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American Slavery Era Ancestors
by Tom Blake
Eliza Love, Mondon Hill, FL. Photo Courtesy of Mable Sims
How many generations of your direct ancestors would you have to research back before you might find someone who was living in the United States at the end of the Civil War in 1865? If you are age 35 and your direct ancestors were all born to 35 year old mothers, you might only have to go back four generations, to your 8 great grandparents to find someone alive in 1865.

But, if you are 20 years old and your direct ancestors were all first-born to young mothers, you might have to go back six generations to get to 1865, and that sixth generation would include your 64 fourth great grandparents.

For each generation you go back, the number of direct ancestors doubles, because every ancestor had two parents in the previous generation (you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, then 16, 32, 64 etc.). This is potentially a lot of people to trace, especially if some of your ancestors came to America long ago on ships like the Mayflower - or on slave ships. But if many of your ancestors are more recent immigrants, the process of elimination can quickly narrow down your search.

Once you have found direct ancestors in America in 1865, you can try to go back to earlier generations and earlier years to develop the full history of your family in America. You can try to trace each direct line back until you find when that line came to America, in order to find all your direct ancestors who lived in America during the slavery era. This genealogical research, though it can take years, is a rewarding hobby and can be an enlightening experience.

When family roots in America go back before 1865, powerful feelings and attitudes can arise in family researchers regarding whether any ancestors might have been slaves or slaveholders.

Some researchers, for various reasons, decide to research only part of their roots. For example, a researcher may decide to search the roots of slave ancestors while ignoring the roots of ancestors who were slaveholders. Or a descendant of a prosperous planter might avoid clues leading to possible slave descendants of the ancestor. The fact is, a researcher open to the whole truth may find that he or she has not only ancestors who came on ships like the Mayflower but also some who came in the holds of slave ships. Until you trace all of your family lines in America back to the first people arriving, you will not have the complete story of your family in America.

There are many good books and web sites that teach how to go about general genealogical research. Some Web sites for beginners are listed at the end of this article. The Federal Census schedules, taken every ten years (with 1890 missing) are one of the primary means used to trace generations in the United States. The process of researching back from the 1930 census, the most recent one available, to the 1870 census, the first one where all persons were free, is fundamentally the same regardless of whether an ancestor had previously been enslaved. However, for the 1860 and earlier censuses, enslaved persons were counted but not named, which presents an enormous obstacle to research by their descendants.

Find all your ancestors who were in the United States during the era of slavery, not just selective ones. Learn their stories and study their times. Be open to all the possibilities, regardless of where they might lead. In doing this, you will be learning a fuller and more personal truth not just about America and your ancestors, but also about yourself.

Genealogy web site tutorials for beginners:

At Family Search

At RootsWeb

At AfriGeneas

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