Diverse Communities: Finding Irish Immigrant Origins

Finding Irish Immigrant Origins

by Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG, FGBS[1]

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and most people who research them hope to eventually learn from where those immigrants came. Successfully identifying an Irish immigrant’s point of origin depends on factors such as the immigrant’s religion, occupation, relative wealth, social prominence, migration path, and place of settlement; the period of immigration; and unique qualities of the given name and surname.

All the commonly used sources should be considered when tracing an Irish immigrant, but the usefulness of some of those sources may be limited:

  • Many poor famine-era Irish settled in cities and did not own property, and therefore might not be found in deeds, real estate tax rolls, or probate records.
  • Arrival and naturalization records from the period in which the majority of Irish immigrants came to the United States contain less detail than those for later periods.
  • Most Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic. Depending on the diocese, Catholic sacramental registers may be in local custody with access restricted to parish staff. Locating and using church records, therefore, can be challenging.
  • City dwellers with common names are difficult to distinguish in directories and censuses, as many of them had similar occupations.

Irish places of origin are sometimes mentioned in obituaries, carved on grave markers, or listed in sacramental registers. While many vital, census, and military records state only “Ireland” as a place of birth, occasionally something more specific is found. Some researchers may never discover a source that names the place of origin; others may encounter multiple records identifying the place.

Irish immigrants typically had close ties to their places of origin. They identified with their townlands or towns. They may have settled near and socialized with other people who came from the same area. In some cases this was a result of “chain migration,” where later immigrants chose a place of settlement based on information received from those who went earlier. Frequently, the earliest immigrant in an Irish family was a young, single woman who could find employment as a live-in domestic servant—and therefore was able to save most of her earnings to pay for passage for another member of her family.

When no source is found naming an Irish place of birth, records related to the immigrant’s network of associates should be explored. An immigrant’s siblings, cousins, or other relatives may have settled in different areas and created different types of records that provide helpful information. A family member who was well-to-do may have been able to afford a grave marker naming a point of origin. A poor relative may have been admitted to an almshouse where records document a place of birth. Even searching for known family members who remained in Ireland can help pinpoint an immigrant’s roots.

Networks of associates extend beyond family. Witnesses, sponsors, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and friends may have ties to the immigrant’s home. Some urban neighborhoods comprised people with common origins; some rural settlements were the result of group migration. Studying the history of the immigrant’s new home may provide general information, if not specifics, about a point of origin. Immigration history can also offer clues. For example, approximately two-thirds of the Irish who came to the United States between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1814 were from Ulster province.[2]

Most of the population of Ireland remained in one location for generation after generation, so identifying a place in which a surname occurred historically can lead to successful identification of a point of origin. Some names, such as Kelly, are found all over Ireland, but others are found in specific counties or regions. If the immigrant’s family and associates include several people with surnames that can be linked to the same general area in Ireland, strong indirect evidence exists of a connection to that area.

Whether there is direct evidence about an immigrant’s point of origin, a few hints pointing to a general area, or no clue whatsoever, eventually Irish sources should be added to the research plan. As in United States research, records that are available and relevant depend on the specific situation: time period, location, religion, social status, and relative wealth. If a specific place is known or suspected, sources unique to that place should be pursued. Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and Ryan’s Irish Records include county-by-county lists of sources, and Flyleaf Press (http://www.flyleaf.ie/) publishes a series of books addressing research in select Irish counties. Most Irish counties have one or more heritage centres staffed by people who are knowledgeable about resources for that area.

If little to no information is known about the immigrant’s home in Ireland, priority should be given to sources covering a large part of the population and having broad-ranging indexes, such as church records and civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths.

Civil registration of vital events began in 1864 for all of Ireland,[3] and indexes cover the entire country.[4] Immigrants who left Ireland after the start of civil registration, therefore, can more easily be linked to their Irish origins than those who left earlier. Uncommon names are easier to work with and the more information that is known (about both the subject and his or her family) the better the chance for success. If an immigrant couple married in Ireland after the start of civil registration, then cross-referencing the surnames of the bride and groom in the index can sometimes point to an Irish area of interest. If the immigrant left before the start of civil registration, a search for records of siblings, cousins, or other relatives who remained in Ireland may prove worthwhile. Indexes are available through FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com, Rootsireland.ie, IrishGenealogy.ie, and the General Register Office of Northern Ireland. IrishGenealogy.ie’s indexes link to images of the original records in many cases; additional images will be added in the future.

Church records cover a period prior to the start of civil registration, but finding and using the records is not always straightforward. Starting dates, coverage, and record locations vary. In rural Ireland, Roman Catholic registers begin about 1820, but most parishes have gaps in coverage. Presbyterian ministers were required to keep records beginning in 1819; registers predating that year are rare. Those from Church of Ireland parishes have earlier starting dates, but many were lost in the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office.

Indexes and abstracts of Irish church records are available online. It is sometimes possible to locate a church record of a baptism or marriage when nothing more than names and approximate dates are known. For example, Rootsireland.ie and IrishGenealogy.ie offer indexes to collections of Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other churches. Ancestry.com and Findmypast.com provide indexes to digitized Roman Catholic registers found in the National Library of Ireland. Given their individual strengths and weaknesses, it is wise to check all known indexes.

Censuses for 1901 and 1911 are available for all of Ireland, but only fragments of earlier censuses survive. Existing census records may be searched using an index at the website of the National Archives of Ireland.[5]

Valuation records were compiled beginning in the nineteenth century. They were used to establish a uniform assessment of property to determine the amount of tax due. Records identify each holding’s occupier and immediate lessor. If an immigrant’s place of origin is not known, these country-wide tax valuation records can be used to identify places where the surname was found. John Grenham’s “Irish Surnames” tool allows users to search for civil parishes in which one or more related surnames appear together, offering a clue about possible origins.[6]

Sources and strategies for researching Irish immigrants in the United States are similar to those used for researching other immigrant groups, but identifying the immigrants’ points of origin can be more complicated than for later-arriving groups. Determining an immigrant’s Irish birthplace usually requires extensive research in U.S. records, studying the immigrant’s network of associates, and using indexed Irish records to pinpoint places of potential interest. Success sometimes comes quickly, but more often it requires hard work and careful analysis.


