Genealogical Research ... Recorded Names Often Inaccurate In Terms Of Ethnicity

June 19, 2013
Written by Kelly Burgess in
Common Ties That Bind
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Geneology is the method of tracing our heritage.

Genealogical research is like solving a complex mystery. For people from minority racial groups, however, finding the clues to the puzzle can present a greater challenge because of the gaps in their family histories.

“In the past, the names of the minority people in an area were often never even recorded,” says Elizabeth Powell Crowe, author of Genealogy Online. “Sometimes this was because they were considered property or chattel; sometimes it was due to other forms of discrimination. The most well-known cases of these omissions were African slaves, but it happened with other groups as well.”

Even when recorded, the names used created a big obstacle in genealogical research for all ethnic groups — from Polish and Hungarian to Native American and Asian — due to the many inaccuracies of recording the names.

“There were many reasons for names being incorrectly transcribed,” says Loretto Dennis Szucs, vice president of community relations for The Generations Network. “Sometimes it was a language barrier — both written and oral. This made misspellings a huge problem, particularly for Asian-Americans. Those who were taking the records also often anglicized the names. With Native Americans, particularly children, they were often given English names to replace their Indian names.”

However, even with the past hurdles, it is not impossible to track your ancestral lineage despite the racial discrimination today. In fact, Szucs explains that a decade or two in the past would have required years of painstaking research and expensive travel to accomplish what we can tackle in just a few hours over the internet—and the tireless work of organizations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Szucs and Crowe offer these guidelines for anyone who’s interested in tracking their family history:

  • Don’t immediately try leaping too far back. Begin with your current knowledge and work your way backward. Szucs says a great place to start is the 1930 census.
  • Listen carefully to family oral histories and legends. These stories can provide important clues.
  • Don’t limit yourself to your direct ancestors. Look at your ancestor’s siblings as well. Their lives can often yield important clues to your direct line.
  • Be flexible about name spellings. Often there are several variations of one surname, even in the same family.

With those tips in mind, the best general place to start looking is Family Search sponsored by the LDS church, which has the largest collection of free family history and genealogy records in the world. Another site with a massive amount of information is Ancestry.com, which has both free and fee-based services, including a family tree builder that can help connect researchers with others who are looking for the same family lines. These collaborations can be invaluable.

For more targeted research into specific minority groups, these tips and resources can make the search for clues a little easier:

African-American: There are particularly rich resources for African-American researchers at Family Search in the form of the Freedman’s Bank Records and other recent extractions. One of the best resources for African-American research is AfriGeneas, which focuses specifically on African-American genealogy. Also, search The Root.

Asian-American: Passenger lists and ships lists that came through San Francisco and other California ports are rich sources of information. The National Archives has records related to the Japanese-American relocations during World War II, as well as Chinese immigration and exclusion records. Unfortunately, many of the latter are not available online. Although there are efforts in place to digitize them, often complications arise because the records are not standardized and sometimes the handwriting is in Chinese.

Hispanic/Latino: Parish records can be an invaluable source for researchers because of the strong Catholic tradition in most Latino cultures and the Catholics penchant for record keeping. In addition, Mexico has census records available that can help bridge immigration gaps. Las Culturas, has a round up of the best Hispanic/Latino genealogy sites on the Web.

Native American: The Key Factor Is To Know The Tribe You Plan To Research. One way to find this out is to find out what part of the country your ancestors came from. From there, the National Archives has the records of the Bureau of Indian affairs, most of them now online. The best of these is the Dawes Rolls, which lists everyone accepted between 1898 and 1914 by the Dawes Commission as members of the five following Indian tribes: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. Keep in mind that many of the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs have both the Indian name and the English name.  

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