Guide to African American Genealogical Research in New Orleans
Ever since Alex Haley's groundbreaking book Roots, more and more African Americans have begun to trace their family history. For many, genealogy can be a rewarding experience that can shed light on your family's past triumphs and tragedies. In Louisiana, we are very fortunate to have rich archival information on people of African descent.
This guide was developed to assist the novice conducting genealogical and biographical research on African-Americans in New Orleans and the surrounding area. Louisiana's French and Spanish Colonial governments and religious institutions generated a multitude of records on people of African descent both free and enslaved.
The sources of such information can be found in various Louisiana parish courthouses, the New Orleans Notarial Archives, the Historical Center of the Louisiana State Museum (The Old U. S. Mint), the New Orleans Public Library, the Louisiana State Archives, the archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Lafayette, and Lake Charles, as well as numerous individual Roman Catholic churches and various other archives and libraries.
Getting Started: Forms
The first step in tracing your family tree is to fill in a family tree chart (Attachment 1). Fill in the chart starting with yourself (the present), and then your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. (working back into the past). Record your ancestors’ given names, surnames and the maiden names of female ancestors. Include dates and places of birth, marriage, and death for each person listed. Complete as much of the chart as you can. This chart is very important because it will serve as your road map and guide to further research. Your next steps will be to locate records that fill in the missing information on the chart or that will document each family member.
Another form to use is a family group sheet (Attachment 2). A family group sheet maps out the relationship for one immediate family. This form will be helpful as you find brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins of your parents and grandparents. Remember you are conducting research on your family, which evolved from several families. To complete the family group sheet, start with yourself as a child, then your parents, then siblings. Do more family group sheets where your parents are listed as children in their immediate families. If there was more than one parental marriage, fill out a separate family group sheet for each marriage and the children born from each marriage. If another ancestor was married more than once, complete a separate family group sheet for each marriage or union.
Conducting Oral Interviews
Conduct interviews with family members and relatives, especially the older members in the family, to assist you with filling out the family chart and family group sheet. Take written notes and date them. If possible, tape the interviews in order to keep them as a permanent record. Ask basic questions of interviewees: Where and when were they born? Who were their parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents? Where did the family live or die? Where are they buried? Ask for home addresses, cities, counties, and states of residence.
If the interviewee is not clear on dates, try to get an approximate date by asking questions related to their life. For example, how old were you when your mother or father died? Where were you living when your grandmother died? Perusing old photo albums is an excellent way to get interviewees to reminisce about the past, which might also trigger their memory of past events. Information from oral interviews can be very important in providing a starting point for further research into vital records, census materials, probate records, and church records.
Where to Go for Records and Documents
Before going to the library or archives, gather information on your family at home. Collect family records on yourself, your parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other relatives. If these documents are already in your family's possession you're ahead of the game. Check these records against the chart to accurately record the information you've listed. As you gather this information you will begin to learn more about the personal life of your ancestors. Genealogy is similar to history in that in both fields you use primary sources and you must document your work.
As you gather documents, you will most likely come across records with erroneous information relating to yourself and your family. It is a good practice to always find as many documents about the same event to compare them for the most accurate information.
In many small parishes in Louisiana, birth certificates were not given prior to 1914; however, birth records for persons born in Orleans Parish within the last 100 years can be obtained from the Office of Public Health, Vital Records Registry (Attachment 3). Records may be obtained in person or by writing the office.
For Orleans Parish birth records older than 100 years (as far back as 1790), one could either visit the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge, check through their index and review a microfilm copy of the birth record, or write to them at the Louisiana State Archives requesting the information needed. In instances where birth records prior to 1914 are needed but not available, baptismal records can be used to supplement but not substitute information gotten from birth records.
Note: When writing archives or churches for vital or sacramental records you will need to provide the name of the individual for whom the record is needed, pertinent dates and location of event. Submit the appropriate fee along with a self-addressed stamped envelope.