Suggested Reading


Falley, Margaret Dickson. Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research: A Guide to the Genealogical Records, Methods, and Sources in Ireland. 3 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1980.

Grenham, John. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors: The Complete Guide. 4th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2012.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Radford, Dwight A., and Kyle J. Betit. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2001.

Reilly, James R. Richard Griffith and His Valuations of Ireland. Baltimore: Clearfield, 2007.

Ryan, James G. Irish Church Records: Their History, Availability, and Use in Family and Local History Research. 2nd ed. Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland: Flyleaf Press, 2001.

———. Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History. Rev. ed. Dublin: Flyleaf Press/Ancestry, 1999.

 Journals and Magazines

The Irish at Home and Abroad.

Published 1993–1999. For a subject index, see “Index to The Irish at Home and Abroad,” FamilySearch Wiki (https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Index_to_The_Irish_at_Home_and_Abroad ).

The Irish Genealogist.

Published by the Irish Genealogical Research Society (http://www.irishancestors.ie/?page_id=437). For a name index, 1937–2001, see http://www.irishancestors.ie/?page_id=3039 .

Irish Lives Remembered.


Irish Roots.



Buggy, Joseph. Townland of Origin: Irish Genealogical Research in North America (blog). http://www.townlandoforigin.com

Grenham, John. Irish Roots (blog). http://www.johngrenham.com/blog/

Moughty, Donna. Donna’s Irish Genealogy Resources (blog). http://moughty.com/blog/

Santry, Claire. Irish Genealogy News (blog). http://www.irishgenealogynews.com


General Register Office. https://www.welfare.ie/en/Pages/General-Register-Office.aspx

General Register Office of Northern Ireland. https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/information-and-services/family-history-heritage-and-museums/research-family-history-general

Grenham, John. Irish Ancestors. https://www.johngrenham.com

Irish Family History Centre. https://irishfamilyhistorycentre.com

Irishgenealogy.ie. http://www.irishgenealogy.ie/en/

National Archives of Ireland. http://www.nationalarchives.ie

Irish Essay Writing Service. https://topgradeessay.com

National Library of Ireland. http://www.nli.ie

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni

RootsIreland.ie. http://www.rootsireland.ie

Santry, Claire. Irish Genealogy Toolkit. http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com

Waldron, Paddy. Irish Civil Registration: How to Find Records of BMDs etc. http://pwaldron.info/CivilReg.html


[1] With thanks to Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt, CG, and Suzanne McVetty, CG, FGBS, for their helpful suggestions. All URLs were valid as of 6 December 2016.

[2] Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 169–70.

[3] Non-Catholic marriages, however, were recorded beginning in 1845.

[4] Northern Ireland was formed in 1922. Beginning that year, vital records for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are separate.

[5] “Census of Ireland 1901/1911 and Census fragments and substitutes, 1821–51,” National Archives of Ireland (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/).

[6] John Grenham, “Irish Surnames,” Irish Ancestors (https://www.johngrenham.com/surnames/).


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.

Diverse Communities: Researching Italian Ancestors Part 2

 Italian Genealogical Research: Part II

Melanie D. Holtz, CG

Italy is a land of beauty and contrasts, not only in its topography but also within its records. Yet that’s what makes this form of genealogical research so interesting! Knowledge of the major record sets is key to making sure your research is thorough. The five major record sets are:

  • Civil Registration – Italian civil registration is not just birth, marriage, and death records. It also includes municipal census records, records compiled from municipal census records, such as the Stato di Famiglia Storico [Historical State of the Family Certificate] or the Certificato di Stato di Famiglia [Certificate of Family Status, one of several forms of an Italian residency certificate], diverse acts [such as civil recognitions, births of abandoned children, adoptions, deaths of residents elsewhere, stillbirths], marriage banns, supplemental marriage, birth, and death records, and citizenship records.

If you wish to order civil records from an Italian town hall, it’s important to understand what formats the documents come in. Your purpose will determine what format of the record you order. For example, if you need the record because you are tracing the heirs for an estate, then you will need the “Certificato,” as other formats would not be acceptable in a U.S. court. Keep in mind that Italy has privacy restrictions that extend for seventy years after the creation of the record.

Two sets of civil registers are created each year. One set is conserved in the town hall and the other set is sent to the Tribunale (similar to a District Court) for use in legal proceedings. After seventy years, the Tribunale’s copy is sent to the province’s Archivio di Stato (provincial/state archives) for conservation. Understanding how these records were created may help find a record when one set of civil records has been destroyed.

FamilySearch currently has the largest and most accessible collection of Italian civil, ecclesiastical, military, and notarial records outside of Italy. According to their agreement with the Italian State Archives (Direzione Generale per gli Archivi or DGA), they are digitizing all civil records held within Italy’s provincial/state archives. Digitized copies of these records are then returned to the Italian State Archive, a key part of the digitization agreement. The DGA is placing these images on their website, Portale Antenati. These records will eventually be indexed by name, date, location, and record type. Ancestry also has a modest collection of Italian civil records.

  • Ecclesiastical Records – This record set includes baptisms, confirmations, death/burial records, marriages, marriage attachments, dispensations, and different types of ecclesiastical censuses. FamilySearch has some ecclesiastical records on microfilm but the great majority must be accessed in local parishes or diocesan archives.

In general, ecclesiastical records extend back to the end of the Council of Trent in 1583 or to the construction date of the parish the ancestors attended. Records of defunct parishes are often kept at the diocesan archives. In 1614, Pope Paul V prescribed the keeping of status animarum (State of the Souls) records, a census-like record used to track the vital statistics of all parishioners and the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion) they had received. They were also used for taxation purposes in some time periods and localities.

