We were SO excited to have Donna Cox Baker and Martin Brennan from the Beyond Kin Project in the house for our last show of the season.
Genealogists who descend from slaveholders (SHs) are uniquely positioned to revolutionize genealogy for their African American colleagues who are seeking records for their ancestors who were Enslaved People (EPs).
Beyond Kin has developed a highly effective way of documenting EPs, linking them to the families of their SHs, using existing genealogy software and online family tree services like FamilySearch and Ancestry. The project has also developed a respectful and supportive online community space where descendants of SHs and EPs can meet, share vital research information, and collaborate.
FamilySearch.org, the free online genealogy service, has a staggering library of free online genealogy courses. The courses are in the form of videos.
There doesn’t seem to be a topic that these videos don’t cover. From understanding Swedish and German birth records, to interpreting the information on Scottish, Irish and English census records to how to organize your research…there are very, very few topics that haven’t been covered.
It’s a goldmine of information for seasoned and newbie genealogy researchers.
It almost goes without saying that FamilySearch has a veritable cornucopia of free resources for genealogists and family history enthusiasts. However, it would seem, many aren’t getting the most out of this exceptional free research services. Why? Most FamilySearch users stick to the general database search option.
Did you know there are literally millions of free records available on FamilySearch that aren’t accessible via the main search option? There are. In truth, the vast amount of FamilySearch’s collections can’t be found via the search on their site. From my own experience, some of the most brilliant family history and genealogy gems I found were through the many individual databases available on FamilySearch – and not its main search engine.
The article below steps you through why delving into these individual records databases needs to be an important part of your research practice:
As I mentioned in my previous post George Henry Roane: the new Freedmen’s Bureau databases on FamilySearch are incredible research tools, the various Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records databases on FamilySearch have provided a wealth of information about people from the various branches of my family. The previous post about George Henry Roane featured his fight to claim the legacy left to him in his former owner’s will.
EMANCIPATION AND THE AMERICAN HISTORY CURRICULUM
Emancipation wasn’t something that was really covered in my history classes. It was barely mentioned. It was presented as something of a 10 minute after-thought. A footnote to the American Civil War. My classmates and I were never taught about its implementation or its repercussions, which still echo down through the ages to the present day. My history classes never discussed what it was to be enslaved for generations – for centuries, actually – and then freed overnight. Or how persons born and raised in the centuries old institution of slavery coped. It wasn’t as if this was a bad school. Far from it. It was one of the best schools in the state. Which makes this even more of a lost learning opportunity.
The way it was presented kind of ran like this: President Lincoln freed the slaves, slaves were free overnight, everyone was happy. The proof of the latter were the brief mentions of freed slaves becoming congressmen, senators, academics, businessmen and businesswomen, etc. It never really occurred to me to question just how good things were after emancipation – or what percentage of the newly freed black population it was good for.
Born at the tail end of the Jim Crow Era and segregation –I knew those good times of freedom hadn’t lasted. While I grew up in a middle class home, I knew there was a portion of the American black population who didn’t. That’s not to say I had it easy. There are overt signs of inequality – and then there are the subtle yet equally pernicious forms of inequality. I grew up experiencing the latter. Somewhere in my teenage brain I knew there was a fundamental disconnect, a huge part of the story that was missing in terms of the post-Emancipation black experience in America. But I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then I stopped thinking about it altogether. Living abroad for most of my life, far away from the racial hurly burly of America, I didn’t have to think about it. An American homecoming has only served to throw this into exceedingly vivid, sharp relief.
Using the Freedmen’s Bureau database for my research, and reading hundreds of its documents, I’ve come back full circle to that disconnect in terms of American history. As a habit America doesn’t like re-visiting the dark chapters of its history. Somewhere, somehow, it was collectively agreed that ‘if we don’t talk about those things, they’ll go away. It’ll all just work itself out. We can ignore it – and it just won’t matter any more’. If I’ve learned anything, even in my time abroad, dark histories cause pain that is carried down through the generations – for the descendants of the victims as well as the descendants of the perpetrators. Just ask the Irish, the English and the Scottish. Dark chapters in history never go away. It’s 2014 and look at the race-related topics that remain in the American headlines.
NEWLY ACQUIRED FREEDOM IS A MESSY BUSINESS
So I find myself thinking of Emancipation. I find myself thinking about all those millions of newly freed people, the children of generations who had dreamed of freedom. I’ve gained an understanding that dreaming of freedom – and facing the realities of freedom head-on – are two very different things.