At public archives and libraries, researchers can look through indices and through microfilm collections and take notes from the records if all they are interested in is the information from these sources. When time or travel to a certain location is not possible then either ordering a record or hiring a researcher from a particular area is your only solution. Some genealogists prefer to collect certificates, census copies, and other documents especially if they are going to publish their research. If you don't want to keep copies of documents or records you still must document the source of the information, especially if you need to retrieve it at a future date.
Information obtained from vital records should be used to document the information on your chart and to provide leads to other sources that will be useful in your search. For example, birth, marriage, and death records are useful in finding out the maiden names of females and places of birth, marriage or death of ancestors.
Marriage Certificates can be obtained by writing the parish where the marriage occurred. Include in your request the names of the married couple and the date of marriage. The Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library has microfilm copies of marriage licenses and certificates, for Orleans Parish 1846-1915, and an index only for 1916-1984, as well as several other parishes. Marriage certificates of couples married in Orleans Parish within the past 50 years can be obtained from the Office of Public Health, Vital Records Registry (Attachments 4 and 4a). Records may be obtained in person or by writing the office. If the marriage occurred more than 50 years ago, you must contact the Office of the Secretary of State. Marriage records of African Americans prior to 1864 are of free people only. The Freedmen’s Bureau records have some marriage records of former slaves, who were married before emancipation. (See section entitled Freedmen’s Bureau and Related Records.)
The State Archives in Baton Rouge has an index to microfilm copies of death certificates that represent deaths that occurred in the State of Louisiana from 1914-1946. The index is arranged by surname and refers to the parish where the death occurred by a numerical code. More recent death records for the state of Louisiana can be ordered from the Office of Public Health in New Orleans (Attachment 3).
The Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library has Orleans Parish death records from 1804-1915 on microfilm along with an index. Researchers can browse the Obituary Index of the Louisiana Division at obits.gno.lib.la.us/nopl/obitindex.htm.
An extensive newspaper obituary file from 1804-1972 with some gaps is also available in the Louisiana Division. Prior to 1864, obituaries and death certificates are of whites and free people of color only. Again, if your slave ancestors were Catholic or owned by Catholics, the Catholic Church in the area where your ancestors lived might have last rites, funeral, and burial records on them.
When conducting research into events that took place in a church you should first check with the specific church where the event occurred. A list of churches in Louisiana, Roman Catholic and other denominations, can be found in the book A Guide to Church Records in Louisiana by Rev. Donald Hebert. Baptismal, marriage, death, funeral, and burial records may be obtained by writing the church where the event occurred. Fees for such records vary from church to church, usually anywhere from $2.00 to $5.00.
The pre-20th century records of the Roman Catholic Church in Louisiana have largely been centralized in the Archdiocesan archives of South Louisiana. If the event took place during the 18th or 19th century in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the record may be obtained for a fee and by writing to the Archdiocesan Archives at 1100 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA 70116-2505. In such case, you should know the church where the event occurred, or, if not, the address or neighborhood of the person or persons for whom you are requesting information, and the approximate date of event.
Most Catholic Church records are closed to the general public for research (such as the records in the Archdiocesan Archives in New Orleans), but these records can be obtained by writing the repository or the specific church. When you write any private institution for records you should be specific and brief in your request and include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Always call ahead and ask what the institution charges for copies and research.
Abstracts of most 18th and 19th century church records have been published for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Natchitoches, and Southwest Louisiana. Usually these published church records are of free persons although there are thousands of sacramental records of enslaved or free Africans and Louisianans of African descent in individual churches and Archdiocesan archives throughout Louisiana. For sacramental records of slaves, you will need to know as much information as possible, i.e. slave's name, owner's name, approximate date of the event, location and or area where slave lived.