  • Military Records – Key military records consist of conscription records, extraction lists, service records, and discharge papers. FamilySearch has a limited amount of these records on microfilm or in digitized form. Some provincial/state archives have created databases containing the conscription records for their province, which can be accessed on their websites. For an example of one such project, see the website of the Archivio di Stato di Cosenza.
  • Census and Tax Assessment Records – Census and tax assessment records take many different forms in Italy, depending on time period, locality, and who created the records. Various forms of land or property taxation censuses existed into the mid-nineteenth century (for some areas into the 1870s). Often called catasti onciari, censimente, or riveli, they were usually created by ecclesiastical authorities. Many provincial/state archives are digitizing these records, which can be a valuable resource, especially when parish records have been destroyed.

Some forms of municipal censuses began after Italian Unification but were phased out with the onset of federal censuses. If the municipal censuses survive (registri di popolazioni, shede individuale, foglie di famiglie), they can be an invaluable source of information, as they often document the vital statistics of whole family groups, as well as immigration/emigration information. Federal censuses are usually not available for consultation.

  • Notarial Records – In Italy, notaries recorded all types of legal transactions. Therefore, notarial records can be an invaluable source of evidence. Some types of notarial records are mortgages, property sales/transfers (may include the sale of land, buildings, animals, trees or fruits thereof, wells/water rights), adoptions, atto di notarietà (sworn statement used to prove identity when there was no birth or baptismal records), wills, dowries and marital contracts. I once found an amazingly helpful property transfer that detailed three generations of a family and provided death dates and places for the initial couple on the deed, the client’s second great-grandparents. As access to parish records was not permitted in this area of Italy, this pre-civil registration information was especially valuable. To learn more about notarial records and their application to genealogical research, consider attending my BCG webinar this coming November, “Civil Law Notaries: Using Notarial Records to Build a Family History.” Watch SpringBoard for an announcement in October.

FamilySearch has a limited amount of these records digitized or on microfilm but their collection is increasing. The majority of these records need to be researched onsite in Italy’s provincial/state archives or notarial archives, depending on the province.

Other types of records do not have as strong a genealogical application as the four listed above. Italian newspapers are one of these resources. The great majority of emigrating Italians came from the peasant class, which was largely illiterate. Obituaries, wedding announcements, or “hometown happenings” sections in Italian newspapers for the majority of Italian citizens are not found until the later part of the twentieth century, long past the major immigration waves. However, Italian newspapers are a valuable resource for cultural, social and historical research. There is no centralized source for digitized historical versions of Italian newspapers, like one sees in the U.S. These records are being maintained on individual newspaper websites. For example, see the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, which has digitized all of its publications since its founding in 1867.

In contrast, Italian-American (Italian-Canadian, Italian-Brazilian, etc.) newspapers contain notifications of immigrant arrivals, wedding announcements, death notices, and many other types of valuable genealogical information. You can find these records in the collections of historical societies, as well as state and local libraries.

Further Study in Italian Research


There are several Italian courses available now or during the upcoming year.

  • The National Institute of Genealogical Studies has four Italian genealogy courses available, ranging from basic to intermediate, with more to come in the future.
  • The Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research will offer an Italian Genealogical Research Practicum in October 2016. The practicum is for the intermediate researcher with some experience in Italian research.


The list below is not exhaustive but does provide important resources for a genealogist learning to work in Italian genealogical research.1 Several language resources are included.

Amadè, Luca Sarzi. L’Antenato Nel Cassetto: Manuale di Scienza Genealogica. Sesto San Giovanni, Milano, Italy: Mimesis Edizioni, 2015. This resource is in Italian and contains handwriting samples of abbreviations seen in documents written in Latin.

Battelli, Giulio. Lezioni di Paleografia. 4th ed., second printing. Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007).

Bischoff, Bernhard. Paleografia Latina Antichita e Mediovo. 2nd ed., Italian translation. Padova, Italy: Editrice Antenore, 1986.

Cole, Trafford R. Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical, & Other Records in Family History Research. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1995.

Holtz, Melanie D. “Evaluating the Evidentiary Value of an Italian Record.” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 21 May 2015. http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2015/05/evaluating-evidentiary-value-of-italian.html : 2016.

Holtz, Melanie D. “Genealogical Standards in Italian Genealogical Research, Genealogical Proof Standard (Part I).” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 23 November 2014. (http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2014/11/genealogical-standards-in-italian_23.html : 2016.

Holtz, Melanie D. “Applying Genealogical Standards to Italian Genealogical Records.” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 17 November 2014. http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2014/11/applying-genealogical-standards-to.html  : 2016.

Holtz, Melanie D. “Adding Cultural Context to Your Family History.” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 29 July 2015. http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2015/07/adding-cultural-context-to-your-family.html : 2016.

Mendola, Louis. Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry. New York: Trinacria Editions, 2013.


Melanie D. Holtz, CG®
Specializing in Italian Genealogical Research and Dual Citizenship

1 The resources given in the first post on this subject have not been repeated.


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.

Diverse Communities: Researching Italian Ancestors Part 1

Italian Genealogical Research: Part I

Melanie D. Holtz, CG

Between 1880 and 1920 more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States. During this same time period, there were significant Italian immigration waves to South America, Canada, Switzerland, France, England, and many other countries. Italians remain one of the largest ethnic groups within the U.S., and interest in Italian ancestry and culture continues to grow exponentially. Professional genealogists, especially those working in the U.S., Canada, or South America, may encounter Italian ancestors when researching an extended family.

Historical Considerations for Italian Research

The country of Italy was created from multiple city-states during a time period known as Italian Unification. Combining vastly different city-states with different cultural mores and dialects was especially challenging, and those differences are seen within the records. As not all areas of present-day Italy became part of the country during Italian Unification, understanding history can help locate hard-to-find records.