Just look at current world events in North Africa, the Middle East and to events in a post-Communist Eastern Europe. It’s not as though there’s a Freedom 101 course that people can take. Nor does it seem possible for there to be anything like a planned transition period for people to grasp the concept and responsibilities of freedom. Freedom for formerly oppressed and suppressed people, it would seem, is a messy business. That’s not to diminish freedom. It is a basic human right. It’s a comment on the mechanism by which a people become free. I’ve yet to find evidence of a smooth transition from a state of oppression to the state of being free and entirely responsible for one’s self and one’s actions.
ONE CHAPTER IN TOBIAS ROANE’S LONG LIFE
Tobias “Tobey” Roane of Essex County, VA and his wife, Ainsley, are perfect examples of those lost in the chaos of Emancipation. In 1868, Tobey and Ainsley were in their Eighties. They were old. They were crippled, presumably from a life of toil as well as old age. They were also the primary care givers for their three young grandchildren. At the moment, the names of their grandchildren are unknown. Nor do I know what happened to the children’s parents.
Early correspondence about Toby Roane with his family in 1866. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPFD-JZR), Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413570.
At the close of the Civil War, Toby, Ainsley and their grandchildren were forced out of their home. Presumably, their former master had no further use for them and felt no obligation towards them. As the letter below will show, this family of children and the elderly came to reside in a derelict old stable on the periphery of land owned by John A Parker. It’s unclear if Toby and his family had a connection to Parker or to the McGuire family, Parker’s white tenants who lived in the house on the property and worked the land. Parker clearly wasn’t happy about Toby and his family residing in the disused stable.
Letter dated 9 Nov 1866 outlining John Parker’s complaint against Toby Roane.Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPLV-6ZW ), Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414655.
The indignity of their plight did not end there.
Parker began court proceedings to have them evicted from said derelict stable, their only refuge. Correspondence about the case follows below:
Parker vs Roane. Letter dated 8 Dec 1866. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNJ-PMW : accessed 16 Jul 2014), Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413683.
Parker vs Roane. Letter dated 27 Oct 1866. Citation: – “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNH-QM2 : accessed 16 Jul 2014), Toby Roans, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413681.
In desperation, Toby applied for relief to the local poor house via the local office for the Freedmen’s Bureau. The letters below show how Toby and his family were turned away from the poor house solely based on race.
Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated- 9 Nov 1866.Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPLV-62J), Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414655.
Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated 10 Dec 1866 – Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNR-MMV), Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413680.
Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated- 24 Dec 1866.– Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNJ-PZL), Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413683.
This short series of correspondence gives a sense of the bureaucracy involved in cases like Tobey’s. The letters also evidence the prejudice he and his family faced. And, ok, I’ll say it – I don’t find any decency, much less any Christian behaviour, anywhere in this story…with the exception of Second Lieutenant Watson Wentworth. Whoever his descendants are, they should feel proud of the work their ancestor did and the personal dangers he faced in executing his duty.
I don’t know the ultimate outcome of their story. I don’t know if the local poor house came to house this family. I hope so, even it was due to being ordered to do so. It was certainly ordered to do so in the end.
I guess the obvious question would be ‘where was Tobey’s extended family?’ It’s a good question. I’m still trying to place Toby in the Roane family tree. He was of the same generation as other African-American members of the Roane family in Essex County: Spencer Roane (b. 1795), Nelson Roane (b. 1810), George Roane (b. 1810) and Randall Roane (b. 1815). The families of these men were also resident in Essex County at this time. Research hasn’t provided information about the exact nature of the kinship between these men. In the end, I think, the answer is fairly straightforward: these men had their own families to provide for in an uncertain and challenging environment.
The saddest part of this story isn’t Toby and Ainsley’s poverty, infirmity or struggle. At this point in their story they were 80 years old. 80 years. And the only part of their story I know anything about is this one sad episode. Nothing of the joys in the births of their children and their grandchildren. Nothing of their joys in being together. Just a story filled with pettiness, viciousness, uncharitable actions and rather unchristian behavior.
I’ve poured through innumerable records provided by these databases. There are uplifting and positive tales. And a few humerous ones (I’m sharing one of these in my next post). There is the other side of the coin, however – dark stories, poignant tales and tales that are simply tragic. If you were black, elderly, a child or a single woman with children, infirm or not fully physically able – freedom presented new challenges, cruelties and humiliations to be faced. There are pages and pages of petitions for relief, ledger sheets showing food and clothing being given to people who fell within the above groups. There are letters requesting travel fares to enable former slaves to leave the places where they had been enslaved in order to re-join family members in different cities, towns and states. There are also plenty of petitions to the Bureau for assistance in securing wages from employers who either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for the labor of their black work force. And petitions for the care of newly freed orphaned children.
MY TAKEAWAY THOUGHTS
I’ve come away with three primary thoughts. The first is the sheer scale of the endeavor the Freedmen’s Bureau was tasked with – assisting millions of people who experienced freedom for the first time, with all the fears, challenges, hardships, institutional inequities – and hopes – that entailed.