Besides gathering relative documents and conducting oral interviews, another way to document your family history is to locate ancestors on the various United States Census Records. These are the records that are so widely used by genealogists in the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library. The Census records might lead your search out of the state of Louisiana if it shows that your relatives or ancestors were born in another state. If this is the case, you will have to familiarize yourself with that state's archives and county records.
The French were the first to take censuses in Louisiana, followed by the Spanish. The first U. S. Census of Louisiana was taken in 1810. At that time, only whites, free people of color and Native Americans were counted. Slaves were listed by sex, number, and age category under the owner’s name or the owner’s head of household.
Starting with the 1850 census and ending with the 1860 census, slaves were enumerated separately by owner, sex, color, and age. This section of the census is known as slave schedules.
Most African Americans will benefit from the census records from 1870 through 1920. In these records African Americans are counted individually and listed as either heads of households, family members, or as boarders in individual households. From 1870 on, the U. S. census will provide you with names of ancestors, places of birth, age at the time the census was taken, color or race, occupations, educational level, and place of residence or street address.
Census records are arranged by state and parish (or in the case of other states, by counties). To use the census you should know the parish in which your ancestors and relatives lived. There are printed indexes for census records of Louisiana starting with the 1810 census and continuing up to the 1870 census. The index for the 1880 census is arranged by a process known as the Soundex. The Soundex is a coding method in which the first letter of a surname is used and the rest of the name is assigned a numerical code based on how the name sounds. The Soundex is used for all U.S. Censuses taken since 1880 (See Attachment 5). Due to a fire in a Washington, D.C. warehouse, the vast majority of the 1890 U. S. Census was burned. However, a special census of Union Veterans and Union Veteran Widows was taken in 1890. (This special census is extremely helpful in determining whether your ancestors fought for the Union and whether they later filed for a pension.)
City Directories list individuals and their address and also list advertisements for various businesses. Sometimes city directories were published through subscription so not everyone was included. New Orleans has a city directory starting in 1805 which is more like a partial census of the city. Heads of households are listed with aggregate age and sex categories for non-head of household members. There are also age and sex categories for slaves living in the household. During the ante-bellum period (pre-1862), city directories included some free persons of color but they were not always listed as such. After the Civil War, African Americans were included in the City Directory along with their occupation and address. Again, business men and women could pay for an advertisement page or a partial ad or have their businesses highlighted in the alphabetical listing. City directories are very important for urban research because they give occupational and residential information on individuals for the years between the decennial state and Federal censuses.
The City of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana had one of the largest free populations of people of African descent in the United States. Most slaves were emancipated during the Spanish Colonial period of Louisiana (1769-1803) and the early years of the American Territorial period (1803-1812). During the Spanish Colonial Period, slaves could buy their freedom, be loaned money to purchase their freedom, have their freedom purchased by a relative or friend or be given their freedom. After the territorial period, the Louisiana State Legislature began to make emancipation of slaves more difficult. By the 1830's an owner of a slave had to publicly announce his or her intention to free a slave. The slave had to be at least 30 years old, and had to be of good character and good conduct. By the 1850's, emancipation was so restrictive that a slave could be freed only by an act of the state legislature.
Most descendants of Louisiana's Creole or Free People of Color population can trace their freedom to the Spanish Period. Only a few individuals can trace their lineage to the French Colonial Period (1718-1763) where approximately 150 slaves were emancipated. This figure does not include the small number of free blacks who immigrated to Louisiana from France, the Caribbean, Africa, and other places during the French Colonial Period.
Some slaves were freed for saving the lives of their owners or for showing faithful service to them. A significant group of female slaves gained their freedom because they were the lovers, common-law wives, or mistresses of white men, who were not always their owners. Their children often became free or were born free through such relationships.
Regardless of the method of emancipation, there exist numerous records of these acts either in wills, inter vivos donations, or by legal suit before the court where a slave could sue to be free if he or she had the money for self-purchase.
