Asking the right questions
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
There is so much information contained in our parents and grandparents about our family histories, and if we don't ask the right questions, these stories could end up lost forever.
"After beginning research on my partner’s family, we discovered a change of last name no one had heard of. We decided to ask my partner’s grandmother if she had ever heard this long-lost name, carefully printing out ship manifests and citizenship documents to prove our findings.
“Oh, yeah, that’s what we were called before we were Bernstein,” she said. Why hadn’t she brought it up?"
By Jaya Saxena
Feb. 3, 2019
My middle name is the name of a Confederate soldier.
Before that it was Scottish, the name of an indentured servant who came here when America wasn’t a country, when he was just one of many who were brought over. The name stayed on the Atlantic coast, passing through my Confederate ancestors, onto my loving grandmother who taught me how to birdwatch, finally landing on me, a mixed-race woman with a Jewish partner living in New York City. Somehow I don’t think that soldier would be too happy about that.
In America, the question of “Where am I from?” usually means, “Where did my family live before they arrived/were forcibly shipped to America?” Recently, there’s been a push to answer that question through DNA tests — Ancestry.com sold 1.5 million kits on Black Friday in 2017 — which claim they can tell us exactly what percentage Norwegian or Nigerian we are. But there are catches. The tests can compromise our privacy, with the possibility that our genetic information would be sold to third parties without our knowledge, and they don’t truly reveal our origins so much as reveal who has similar DNA right now. Also, and perhaps more important: Culture does not come from DNA. It comes from lived experience, traditions and stories passed down, from actual people who shape our perceptions of the world.
This is why I’ve enjoyed learning about my family through good old-fashioned genealogy research. Scrolling through pages of old newspapers or deciphering handwriting on a census is how I found out I’m descended, on my white side, both from Union and Confederate soldiers, from slave-owners and abolitionists, and possibly from witches (I’m still trying to verify that one). And it was in doing this I learned that, on my Indian side, Yeats wrote a very patronizing poem inspired by my third great-uncle.
These are more than facts. They’re the myths that are a part of the story of yourself, whether you like them or not. Learning your history is forced reckoning, asking you to consider whose stories you carry with you and which ones you want to carry forward.
Genealogical research can be daunting, no matter how chipper those Ancestry.com ads seem. And while a DNA test can help, there’s probably more to your story. Here’s how to start.
Talk to your family
After beginning research on my partner’s family, we discovered a change of last name no one had heard of. We decided to ask my partner’s grandmother if she had ever heard this long-lost name, carefully printing out ship manifests and citizenship documents to prove our findings.
“Oh, yeah, that’s what we were called before we were Bernstein,” she said. Why hadn’t she brought it up?
No one had asked before.
“In the beginning, identify what you know, use your home sources,” said Teresa Koch-Bostic, the vice president of the National Genealogical Society. Ask your family to see birth and death certificates and write down all that information, but also just ask the oldest members of your family about their lives. The internet can provide some good opening questions if you’re lost.
A good place to start is also the 1940 census, which is the most recent census publicly available, and the only census available for free through the National Archives and Ancestry.com. Typically, you want to start more recent and work your way backward with ancestry research. Maybe it was your grandparents or your great-grandparents who were alive in 1940, but if you can find them, the document will tell you things like who they were living with, their citizenship status and approximately when they were born (the census relied on self-provided information after all). From there you can start to build your family tree.
Understand what you’re up against
“When I started, you had to do all of this manually,” said Sharon Morgan, founder of OurBlackAncestry.com. “You had to actually go to the place where your family came from and do the research in the courthouse.” Now, many documents have been digitized and are readily available online. But what’s been documented certainly depends on the location or type of the documents. For instance, I can find baptism certificates from English churches in 1600, but I can’t find any documents from India. And on a smaller scale, one county may have their marriage licenses available, while another has yet to put any online. If you’re descended from slaves, this is a particularly tricky battle. Because while you might be able to find your ancestors up until 1870, “prior to 1870, as you may know if you’ve done any research, we were not in the people records. So you have to look in the property records,” Ms. Morgan said.
