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Genealogy: Special Topics

A guide to researching special topics in genealogy & family history.

African American

For many who are researching African American ancestors, it is difficult to find information prior to the 1870 U.S. Census. Before that time the names of slaves were rarely listed in the Census. Records that contain the names of slaves such as account records, probate records, and deed records, will be under the names of their owners.

This section will provide a brief overview to available resources for researching African American ancestors both before and after slavery ended including books, government sources, research guides, and other online resources.

The National Archives holds multiple collections that can be used for research African American ancestors, including Freedmen’s Bureau records and Census records.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was in operation from 1865 to 1872. Its purpose was to provide assistance to the recently freed slaves and their families in the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau records can help to provide a link between the pre- and post-Civil War records of African American ancestors.

Census records are often a useful resource in research ancestors. While information for slaves was not fully recorded, information for free black Americans was included in the Census prior to the end of the Civil War.

The 1870 Census was the first U.S. Census to include the names of all African Americans recorded by the census takers. It is also an important link between pre- and post-Civil War records.

French

French settlers arrived in North America early in the history of its colonization. France was the first country to colonize what is now known as Quebec as well as parts of Ontario, Acadia, and certain areas of Western Canada. Descendants of French settlers in Canada and the U.S. form several distinct groups including French-Canadians, Acadians/Cajuns, Louisiana Creole, and Huguenots.

France is currently organized by regions, departments, and communes. Mainland France is made up of 18 regions. The 39 historical provinces that used to make up France were dissolved in 1790, due to the French Revolution.


Acadians are descended from French colonists that settled in the French colony of Acadia during the 17th and 18th centuries. Some may also be descended from the native people that lived in the region. Acadia was comprised of what is now Canada's Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), part of Quebec, and Maine to the Kennebec River.

Nearly 12,000 Acadians were expelled from the region during the French & Indian War, due to British fears that they were loyal to France. Many were recruited by Spain to re-settle in what is now Louisiana. Their descendants, the Cajuns, established a culture that still thrives today.

French-Canadians are descended from the French colonists that settled in Quebec and other parts of Canada beginning in the 17th century. Primarily living in Quebec, they make up the majority of native French speakers that live in Canada today. Quebec itself is the second-largest province in Canada (by area and population) and is the only Canadian province with a primarily French-speaking population.

Huguenots were French Calvinist Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result of severe persecution (including restrictive laws and violent massacres) in Catholic-majority France, many Huguenots fled the country to settle elsewhere in the 17th century. The first wave of Huguenots arrived in the U.S. in 1624 and began settling first in New York and New Jersey. After resettling, the majority of Huguenots would successfully assimilate with existing Protestant groups in their new countries.

The Louisiana Creole people are descended from the inhabitants of Louisiana prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. They include people of French, Spanish, Native American, or African descent as well as mixtures of these heritages. Creole culture is thus itself a blend of numerous cultures with a long and rich heritage.

Irish

The Irish have been immigrating to the U.S. since the 17th century, with the largest waves arriving from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. About 10% of the current U.S. population, representing about 33 million people, claims at least partial Irish Ancestry. 

Ireland has traditionally been organized by 4 provinces and then further by 32 counties, with 26 counties making up the Republic of Ireland and 6 counties making up Northern Ireland. Often genealogical and other information will also be organized by county. Below is a listing of the provinces and counties that make up Ireland.

Province Counties
Connaught Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, & Sligo
Leinster Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford, & Wicklow
Munster Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, & Waterford
Ulster

Republic of Ireland: Cavan, Donegal, & Monaghan

Northern Ireland: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermagh, Londonderry, & Tyrone

 

The Great Famine (or Great Hunger,) a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland, lasted from 1845 to 1849 and led to the deaths of about 1 million Irish people. The Great Famine also contributed significantly to the large waves of Irish immigration to the United States in the 19th century.

Prior to the large waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century, the majority of those living in the U.S. claiming Irish ancestry were of Scotch-Irish descent.

Scotch-Irish (or Scots-Irish) Americans are descended from Scottish Presbyterians who settled in Ireland between 1608 and 1697. They are also called Ulster Presbyterians after the county in which many of them settled. In the 18th century hundreds of thousands of Ulster Presbyterians immigrated to America, settling primarily in Pennsylvania and the Appalachian region. Two more waves of hundreds of thousands of Ulster Presbyterians immigrated in the 19th century.

Italian

Italians have played a part in the history of the U.S. since the 15th century when Italian explorers were making voyages to the “New World.” While Italians have been immigrating to the U.S. for most of its history, it was not until a mass immigration period that lasted from 1880 to 1921 that Italians emigrated to the country in huge numbers. Italian-Americans are now one of the largest self-identified ethnic groups in the U.S. 

Italy is currently organized by region and then by province, with several autonomous metropolitan cities. Historically the area was comprised of numerous independent city-states and republics which were ultimately united as the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. The monarchy of Italy was abolished shortly after the end of World War II, when the country became a republic.

The first wave of Italian immigrants was primarily from Northern Italy and relatively well-off, the majority of the larger and later waves was from Southern Italy and Sicily and tended to be from poor, agrarian backgrounds. New England has the highest population of people with Italian ancestry in the country, and descendants of Italian immigrants make up over 10% of the population of Massachusetts.

Italians faced considerable discrimination, especially in the first few decades of the 20th century when anarchism was a major political force. They were often forced to take low-paying, menial jobs and to live in squalid, over-crowded buildings.

Most Italian immigrants coming to Boston settled in the North End, which had become a largely Irish and Jewish neighborhood. The North End would for a time be the most densely populated neighborhood in the city, with over 44,000 Italian immigrants living in an area of only one square mile.

Native American

Researching Native American ancestry can be difficult for several reasons:

  • Multiple legal and other definitions of what constitutes a Native American or American Indian
  • Differing levels of legal recognition of tribes, some may be recognized on the state level but not the federal level; some may not be recognized at all
  • Necessary record collections scattered among various agencies and locations
  • Lack of remote access to necessary records collections
  • Problem of DNA testing as it relates to Native American culture (see DNA tab)

This section will provide a brief overview of available resources for researching native American ancestry, including a look at the issues with DNA testing.

For several reasons, DNA tests are not always accurate measures of Native American ancestry:

  • Home testing kits are not advanced enough to give an accurate result
  • DNA is often less important to Native American cultural identity than community relationships, shared experiences, and long-standing traditions
  • Sovereign tribal nations determine their own criteria for tribal membership; genetics may not be part of the requirements, or they may use different kinds of genetic testing
  • A person may have a Native American ancestor and not have inherited any DNA from them, or inherited such a small amount that it does not show up in test results

Indian Census Rolls
The Indian Census schedules were census rolls that were generally submitted each year from 1885-1940 by the government officials that were in charge of Indian reservations. The information on the rolls will vary by year as the questions changed. Only people who had a formal affiliation with a federally-supervised tribe are included in these records.

Dawes Rolls
Also called: Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory or Dawes Commission of Final Rolls.
Lists of people accepted between 1898 and 1914 by the Dawes Commission as members of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes.


Other Records & Research Guides