Original emancipation records can be found in the Notarial Archives (1769-1850's), or in parish courthouses. An index to Parish Court Slave Emancipation Petitions for Orleans Parish (1814-1843) can be found at the following website: nutrias.org/inv/vcp/emancip.htm. A database of emancipation records for South Louisiana from1769-1804 can be consulted at the Williams Research Center at the Historic New Orleans Collection. The information is indexed by the first name of the slave, the slave-owner's last name, or by the name of a third party involved in the emancipation act.
During the 1790's many free people of color, whites, and slaves fled the former French colony of St. Domingue (present day Haiti), due to massive slave uprisings led by Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessaline. These refugees fled to eastern Cuba, Jamaica, other Caribbean ports, New Orleans, and various North American Atlantic ports. In 1809, over 10,000 refugees, mostly from the eastern part of Cuba, migrated to New Orleans. Approximately one-third was free persons of color, one-third slaves, and the remaining third was whites. This influx of St. Domingue refugees had a major impact on the culture, education, language, customs, religion, cuisine, and folklore of New Orleans as well as on the agriculture in South Louisiana. A large percentage of Louisianans of enslaved and free African descent can trace some ancestor to Haiti.
For African Americans who were enslaved in Louisiana prior to the Civil War, the search for ancestry is difficult, but not impossible. When conducting research in this period, a crucial part of your research will be the name or names of the family or families who owned your ancestors and relatives. Once you have identified such families, look up legal and financial information on them such as wills, marriage contracts, power of attorney, inventories of estates, and slave sales and purchases. Comb through this information for references on family-owned slaves. Information such as name of the enslaved, age, color, occupation, and family relations can be found in these documents. These records can be found in the parish courthouses in places where your ancestors and their owners lived as well as various archives and libraries. Many of these records have been microfilmed and can be found in the Louisiana Division of the NOPL.
Probate or succession records, wills and inventories of estates, usually list slaves as property. NOPL's Louisiana Division has microfilm copies of estate inventories and some wills from 1805-1895 (Estate inventories and sales after 1865 do not include slave property.)
Conveyance records are written instruments in which property is bought, sold, conveyed, etc. Slaves were considered property and slave sales were indexed like property. These records are indexed by vendor (seller) and vendee (buyer). The slave sale usually contains the names of the slave buyer, seller, and the name, age, and color of the slave. Sometimes the previous owner or owners and occupation are listed. These conveyance records can be found in the basement of the Civil Courts building.
Across the hall from the conveyance offices is the Notarial Archives, the repository for all notary records for Orleans Parish from 1769-present. The Notarial Archives contains wills, property transactions, slave sales, emancipation records of slaves, marriage contracts, partnerships, power of attorney, etc. Usually the conveyance books will indicate the notary’s act of the slave sale, which is the original record.
Slave Manifest Records
The Port of New Orleans was a bustling shipping base for slaves being sent to Southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. In the event that you locate a slave imported or exported from Louisiana, further information may be obtained from the United States Customs for the Port of New Orleans: Outward slave manifests (1812-1856) and Inward slave manifests (1807-1860). These records provide vital information on the transporting of slaves through the Port of New Orleans. These records offer the researcher extensive information on the movement of African and African-American slaves to and from the port of New Orleans for the early American and ante-bellum periods. Information such as date of arrival or departure, ship captain, name and size of vessel; name, age, height, and color of slave or slaves transported; name and residence of owner or shipper of slave/s are included in these records.
In the Outward rolls, port of destination is usually included. Conversely, for the Inward rolls port of origin is usually stated. This microfilm collection is located in the African American Resource Center of the NOPL. Researchers interested in the domestic slave trade of the United States as well as the genealogist in search of slave ancestors will find these microfilm rolls invaluable.
