same family.

Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. New York: Vintage Books, 1976. A seminal study of African American families touching on slave kin networks, domestic arrangements, surnames, and other social and cultural practices.

Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. In the Matter of Color, Race, and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. An overview of the legal development of the use of race as a badge of servitude.

Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. A useful summary of laws that governed various aspects of slavery, such as inheritance of slaves, the status of children born to slave mothers, and emancipations.

Rose, James M., and Alice Eichholz. Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003. In addition to important dates in African American History, this is a state-by-state guide to resources relevant to slaves and free persons in the antebellum period.

Smith, Franklin Carter, and Emily Anne Croom. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008.
Washington, Reginald. “The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research.” Prologue Magazine (Summer 1997). Online edition. http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/freedmans-savings-and-trust.html : 2015.

Woodtor, Dee Palmer. Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity. New York: Random House, 1999. For guidance focusing on the Reconstruction Era.

[1] John Belton O’Neall, The Negro Law of South Carolina, (Columbia: John G. Bowman, 1848), 11: “Sec. 37. The Act of 1820, [declared] that no slave should hereafter be emancipated, but by Act of the Legislature.” (https://books.google.com/books?id=r9lBAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover).

[2] See, for example, Virginia and Louisiana registers. Library of Virginia (http://www.lva.virginia.gov), search for “Free Negro register.” Also, a digitization project announced in “Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past,” LSU Libraries (http://www.louisianadigitallibrary.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16313coll51).

[4] See, for the compiled military service records, “Soldiers and Sailors Database,” National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm). Also, for pensions, U.S. National Archives, “General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934,” Microfilm Publication T288, online edition (http://www.archives.gov). The pension index is also online at FamilySearch, Ancestry, and Fold3.

[5] “Civil War ‘Widows’ Pension’ Applications,” Fold3.com (https://www.fold3.com/page/3496_civil_war_widows_pension_applications/#story_2684).

[6] The Freedmen’s Bureau Project (http://www.discoverfreedmen.org).

[7] “Historical Record Collections,” FamilySearch (http://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/list); from NARA microfilm publications M1900–1913. A search for “Freedmen’s Bureau” will generate an alphabetical list by state.

[8] “United States, Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1417695); from NARA microfilm M816.

[9] Toni Carrier and Angela Walton-Raji, Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau (http://mappingthefreedmensbureau.com).

[10] O’Neall, The Negro Law of South Carolina, 23: “Sec. 37. A slave cannot even legally contract marriage.” The SC statute is typical of the law that applied in the historical slave states.

[11] Reginald Washington, “Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony: Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records,” Prologue Magazine (Spring 2005), (http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/spring/freedman-marriage-recs.html): 37, para. 13.

[12]  For example, see “North Carolina General Statutes,” database, North Carolina General Assembly, NCGA (http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/Statutes/StatutesTOC.pl?Chapter=0051), Article 1, § 51–5, “Marriages between slaves validated.” Couples were required to register their marriages.

[13] These are in NARA microfilm publication 1865, part of RG 105. See “The Freedmen’s Bureau, 1865–1872,” National Archives (www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/#marriages). Also, “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Marriages, 1815-1869,” database and images, FamilySearch (http://familysearch.org).

[14] “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936–1938,” digital images, Library of Congress, American Memory (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html).