My second thought is that a subjugated and oppressed people didn’t give up. They persisted and they fought. While freedom was far from being easy, freed slaves clearly grasped it with both hands.
The last thought is around educational opportunities. It’s the academic in me. The digitized versions of these original records are invaluable teaching tools. They come from people who experienced emancipation from all sides – freedmen, their former owners, local peoples and communities as well as the US government’s viewpoint and the viewpoint of its official representatives. Written in their own hand, their words transform Emancipation from a concept into the reality that it was. Collectively, these documents form an eloquent and articulate road map showing the journey of how the ghosts of emancipation still haunt America to this very day.
UPDATE: dated 1 Oct 2014
It never ceases to amaze me how random events connect strangers. I received an email from Lt Watson Wentworth’s 3x great grandson, Sam N., who found this post. He was kind enough to share some of Watson Wentworth’s history, which I’m sharing here.
“Watson was born in 1844 and orphaned by the age of 12. His father died when he was about 6 years old. He and his sister seem to have been left with relatives when his widowed mother and his three youngest siblings were all drowned in a shipwreck en route to Chicago via the Great Lakes. Perhaps the experience of insecurity stemming from these early tragedies somehow informed his work with the Freedman’s Bureau as a young man. “
Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are both great online family history services. The main difference, of course, is that FamilySearch.org is free with (largely) free access to records (records from Fold3.com being the notable exception). Ancestry.com is a paid membership service – although it provides a good level of free access to information to get budding family historians and genealogists going. There, I got that distinction between the two out of the way.
I’ve found another, and more subtle, difference between the two which I’m about to share. It all about performance. But one boring bit first before I get to that. Understanding this first bit will enable you to get the overall performance point I’m making about these two services.
The power and the value of Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org aren’t solely based on the sheer volume of records each possesses. The same records and digitized archives can pretty much be found on both.
It’s the behind the scenes stuff that seems, in my regular experience of using both, to be the difference. What behind the scenes stuff? Algorithms and databases. The websites of both services are driven by databases – think of these as ginormous warehouses that contain all of the records and data you access when you do a search on either Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org. The databases have to be exponentially huge to hold all of that data.
OK, so I know what an algorithm is. But I was finding it challenging to explain this in an engaging and meaningful way. You know, the kind of way that anyone would be able to understand. So I did my usual Google search to see if there was a far simpler explanation. Blimey, the one’s I read reminded me of every boring and dry math and statistics class I ever took. So I’m going to simplify things and boil it all down to its essence. Purists, forgive me! Calling an algorithm ‘computer code’ or thinking of an algorithm as just ‘some sort of computer language’ would be simplifying things far too much. Think of an algorithm as the lovechild produced by a mathematical equation and a written language. Think of it as looking something like: x+y=a-b+Italian. This lovechild acts like your own person courier. Basically, you’re telling an algorithm to go and fetch something on your behalf. In this case, you’re asking it to fetch you data and records about your ancestors.Each service has its own unique algorithm. Just like Google has its own search algorithm – which is unique to Goolge and completely different from the algorithm used by Yahoo or Bing.
When you type in the name of an ancestor in either service’s online search form, the different algorithms used by each service go off to their respective, huge data warehouses. Each has a look around in its own warehouse, determines what data best fits what you’re looking for, and trots back to you with that data in tow. You know, the data and records (census records, birth records, marriages, etc) it thinks is best suited to your search. An algorithm tries its best to determine what records are the most relevant to your search.
Ancestry.com and familySearch.org pretty much have the same kind of warehouses that hold all those records and data. Their algorithms, however, are very different. Looking at it in another way…
I’m going to use the horrors of high school algebra and/or trigonometry to illustrate this concept. You’ll find some illustrative examples of what I mean below to better visualise what I mean:
Think of Ancestry.com’s algorithm as something like: 2+3, [ 0 ]=0, [ 1 ] =m, [ 2 ] =n
Think of FamilySearch.com’s algorithm as something like: 2+2, [ 0 ]=0, [ 1 ] =m, [ 3 ] =n
On the surface, at first glance, they look pretty similar. And they are. But those subtle differences determine what records turn up after you click the ‘search’ button on either service. The quality of the search results is largely due to the algorithm each company uses and the language and coding used to produce that algorithm.
The more I research my non-European ancestors and relations, the more I find that Familysearch.org produces far more accurate and better results. And it’s all down to the whatever algorithm it uses to fetch records back from its data warehouse.
I’ll show you what I mean below. I’ll start with Ancestry.com and then move on to FamilySearch.org.
So….I want to find records for Johann Peter Mattil, born on 16 Mar 1725 in Höheinöd, Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany and died on 20 Jun 1787 in Thaleischweiler, Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. He married Anna Elisabetha Scheffe.