1543–1563 The Council of Trent, a body of Catholic leaders, met in the city of Trent to reform various policies of the Catholic Church. After the Council’s adjournment in 1563, priests were required to maintain baptismal, marriage, and death/burial records. In 1614, Pope Paul V prescribed the keeping of status animarum (State of the Souls) records in his book, Rituale Romanum.
1559–1713 Spain ruled most of present-day Italy. Some records in this time period are in Spanish.
1713–1796 The Austrian Hapsburgs ruled most of present-day mainland Italy. German can be found in the records of this time period, most especially in the northern regions.
1796 Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, conquered the Austrians and gained control of Italy.
1806–1815 Napoleon ruled most of Italy. In 1806 he implemented civil registration.
1808 The King of Naples introduced civil registration to the Kingdom of Naples (in general, those areas of mainland Italy south of Roma). Civil registration was called the Stato Civile Napoleonico (Napoleonic Civil Registration).
1813–1815 Civil registration ended in most areas of northern Italy, and the present-day Italian regions were returned to their former rulers. Southern Italy maintained civil registration from 1806. Sicilia did not begin civil registration until 1820 and continued it unabated.
1816–1865 Civil registration during this time period was called Stato Civile Restaurazione (Restoration Civil Records]) and kept by part of the peninsula between 1816–1865 and in Sicilia from 1820–1865.
1821–1831 During this time period there were many revolts against former rulers. You may find that civil registers for some years were destroyed, especially in the region of Sicilia.
1848–49 There were bloody revolts against Austrian rule in most major cities. New governments were established, and the Pope won back control of Roma.
1858–59 Most of northern Italy was united under the Kingdom of Sardinia.
1860–62 Sicilia and southern Italy were freed from French rule.
1861–65 Italian Unification: On 15 November 1865 King Vittorio Emmanuele united all city-states, except for the city of Roma, the independent country of San Marino, and the region of Venezia. After this point, civil registration was known as the Stato Civile Italiano (Italian Civil Records).
1866 The region of Venezia became part of Italy after the Prussians defeated the Austrians. Law now mandated civil registration.
1870–71 The French were ousted from Roma during the Franco-Prussian War. Italy took control of all areas except for the Vatican. The capital of Italy was moved from Torino to Roma.
1915–18 After World War I, Trentino and Trieste became part of Italy.
1946 Italians voted to establish a republican constitution.
1970 Civil divorce was made legal.

Getting started in Italian research is not as daunting as it might seem. There are many helpful resources available for free or at low cost. FamilySearch’s Family History Research Wiki on Italian Genealogy contains helpful information on all record types. They also offer a video course on beginning Italian genealogical research, genealogical word lists, and letter-writing and handwriting guides that are very useful.

Brigham Young University also has an Italian script tutorial that can be invaluable when reading the records.

The resources listed below are aimed at the beginner and intermediate researcher. They contain translations of the most commonly found documents, guidance on ordering documents from Italy, details on the various Italian archives, and other information.

Adams, Suzanne Russo. Finding Your Italian Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide. Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2008.

Colletta, John Philip. Finding Italian Roots: The Complete Guide for Americans. 2nd ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008.

Nelson, Lynn. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1997.

Is It Important to Know the Town of Origin?

It is essential to know the ancestor’s town of origin, as nearly all records useful for genealogical research were created at the town (commune) or parish (parrocchia) level. If the town is unknown the research should first focus on the records created by these ancestors in the place of immigration. Once the town of origin is known, research can proceed in the Italian records.

In large cities, like Roma, Palermo, or Napoli, knowing the neighborhood (quartiere) where the family resided is essential to effectively research the civil records. Large cities had multiple town halls so the civil records are separated by the neighborhood where they were recorded. Not knowing the neighborhood may require paging through thousands of records for each town hall and each year, a time-consuming process.

Italian military records are arranged by military district, with only a few military districts within each province. Each provincial/state archives (Archivo di Stato) conserves 19th century military records for their province. Where a researcher can find pre-19th century military records varies. Research in military records could determine, for example, the town of birth for a male ancestor born after 1855, even though all that is known is that he came from the province of Napoli.

Ports of Emigration

Understanding the major ports of Italian emigration is also important. Italian ancestors who emigrated out of Genova were usually from northern Italy. Ancestors who emigrated from Napoli were usually of southern Italian or Sicilian descent. While some immigration manifests show the port of emigration as Palermo, these ships also docked in Napoli to gather supplies and additional passengers for the transatlantic journey. Therefore, ship manifests that show Palermo as the port of emigration may also include immigrants from southern Italy.

Understanding the general area an ancestor may have come from could help determine the town of origin, as town names on immigration manifests are often abbreviated. For example, if an ancestor came from the town of Santa Maria, knowing the general area of origin may help narrow down which one of the twenty-plus towns in Italy that begin with Santa Maria is the correct one.

Tracing Italian Women

Italian women used their birth surname throughout their lives, even on their immigration manifests. Occasionally, you may find a record under her maiden and married surnames, with the word “in” between them. Ecclesiastical records may note only her first name once she reaches adulthood, and she may be designated as “the wife of [husband’s name]” or “the daughter of [father’s name].” However, while this was the practice in Italy and other Latin countries, after immigration to the United States Italian women were recorded using their husband’s surname.

In my next post, we’ll discuss the five most common record sets used in Italian research, the best places to find records outside of Italy, and additional educational resources on Italian genealogical research.

Melanie D. Holtz, CG
Specializing in Italian Genealogical Research and Dual Citizenship

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.

Diverse Communities: Researching Jewish Ancestors

Diverse Communities: Jewish Genealogy

Rhoda Miller, EdD, CG

Jewish genealogy has become increasingly popular in recent years. The reasons are multifaceted but largely relate to interest in Jewish identity. A good starting place is to dispel the major myths of Jewish genealogical research.