Register of Free Colored Persons Entitled to Remain in State 1840-1863
This register is a product of the Mayor’s Office from 1840-1864. Free African Americans, who were not born in the City of New Orleans, or who were born in the Parish of Orleans and were emancipated after birth, had to be registered with the Mayor’s Office. The roster lists the name of the individual, sex and color of the person, the age of the person, occupation, place of the person’s birth (parish, county or state, country), date of arrival (in the majority of entries this section is blank) remarks, and the date the information was recorded. Information in the remarks column explains who emancipated the individual or vouched for that person’s free status through the witnessing or notarizing of the act of emancipation.
The roster is arranged in chronological groups, years 1840-1857, 1856-1859, 1859-1861, and 1861-1864. Only a handful of entries are from the year 1864. In each chronological group, names are recorded alphabetically by the first letter of the last name or as in some cases, the first letter of the only listed name. The majority of the information is recorded in English. However, in the first chronological group, particularly the year 1841, information is written in French and some subsequent entries are recorded that way as well. The register is available on microfilm in the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library and is catalogued as “Register of Free Persons of Color Entitled to Remain in the State 1840-1863,” microfilm no.AA430.
Burial and Cemetery Records (New Orleans Only)
The Louisiana Division has microfilm records for most New Orleans Cemeteries that show pertinent burial information. Researchers should also avail themselves to a New Orleans Cemetery survey at The Louisiana Historical Center of the Louisiana State Museum that is a WPA card catalogue index of St. Louis Cemeteries I, II, & III, Lafayette I & II, St. Joseph I & II, St. Vincent De Paul I & II, St. Roch I & II, St. Patrick, Holt, Masonic, Odd Fellow's Rest, St. John, St. Bernard, Charity Hospital, Fireman's, Girod St., Greenwood/Cypress Grove, Hebrew, and Carrollton. The Historic New Orleans Cemetery Survey conducted in 1981 indexed and photographed all extant inscriptions and tombs in St. Louis Cemeteries I & II, Lafayette I & II, Cypress Grove, Odd Fellow's Rest, and St. Joseph I & II.
Almost all of the New Orleans Cemeteries had entombments and burials of people of African descent; however, some cemeteries are almost exclusively utilized by African Americans. Cemeteries such as St. Louis Cemetery # 2, Square 3 (1823-present) on Claiborne Ave., Mt. Olivet (1920-present) in Gentilly, Providence in Metairie (1954- present), Holt (1881-present) in Mid City, and Resthaven (1958-present) on Old Gentilly Rd. are almost exclusively African American in use and ownership of tombs. Although not predominately African American, St. Louis # 1 & # 3, both have a significant number of tombs and burials owned or occupied by Louisianans of African Descent. For cemeteries in other areas, check the NOPL's Library user terminals and search under "cemeteries in Louisiana" or under a particular parish. There are several books and guides which give histories of some cemeteries as well as list all tomb inscriptions for certain cemeteries. If your ancestors were Catholic refer to the church in the area in which your ancestor lived or died. Many small African American Baptist Churches have small cemeteries next to the church. Also check death certificates and church death and burial records, most of these records state place of burial or entombment.
Freedmen’s Bureau and Related Records
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more widely known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was created by Congress in 1865 as a division of the War Department. The organization was responsible for administering to refugees and freedmen after the war's end and was directly responsible for helping former slaves adjust to freedom. The bureau issued rations and clothing to needy freedmen, operated hospitals and relocation camps, found jobs for freed slaves, established schools, and leased or supervised the working of abandoned lands. It also legalized marriages entered into during slavery and reunited families spilt through slave sales.
The African American Resource Center has microfilm copies of Freedmen’s Bureau records for several southern states and the Louisiana Division has Freedmen’s Bureau records for the state of Louisiana. Besides the administrative records of the Freedmen's Bureau there are also the records of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Co. (1865-1874). These records contain the name of the depositor, the depositor's account number, age, complexion, place of birth, place raised, name of former owner, former residence, and occupation, names of spouses, parents, children, and siblings, remarks and signatures.