Search criteria for Johann Peter Mattil on Ancestry.com. The above shows the various filters used. Click for larger image
As you can see from the above, I tend to use the ‘restrict to exact matches’ option. I tend to do this with all of the variables where this option is available. And last, but not least…
Applying the country filter – in this case Germany – on Ancestry.com. Click for larger image
I selected his gender. I also applied the country filter – in this case Germany since I really only want to see German records.
And these are the results I receive from Ancestry.com’s algorithm:
Ancestry.com results for Johann Peter Mattil. Click for larger image.
On the positive side, I didget German records (This hasn’t always been the case. I received US-centric results for a number of other 17th and 18th Century German-domiciled Mattils I was researching). However, none of the nine records Ancestry.com suggested were relevant to my search. All nine were 19th Century records. There are no records suggested for a man who clearly lived and died in Germany in the 18th Century.
In my experience, Ancestry tends to work best within national search parameters. Ancestry.com is robust and accurate for American records. Ancestry.co.uk is brilliant for British records. Do an international search…and the results become less accurate.
And now for the same search on FamilySearch.
Search criteria for Johann Peter Mattil on FamilySearch.org. The above shows the various filters used. Click for larger image
As you’ll see from the above, there are fewer search options and filters on Familysearch.org. However, the results its algorithm produces looks like:
FamilySearch.org results for Johann Peter Mattil. Click for larger image
Not only did I get results for the Johann Peter Mattil I was seeking…I also received a string of results for other 18th Century Mattils. There wasn’t a single 19th century record suggestion.
The result of all this? Well, for the time being, I’ll be using Familysearch a LOT more for my international record searches. For whatever reason, its algorithm is better suited for the job I need it to do researching non-American ancestors.
Has anyone else noticed any subtle –or not so subtle – performance differences between these two services? Feel free to share via a comment below.
Following on from the previous post, here’s an example of the frequency of marriages between the Roane and Holmes families in Virginia and their descendants in Maryland, Delaware, Arkansas and Pennsylvania.
Most of my family research activity is quite specific. I tend to spend a great deal of time tracking down specifics about an individual or a particular family group. My time is usually spent tracking down individual dates and county of birth, dates and county of deaths, marriage dates, maiden names of mothers, etc. However, just to shake things up from time to time, I’ll do a general search using the broadest search terms available.
Armed with an increasing list of mothers’ maiden names, I’ve started to do broad searches on marriages between two family groups. So how does this work? Page 1 in the document below is an example.
While Ancestry.com is an amazing resource for intricate and detailed searches, I find (for me) that Familysearch.org is an amazing resource for broad searches.
The surname Byrd/Bird was a name which cropped up in connection with the Sheffeys in Wythe and SmythCounties in Virginia. I had spotted a few marriages between the two families from the 1870s through to the turn of the 20th Century. So I was naturally curious to see how many marriages occurred between the two families.
I decided to search for all the individuals born in Virginia with the surname Sheffey (no first names are used in this kind of search) who had a spouse with the surname Byrd (again, no first names used). The record shown above gives a glimpse (death certificates and baptism records provided more). You’ll also see that alternate spellings for each surname are returned in the search results (Sheffy, Bird, etc). Each record that this search returned also gave details about parents – Page 2 in the document above shows the mother of Dennis Byrd (Josephine Sheffey’s husband) was a Sheffey.
I could (and have) made the search even broader at times by omitting the state of birth. And the results were no less illuminating…showing direct marriages between the Sheffeys and Byrds between 1920 and 1935 occurring in Delware, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. And, as to be expected, there were also marriages between both families via their shared Richardson, Hill and Carpenter cousins.
It’s a brilliant family history exercise to do – but definitely one where you have quite a bit of time to process the results! The results from this search kept me busy updating the family tree for the best part of a week!
I use two online genealogy services: Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. I won’t expand upon this as this is more to do with personal preferences. On a practical level, I have found that there are times when one has records that the other doesn’t.
One area where Ancestry.com has an edge is the extensive forums it hosts. The forums are places where you can post queries about your ancestors; particularly ancestors you are finding difficult to trace. The forums are also great for members to share information. The Sheffey and Roane family forums are busy places with regular posts from a staggering number of descendants tracing their roots. Like me, you will probably meet some distant relations when you start using the forums. At the very least, you shuld feel free to place a forum post saying ‘hello’ and introducing yourself in the forum associated with your family’s surname. Ancestry.com has a social element which is also a nice bonus.
FamilySearch.org has literally finished its Beta phase. What it might lack in ‘extras’ it more than makes up for in its records and ease of navigation.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is to try both.
Below you find short instruction videos covering how to get staretd using Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.