  • Records were all destroyed during the Holocaust; nothing is left.
  • Towns no longer exist.
  • The family name was changed, and no one knows the original name.

The information to follow will undermine these myths.

Historical and Cultural Background: A Brief Overview

History: Jews are the people of three notable geographic dispersals in modern history. The first relates to the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834) whereby Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.[1] Generally this dispersal was to Mediterranean-basin countries as well as Central and Eastern Europe. The second dispersion was the mass migration from Eastern Europe (1882–1914) due to poverty and prejudice. The majority of people emigrated to the United States but also to South Africa, England, and South America.[2] The third dispersion was during the Holocaust era (1919–1945), when Jews migrated worldwide, including settlement in Palestine. Jewish communities are found throughout the world, so it should not be surprising if a paper trail leads to an unexpected location.[3]

Ashkenazic and Sephardic: In both religious practice and cultural tradition, there is a difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. The Ashkenazim largely emerged from Eastern Europe while Sephardim emerged from Spain and the diaspora countries of the Spanish Inquisition. One important difference relates to naming practices. The Ashkenazic tradition is to name a child after a deceased person, usually that of a grandparent. Therefore, given names tend to skip a generation. In the Sephardic naming tradition children are named after living people, and the full name can have a suffix, such as “Jr.” Sephardic surnames often sound Spanish or Portuguese and are not thought of as “Jewish.”[4] One can utilize the concept of a “Jewish name” as a clue, but it is far from definitive evidence.

Names: Jewish given names can be confounding, as they may have English, Yiddish, Hebrew, homeland language, and diminutive versions, as seen in the following example. Oral history claimed that a person’s given name was Louis. He has been found in U.S. records as Leopold and Harry. His name appears on a passenger ship manifest as Lipot. His gravestone records his Hebrew name as Asher Lev. Asher loosely translates to Harry while Lev becomes Leopold/Louis. No record has been found to date with the name Louis other than the back of a photograph.[5] Name changes, given and surname in the U.S., can be tracked using traditional sources: naturalization records, passenger ship manifests, and vital and military records. Random luck may play a role. Resources below list variations of names based upon custom and transliteration.[6]

It is difficult to trace Ashkenazim prior to the early- to mid-nineteenth century, as Jews largely did not have surnames. Then they were usually known by a patronymic—e.g., Isaac ben [son of] Abraham—or by a given name commonly associated with an occupation. For example, “Nissim the dyer” was Nissim to whom people gave their spinning to color.[7] The timeframe during which Jews were required to take surnames varied considerably among Western European countries and the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.[8] Sephardic surnames, on the other hand, existed as early as the tenth or eleventh centuries.[9]

Languages: Language complicates research. Yiddish was the vernacular of most Eastern European Jews but not all. Hebrew is the language of religious worship as well as the official language of Israel. The two languages share the same alphabet but are distinct and should not be confused as one. Many diaspora Jews were also conversant in the local language(s) of the country in which they lived; multilingualism is common among Jewish immigrants of any period. Records for any given location may be in multiple languages depending upon the time period and ruling government.[10]

Cemeteries: Burial and gravestone practices are important to Jewish genealogy. Traditional burial occurs within twenty-four hours of death with the mourning period (shiva) to follow for typically three to seven days. Jewish gravestones are formally unveiled during a ceremony one year after the death. The traditional Jewish gravestone offers the deceased’s Hebrew name as well as the Hebrew given name of the person’s father, such as Asher Lev ben [son of] Moishe. Such a practice enables genealogists to go back one generation rather easily.[11] Unfortunately, as observance declines, an increasing number of modern gravestone inscriptions do not reflect this practice. Jewish graves can be found in consecrated Jewish cemeteries, consecrated sections of non-sectarian cemeteries, and randomly in non-sectarian cemeteries.[12]

Gravestone artwork may be an important clue contributing to evidence of descent. Hands with fingers spread as in the blessing practice (also the hand sign used in Star Trek) symbolize the ancient religious patrilineal distinction of being a Kohen (priestly caste). The designation HaKohen is usually inscribed in Hebrew after the person’s or father’s name. It is a mistake to infer that the surname Cohen, or any of its variant spellings, means the same as being HaKohen. The patrilineal designation of Levite (helper to the priests) is symbolized by the image of a pitcher which was used to pour water over the priest’s hands during the traditional hand-washing ceremony. The designation HaLevi is usually inscribed in Hebrew on the gravestone. Every other male is considered an Israelite, which is typically symbolized by an image of the Star of David. Females do not have such designations, but their gravestones are commonly inscribed with candelabra, which symbolize the woman’s role in lighting the Sabbath candles.[13]

Locations: Identifying towns of origin presents a problem similar to that of personal names, as town names are often spelled differently in different languages. The identification is further compounded by the confusion of changing national borders. These towns are different today in that most (if not all) of their Jewish residents were murdered during the Holocaust.[14] Towns (shtetls) that once held major Jewish populations may still exist, but no longer “exist” in the hearts and minds of survivors.

