A few years ago, I took on the unbelievably complex and daunting task of constructing the maternal branches of my family tree. My first step was to sit down with my grandmother and listen as she recounted the names of her grandparents and their parents. Granny relayed some wonderful, albeit slightly inaccurate information.
Beyond my great-great grandparents, I had no names. Most importantly at a certain point in history, Black people in this country didn’t technically have distinguishable last names, or really any last names. I was frustrated and the last thing I wanted to do was turn to government records but that’s just what I did.
I used bits and pieces that I scrapped together from various public records such as the census, population schedules, slave schedules, and marriage records to rebuild a family history that I thought was lost. Using the Census is not an easy task, especially since the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire. And of course before 1870, the only way to use the Census was to track the name of the person who owned my maternal ancestors but it worked.
I’ve traced my family back to 1795. The trail runs cold there but the journey has been an amazing one. It has led to several discoveries about my family but also my resolve. Along the way, I met a cousin who has made our family tree a bigger project than I ever would have imagined.
The fun of using the Census is the jolt that I get every time I read the names of my relatives. It brings up more questions than answers: what was her middle name? What was his favorite food? Did he have a favorite color? Did her eyes look like mine? Did she have the same freckles on her hands? As rewarding as this project has been, it has been just as painful to realize that I will never know my ancestors but at least I know they actually lived.