To do that, she said, look in the same area and county for slaveholders with the same surname. “If you are lucky, they took his name.” Also look for wills or tax documents, or anywhere transfers of property would have been recorded.
Be skeptical of what you find Since so many documents rely on self-provided information, things get tricky, especially with names.
“Your name is not your name,” Ms. Koch-Bostic said. “You have many surname variations, and they’re created for all different reasons. We’re talking about people who had different accents. And the ability to read and write — literacy is really not prevalent until the 20th century. And the bigger thing is phonetics. There was no such thing as standardized spelling until almost the 20th century.” Names had a way of morphing through different documents: “Ross” could be heard by one census taker as “Russ” and another as “Roth.” Arrival years get rounded up. Maybe someone was trying to hide their age, or just didn’t remember the exact year they were born. Nothing is ever 100 percent clear.
All of this means that you need to ask more questions. In a common sense guide to getting started with genealogy, the genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn writes, “If you’re searching for a birth certificate for your great-grandfather John Williams, who you think may have been born in New York City in 1907, you can’t simply accept that the first birth certificate you see with that name and year is the correct one.”
Your job while sorting through all of it is to repeatedly ask: What was likely? Does X prove Y? If it doesn’t, don’t include it. And what about DNA tests, like the ones offered by Ancestry.com and 23andMe? “I have not personally done one because it’s not going to yield the results. It won’t answer my questions,” Ms. Morgan said. Still, they can lead you to other people who share your DNA, which can open new doors in your research.
Getting started It might seem like signing up for a pricey Ancestry.com membership is the only way to start building a family tree, but there are tons of free resources that can get you a long way in your research.
“Familysearch.org is free, all you just have to do is sign up for the free account,” Ms. Koch-Bostic said. “And Ancestry is a little pricey, but there are free library editions. I always urge people to go to their local library, because nowadays, almost every local library has the free library edition.” And if you’re in New York, the N.Y.P.L.’s HeritageQuest is accessible at the Stephen A. Schwarzman branch and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
N.G.S. has a list of the most helpful documents and what they can provide. The first things you want to look for are birth, marriage and death records, and then on the federal census, which is taken every 10 years (except 1890 since those records were all lost in a fire).
You’ll also want to check if your state kept state censuses, as those can help fill in the 10-year gaps the Federal Census doesn’t cover. From there, city directories can help you pinpoint ancestors.
“When you’re trying to find out if your John Smith or John Kelly is the right one, you want to start to add identifiers” like occupation or family members, which city directories can provide, Ms. Koch-Bostic said.
If you’re looking for an ancestor who was a slave, Ms. Morgan has a few tricks. “You try to find your target ancestor in the 1870 census. That is five years after emancipation. Many people did not go very far from where they had been enslaved. So if you can find them in 1870, then you have to find the slaveholder,” Ms. Morgan said. Think about any stories in your family about moving long distances. That may indicate one of your relatives participated in the Great Migration of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century, from the southern states to points north and west. “There’s a rule called Netty’s Rule: You look 10 households forward and 10 households backward. If you find a white person with that same surname, that is the probable slave owner. So that’s a shortcut, and that works for a lot of people.”
At some point, you also might decide you want to hire a professional, “because you’ve exhausted the internet resources, and you need to get into archival work or library work,” Ms. Koch-Bostic said. If you do, it pays to be specific: Say you’re having trouble finding your third great-grandfather, or you want to know which ship your maternal line came over on.
Whatever you do, be prepared to fall down a rabbit hole, Ms. Koch-Bostic said. “I think it appeals to people who love an intellectual pursuit, because that’s really what it is,” she said. “It’s solving a puzzle at the highest level, and the benefit is that you get to find out about your family.”
Correction: Feb. 12, 2019An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the accessibility of HeritageQuest. It is available only at the N.Y.P.L.'s Stephen A. Schwarzman branch and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.