There are a few larger cities in Eastern Europe that still have a Jewish population. The JewishGen Communities Database is extraordinarily helpful in sorting out the problem of identifying current town names.[15] For example it lists the following alternative appellations for the city with the modern name of Mukacheve, Ukraine: Mukačevo (Czech, Slovak), Munkács (Hungarian), Munkatch (Yiddish), Mukachëvo (Russian), Mukaczewo (Polish), Munkacz (Polish), Munkatsch (German), Muncaci (Romanian), Munkačevo.[16]

Holocaust: The Holocaust created unique research problems and strategies. While there was certainly loss of records, many did survive. In some cases, care was taken to hide and protect archival material during World War II. Many valuable resources for Holocaust research were produced by Nazi efforts to document transports, arrests, concentration camp inmates, ghetto inhabitants, etc. After the war, many newspapers and agencies published survivor lists and notices seeking missing persons. The Russian government undertook an extensive project, the Extraordinary State Commission to Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed on Soviet Territory, which documented events in every town and produced extensive name lists. Yad Vashem, the prominent Israeli museum and archive of the Holocaust, has an extensive online database of Pages of Testimony. These are forms, completed by survivors and others, that document the people who disappeared or who are known to have been murdered during the Holocaust period. The database has English transcriptions of the forms as well as images of the original documents, which can be in any number of languages. The United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial (USHMM) has extensive historical information, a library and archive catalog, and a names database. The International Red Cross Tracing Service has the most complete documentation of Holocaust victims. Their database and records, which have been provided to Yad Vashem and USHMM, are searchable onsite and by written request.[17]

DNA: DNA studies may provide evidence of Jewish origins. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, for example, has an ethnicity category labeled Jewish Diaspora. Y-DNA (male-line) results may place an individual within any number of categories under study by Jewish researchers, including rabbinical lineages.[18]

Other Resources

The primary online source for Jewish genealogy is JewishGen. The FAQ and InfoFiles on a wide variety of topics are a good place to learn specific research, cultural, and location information. This site offers an extensive number of databases organized by country as well as topic. Topical databases include the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), Holocaust Database, and a bibliographic database of Yizkor Books, memorial books written about Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. There are also extensive tools such as the JewishGen Communities database and ViewMate, which provides volunteer translation assistance for brief documents. Additionally, there is a Family Finder (JGFF) and Family Tree of the Jewish People (FTJP) that connects the researcher with others researching the same surname or town. The site also hosts independent organizations that provide databases and other resource information. Jewish Records Indexing – Poland (JRI-Poland) has transcribed a substantial number of vital records from Poland as well as other resources. The project has begun providing images of original records online. Litvak SIG offers a database and information about the Jewish communities of what is largely modern Lithuania.

Stephen P. Morse’s One-Step Webpages contain tools for finding immigration records, census records, vital records, and for managing calendars, maps, foreign alphabets and numerous other applications.

The Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island has an expanding series of YouTube tutorials that provides easy to understand information about general records as well as Jewish-specific topics.

Miriam Weiner’s Routes to Roots Foundation website includes an Archive Database which consists of a searchable town-by-town inventory of surviving Jewish and civil records in the archives of Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldova.  Also included is an image database as well as articles written by Eastern European archivists and historians.

The International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies (IAJGS) is the umbrella organization for over seventy Jewish genealogy societies worldwide. Local groups may be contacted for resources and assistance. Every summer, IAJGS hosts a major international conference devoted to Jewish genealogy.

The Israel Genealogy Research Association has extensive information and resources for research in Israel. Its website offers a searchable database of its holdings.

The Center for Jewish History in New York City serves as home to five major Jewish organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The website offers a combined library catalog and electronic finding aids to collections. The Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History provides a wealth of genealogical resources through the partners’ collections and a variety of fact sheets for the beginner to advanced researcher.


Jewish genealogy requires unique resources and strategies. Mastering these specialized skills dispels the myths and leads to an enriched genealogical research experience.

Selected References

Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1996. Print.

———. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. Revised ed. Bergenfeld, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 2008. Print.

Feldblyum, Boris. Russian-Jewish Given Names. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc, 1998. Print.

Gilbert, Martin. Atlas of the Holocaust. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993

———. The Atlas of Jewish History. New York: William Morrow, 1993. Print.

Gorr, Shmuel. Jewish Personal Names: Their Origin, Derivation and Diminutive Forms. Ed. Chaim Freedman. Bergenfeld, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1992. Print.

Krasner-Khait, Barbara. Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors. North Salt Lake, UT: Heritage Quest, 2001.

Kurzweil, Arthur. From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Personal History. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004 (updated edition).

Malka, Jeffrey S. Sephardic Genealogy: Discovering Your Sephardic Ancestors and their World. 2nd ed. Bergenfeld, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 2009. Print.

Menk, Lars. Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames. Bergenfield, N.J.: Avotaynu, 2005.

Mokotoff, Gary. Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy: 2015 Edition. New Haven, CT. Avotaynu, Inc., 2015. Print.

Sack, Sallyann Amdur and Gary Mokotoff, eds. Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004.

Segal, Joshua L. A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery. Nahsua NH: Jewish Cemetery Publishing, LLC, 2005. Print.

Spector, Shmuel. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust. 3 vols. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem. New York: NYU Press, 2001.

Weiner, Miriam. Jewish Roots in Poland: Pages from the Past and Archival Inventories. Secaucus, NJ: Routes to Roots Foundation, 1997.

———. Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova: Pages from the Past and Archival Inventories. Secaucus, NJ: Roots to Routes Foundation/YIVO, 1999.

Wynne, Suzan F. Finding Your Jewish Roots in Galicia: A Resource Guide. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1998. Print.

Rhoda Miller, EdD, CG, has been a Certified Genealogist since 1998. She is Past President of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island with whom she has co-authored Jewish Community of Long Island, a recent addition to the Arcadia Images of America series.

[1]  For detailed information regarding the historical background, locations, and naming information for Sephardic Jews, see Jeffrey S. Malka, Sephardic Genealogy: Discovering Your Sephardic Ancestors and Their World, 2nd ed. (Bergenfeld, N.J.: Avotaynu, Inc., 2009).

[2] See Sallyann Amdur Sack, “Modern Jewish Migrations,” in Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff, eds., Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy (Bergenfeld, N.J.: Avotaynu, 2004), 73–76.

[3] Both references for Martin Gilbert’s atlases provide geographic detail regarding Jewish dispersions.

[4] For further detail regarding Sephardic naming practices, see Jeffrey Malka, “Differences in Sephardic Ashkenazi Genealogy,” JewishGen (www.jewishgen.org/Sephardic/differ.HTM).