Many slaves and free men of color fought in the various wars during the French and Spanish periods. During the Spanish period, there were several units of Free Men of Color in the state militia. During the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, about 600 soldiers of color, mostly free men and some slaves, fought under General Andrew Jackson in the defense of the city against the British. The Louisiana Division has a microfilm index of all men, black and white, who fought in the Battle of New Orleans. During the Civil War, Louisiana boasted the most Colored Troops with approximately 24,000 men in 40 separate units. Some of these units were the first to see action against Confederate forces. If your ancestor or relative fought in the Civil War, their pension records may provide invaluable biographical data about their lives especially if they were enslaved before the War. The index to the pension records filed for African American veterans who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War is available in the African American Resource Center of the New Orleans Public Library.
The Louisiana Division has a microfilm copy of the "Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers" who served in organizations from the state of Louisiana. This list is arranged alphabetically by the soldier's last name. However, this is only a partial listing of black soldiers.
If your ancestors fought in the Native Guards, you should find them in Andrew Bradford Booth's Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers and Louisiana Confederate Commands, which is located in the Louisiana Division. The Native Guards were primarily composed of free men of color who were under the auspices of the Confederacy but who later became part of the Union forces after the capture of New Orleans in 1862. In William Gladstone's United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867, the author lists all the Black units for Louisiana and the several other states which provided soldiers. The National Park Service has created a website about the United States Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War which includes a database of soldiers who fought for the Union. You can reach this site on the Internet at www.itd.nps.gov/cwss.
Computers, Networking, the Internet and a Few Last Words
Many genealogists are surfing the Internet to correspond and network with other genealogists around the world. These links and connections are extremely important to the African American researcher since there are so few published family histories for Louisianans of African descent. If you have access to the Internet, there are several genealogical bulletin boards to send out queries for those seeking information on families which they are researching. Make sure you use the general genealogical bulletin boards as well as those geared especially towards African Americans.
Computers and software are also important for storing your family information. There are several computer software programs which you can use to store information on your family. This will help you to organize your research and can cut down on copies of documents and related material.
As the title indicates, this guide is only an introduction to conducting African American Genealogical research in Louisiana particularly New Orleans and South Louisiana. Remember to be systematic in your research and stay organized; this will help you down the line. This introduction will get you started but remember that it takes years of painstaking research to fully trace any family, so have patience but try to have fun in the process.
Consider joining one or a few genealogy societies in the area(s) where your ancestors lived. These organizations can be very helpful when you run into a stumbling block or dead-end. Finding out more about your ancestors may give you a better appreciation of not just your own family history but for a particular area, state, and country.
This guide was written by Gregory Osborn and edited by Valencia Hawkins.
Gregory Osborn is a library associate for the New Orleans Public Library. He is a graduate of Stanford University, where he received a bachelor's degree in Anthropology: Social Sciences. Osborn has been conducting genealogy research in California and Louisiana for the past 19 years. He was a research assistant for Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall in her ground breaking study of Africans and African descended people in the Spanish and early American periods of Louisiana. For the past five years, he has conducted extensive research on Louisiana's Free People of Color and enslaved populations. He is currently gathering information on the Creole Civil Rights activist, Homer Plessy and recently appeared on "CBS Sunday Morning Show" to discuss his research.
Valencia Hawkins is the Coordinator of the African American Resource Center of the New Orleans Public Library. She received an undergraduate degree in English from Xavier University of Louisiana and a master's degree in library science from Louisiana State University. Hawkins is a former assistant editor of The Black Collegian Magazine and has had several articles published in The New Orleans Tribune newspaper. Prior to developing the African American Resource Center, she worked as a branch manager of the Napoleon and Alvar Branch libraries.
Originally printed in 1997, this manual was revised and updated in March 2005. Additions include information about the “Register of Free Colored Persons Entitled to Remain in the State 1840-1863,” updated addresses of Louisiana archives, websites and current vital statistics forms. The second edition is published by the African American Resource Center of New Orleans Public Library.