[5] Miller, Rhoda (Babylon, New York), personal research file, GROSS binder.

[6] See Shmuel Gorr, Jewish Personal Names: Their Origin, Derivation and Diminutive Forms, ed. Chaim Freedman (Bergenfeld, N.J.: Avotaynu, 1992). Also, Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 48.

[7] This example is derived from Gittel Pomerantz, “Orlowe, My Birthplace,” trans. Rhoda Miller, in Sefer Zoludek ve-Orlowa; galed le-zikaron [The Book of Zoludek and Orlowa; a Living Memorial], eds. A. Meyerowitz, Tel Aviv, former residents of Zoludek in Israel and the USA, 1967; digital images, JewishGen Yizkor Book Project (www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/zaludok/zhe081.html : accessed 10 April 2016).

[8] See Sallyann Amdur Sack, “Jewish Naming Practices: Family Names,” in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 30–34.

[9] For a primary-level overview of Jewish surnames, see “Jewish Names,” Judaism 101 (www.jewfaq.org/jnames.htm).

[10] Foreign language alphabets with descriptive guides for commonly used languages in Jewish genealogy may be found in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, “Appendix A: Alphabets,” 577–83.

[11] Considerable detail for Jewish gravestone interpretation and translations is provided on the JewishGen’s InfoFile “Reading Hebrew Tombstones” (www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/tombstones.html). The Jewish calendar, different from the Gregorian and Julian calendars, is also discussed on this page. Jewish calendar dates are used for religious purposes. There is an excellent conversion tool at Stephen P. Morse, “Jewish Calendar Conversions in One Step,” One-Step Webpages (http://www.stevemorse.org/jcal/jcal.html).

[12] For more detail see Joshua L. Segal, A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery (Nashua N.H.: Jewish Cemetery Publishing, LLC, 2005), 27-33.

[13] Ibid., 49–58.

[14] For further detail on locating towns see Gary Mokotoff, “Shtetl Geography: the Changing Face of Europe,” and Randy Daitch, “Holistic Geography,” in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 16–22 and 23–29, respectively.

[15] “JewishGen Communities Database,” JewishGen (http://www.jewishgen.org/Communities/Search.asp).

[16] Ibid., search for “Mukacheve.”

[17] For further information regarding Holocaust research see Gary Mokotoff, “Holocaust Research,” in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 61–67.

[18] For an overview of what FamilyTreeDNA has to offer regarding the discovery of Jewish ancestry, see “The Family Tree DNA Learning Center,” FamilyTreeDNA (www.familytreedna.com/landing/jewish-ancestry.aspx) > Expert’s Handbook > Jewish Ancestry.

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.

Diverse Communities: Researching Spiritualist Ancestors

Researching Spiritualist Ancestors

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG

Think only genealogists talk to the dead? Not so. Some ancestors did, too. Perhaps you’ve heard stories that a family member, often a woman, had “the gift” or “second sight.” This person might have been a Spiritualist. Spiritualism thrived from the late 1840s until just after World War II. “By 1854, followers, according to the spiritualists’ own estimates, numbered from 1 to 2 million Americans.”[1] The core of this lesser-known but still active worldwide religion is that life (consciousness) survives physical death and that communication with the spirit realm is possible. Considering this is such a unique religion, let’s take a brief look at its history and philosophy before we explore how to determine whether an ancestor was a Spiritualist and where we might locate records.[2]

Modern Spiritualism was born in March 1848 when teenage sisters Maggie and Kate Fox of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have communicated with the dead through raps they heard on the walls of their parents’ home. The alleged spirit identified himself as a peddler who stated he’d been murdered in the house and buried in the cellar. The sisters worked out an alphabet with the spirit and translated the raps into words. Neighbors witnessing the Fox phenomena spread the word. This testimony by multiple observers is referred to as “physical mediumship.”[3] Fifty-six years later, in 1904, schoolchildren playing in the abandoned Fox house discovered human remains behind a crumbling cellar wall. Controversy erupted over the veracity of the sisters’ claims and the bones’ origins, but that didn’t lessen the impact of the discovery.[4]

At the same time the Fox sisters were unknowingly sparking a religious movement, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Both movements provided women with a public voice, since most mediums were and still are women. Learning to communicate with the dead offered a new profession that could provide single and widowed women financial stability. Working in front of audiences of thousands gave them a public platform to deliver messages from the departed and to speak about women’s issues.[5]

The popularity of Spiritualism grew steadily, especially following major conflicts and epidemics—the Civil War, World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918, and World War II. Those who had lost loved ones sought the evidence that all religions preached but didn’t demonstrate, that there is life after death. The movement spread in America and abroad through Spiritualist mediums who became itinerant representatives of the religion, touring and giving demonstrations of survival to large crowds. These “message services” offered evidence of deceased loved ones and lectures on Spiritualism. Predictably, fraudulent mediums capitalized on such opportunities. This caused legitimate mediums to establish Spiritualist communities that provided development classes, ordained ministers, and tested and authenticated mediums. The first such community was the Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly in Lily Dale, New York, in 1879.[6]

Spiritualism grew solely through converts and attracted both Christians and non-Christians, especially Universalists and Unitarians. The list of some famous people who were Spiritualists or “friends” of Spiritualism includes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Butler Yeats and Maude Gonne, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, Horace Greeley, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Daniel Webster, and Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.[7]

Spiritualism has never had a charismatic leader, and while it offers guiding principles, there is no single, inspired religious text. Mediumship is fundamental to this religion, but not all Spiritualists are mediums, and not all mediums are Spiritualists. Spiritualist mediums today mostly practice “mental mediumship,”[8] that is, telepathic communication with a spirit person who provides evidence of consciousness survival, such as distinctive personality, memories, likes/dislikes, health conditions, the cause of passing, and other life facts.

But Spiritualism involves more than talking to dead people. Through the Spiritualist principles, it teaches personal responsibility for thoughts, actions, and deeds; that humans are souls occupying a body; that life is not short, but eternal; that those who have transitioned to the other side are conscious and want to communicate; that a spark of divinity resides within everyone; and that the door to reformation is never closed. Spiritualists take nothing on faith or belief. The religion is based on survival evidence and knowledge of the afterlife. This knowledge comes from direct communication with those who are there.[9]

Though the popularity of this religion declined after World War II, many Spiritualist churches and camps in the United States and abroad continue to flourish today, offering hope and healing through the science and demonstrations of consciousness survival.[10]

 Identifying Spiritualist Ancestors

  • Oral history is a good starting place. Clues are aunts or grandmothers remembered as having “the gift,” “second sight,” “visitations,” or who were said to be “a little off. 
  • Look for women active in women’s rights movements, as they might also have been Spiritualists. Their obituaries might list clubs or organizations known for activism.
  • On headstones, watch for wording such as “Entered Summerland” (a term some Spiritualists use for heaven), epitaphs such as “There is no death,” or a “transition” date rather than a death date.

Finding Records

Because Spiritualism has lacked uniformity, records and recordkeeping vary, but Spiritualist churches typically perform admissions to fellowship, naming services, marriages, and funerals.

  • Check city directories for Spiritualist churches and camps in the areas where ancestors resided. Also, look for ancestors advertising services as mediums or clairvoyants.
  • Newspapers may report on visiting mediums, gatherings, and conventions, giving names of local churches and sponsors.
  • Review Ann Braude’s “News from the Spirit World: A Checklist of American Spiritualist Periodicals, 1848-1900,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 99 (October 1989): 339–462; pdf edition, American Antiquarian Society (http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44539462.pdf).

Additional Resources

Further Reading

1. Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits:Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

2. Carroll, Bret E. Spiritualism in Antebellum America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

3. [Lewis, E. E.]. A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox. 1848. Digital reprint. Psypioneer: An Electronic Newsletter from London 1 (April 2005). http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/Leslie_Price_PP12.pdf.

4. Radford, Dwight A. “From Séances to Ouija Boards: Tracing Your Spiritualist Ancestor.” National Genealogical Society. NewsMagazine (June/July 2004): 24–31.

5. Weisberg, Barbara. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. New York: HarperOne, 2005.

[1] Nancy Rubin Stuart, “The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders,” American History (August 2005); image copy, HistoryNet (http://www.historynet.com/the-fox-sisters-spiritualisms-unlikely-founders.htm). All URLs are current to 10 February 2016.

[2] The bulk of this article is distilled from numerous sources. The links at “Spiritualism,” The Spiritualists’ National Union (http://www.snu.org.uk/spiritualism/spiritualism.html) provide an overview of the history, principles, philosophy, religion, science, and pioneers of Spiritualism as practiced by Spiritualists in the United Kingdom. For American Spiritualist history, see the links under Spiritualism at the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (https://www.nsac.org/default.html). See also Stuart, “The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders.” For an in-depth history of Spiritualism, see Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism (New York: HarperOne, 2005), and Todd Jay Leonard, PhD, Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship; A Study of the Religion, Science, Philosophy, and Mediums That Encompass This American-Made Religion (Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 2005). The definitive classic works on the history and philosophy of Spiritualism are Emma Hardinge Britten, Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years’ Record of the Communion between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: the author, 1870), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 2 vols. (London, Cassell and Co., 1926).  Britten and Doyle, vol. 1, are available at Internet Archive, Britten at https://archive.org/details/modernamericans01britgoog and Doyle, vol. 1, at https://archive.org/details/historyofspiritu015638mbp. A transcription of Doyle, vol. 2, is at Project Gutenberg Australia (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301061.txt).

[3] For the various types of mediumship, see “Spiritualism and Science,” The Spiritualists’ National Union (http://www.snu.org.uk/spiritualism/science).

[4] For the history of the “Hydesville Rappings,” see not only the sources cited in note 2, but also [E. E. Lewis], A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox (1848); digital reprint, Psypioneer: An Electronic Newsletter from London 1 (April 2005): following 133 (http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/Leslie_Price_PP12.pdf).

[5] For the connection between Spiritualism and the women’s rights movement, see Anne Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), and Barbara Goldsmith, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998).

[6] For a history of the Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly, see Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

[7] See the various histories cited in note 2, as well as “Great Spiritualists and Friends,” Spritualist Resources (http://www.spiritualistresources.com/cgi-bin/great/index.pl).

[8] “Spiritualism and Science.”

[9] For additional information on the principles and philosophy of Spiritualism, see H. Gordon Burroughs, Becoming A Spiritualist (Baltimore: Port City Press, 1962), and Carole Austin and David Hopkins, The Philosophy of Spiritualism (Stansted, Eng.: Spiritualists’ National Union, 2007).

[10] For more on the numerous, on-going scientific studies of consciousness surivival, see Gary E. Schwartz, PhD, The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death (New York: Atria Books, 2003); Amit Goswami, PhD, Physics of the Soul: The Quantum Book of Living, Dying, Reincarnation, and Immortality, 2nd ed. (Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 2013); David Fontana, Is There an Afterlife? A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence (Ropley, Hants, UK: O-Books, 2005); and the peer-reviewed papers at Windbridge Institute for Applied Resarch in Human Potential (http://www.windbridge.org/publications/#papers).


Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG, specializes in editing and writing family histories. Along with You Can Write Your Family History and Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contacts, she is the author of two forthcoming books: Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief and Inheriting the Gordon Hips, a collection of humorous essays. Sharon is on the adjunct faculty of Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy Research and Writing program. She is also a member of the Spiritualists’ National Union, International branch. Sharon can be reached through her websites, www.NonfictionHelp.com or www.SharonCarmack.com.


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).