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  • Finding African American Vital Records in NEHGS Databases and CD-ROMs

    Beth Anne Bower

    The rapidly growing collection of vital records databases available on is an extremely important development for African American researchers. Frustrating hours of searching through published records has been transformed into quicker electronic searches. These databases are timesavers for family historians, but are still only as good as the original transcriber or as accessible as the indexing criteria. This column will review several online databases and CD-ROMs available from NEHGS and the accessibility of African American vital records.

    Vital records are birth, marriage, and death information on individuals. They are the core of your genealogical research. Officials have kept vital records since the first arrival of English colonists in New England in the seventeenth century. In the twentieth century genealogists worked to collect, protect, and publish many of these records. While these records are incomplete for some New England towns, there is a wealth of information when compared to other regions of the United States. The good news for researchers of African American ancestors is that New England officials reported vital records for all inhabitants, regardless of race.  There could be an under-reporting of African and African American vital records, but they do exist. The practice of recording a person’s race stretches back to the seventeenth century, enabling family historians to trace ancestors of color.

    Finding an African American ancestor in published vital records is often like looking for “a needle in a haystack” for several reasons:

    • Although the manuscript vital records for a town might contain information on African Americans, some published versions would (1) leave out this information, (2) include it but not index it, or (3) put all non-white races in a separate section.

    • Those compiling the vital records often changed or “regularized” the spelling of names (for all races). There are multiple spellings of the name “Caesar” (as both a first and last name) in original records. Many published records chose one spelling and either indexed all to that spelling or ignored other spellings. The researcher has to evaluate each source to determine these biases.

    • Enslaved African Americans were indexed under their master’s name rather than their given name.

    • Indexers did not index vital records of people with only a first name and no known surname.

    The electronic databases do not eliminate all of these shortcomings. If a transcriber chose not to include African American records, the data based on the transcription will show that bias. What makes the electronic databases particularly useful to researchers of African Americans is the ability to search across multiple towns, using first and/or last names and descriptive racial terms, and to limit the time periods.

    The researcher must evaluate the content and biases of the database. Here are several things to look for:

    • Can the researcher search only on first names and surnames or also on descriptive terms? Will the search mechanism allow for a search on the first name only or does it require a last name to “narrow” the number of results?

    • Does it index on the slave owner’s name only? If so, you need to know when slavery was abolished in each state and possible names of slave owners.

    • Does the database index men and women differently?

    • What descriptive terms are used for African Americans? The most common are negro, colored, mulatto, African, black, black people, people of color, servant (even if they were a slave), slave, and nig. Terms such as quadroon and octoroon are more common in the South, but have also been found in New England records. The descriptive term could be from the time the record was created (i.e. Ceasar, slave of Capt. Rogers) or from the time of indexing (i.e. Ceasar’s vital record is indexed under Negro rather than Ceasar).

    • New England town boundaries and names have changed over time. Make sure you understand the way the database indexes “towns.” Consult a resource such as Marcia D. Melnyk's Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research (1999/2001, NEHGS) and the finding aid or tips for the database.

    • Your African American ancestor may not be listed as African American (and conversely your European ancestor may turn out to be African American). Race designation was omitted in some instances, or clerks lumped African Americans and Native Americans (called “Indians”) under one designation. This is where your knowledge of spouses, siblings, dates, and places is important. If you can’t find an African American ancestor in the right place at the right time, recheck your place and date assumption and consider the possibility that they were listed as white or Indian.
    Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850

    NEHGS is rapidly adding new databases to their website. To date the most valuable database for genealogists researching African American family history is Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850.  The database enables you to:

    • Search first name and surname
    • Search on type of records (birth, marriage, and death)
    • Search by keyword
    • Search all towns within the database or a specific county or town
    • Search on specific years or date ranges

    Many of us are not sure of the exact location of our ancestors’ birth, marriage, or death. In some cases, their full name is not known. Rather than having to look through multiple volumes of published or manuscript town records, this database enables the user to search very rapidly through all towns available. For people looking for a relative of color, the database has keyed “descriptive” terms used in the original records and indexes. For African Americans these terms are: negro/negroes, mulatto/malatta, colored, slave/servant, and Africa/African. The term “black” is sometimes used as a descriptive, but is more difficult to use in a search. This is because the database looks for all surnames and words that include the word “black”, such as Blackson, Blackstone, and blacksmith. Searching on “black” is best used when you can limit your search to a specific town and date range.

    Some tips on searching the Massachusetts vital records database for African Americans:

    • If you only enter a first name, you might be told to “narrow” search criteria. If you just have information on a first name, select a record type, a town or a date range.  You may also enter one of the descriptive terms (such as negro) into the surname or keyword fields. By entering “Tom” as a first name and “negro” as a surname there are twenty-one “hits” for records in twelve different towns.

    • If you do not know the surname, another option in the database is “unidentified.” Entering “Tom” and “unidentified” returns seven records, some of which are African American men.

    • Remember to use all alternative spellings for both first name and surname. For instance, in this database the name Caesar is indexed as both “Ceasar” and “Cesar.”

    • Be aware that towns and counties changed names and shifted boundaries. Check the Massachusetts Town Finding Aid page to confirm that you are in the right town at the right date.

    • Try all combinations of names and keywords. For instance, if you enter the surname “Johnson” there are over 10,000 possible records. By adding each of these keywords, the following number of records are returned:

      Negro: nineteen records
      Colored: seventeen records
      Blacks: sixteen records (nine are blacksmiths!)
      Indian: twelve records
      Servant: two records
      Mulatto:  no records
      African: no records
      Slave: no records

    (Note: The number of matches may increase weekly as NEHGS adds towns to the database.)

    Other NEHGS Vital Records Databases and CD-ROMs

    Another vital records database available at is Arnold’s Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1636-1850. Maureen Taylor’s article, “Rhode Island Vital Records” (, April 2002), provides background on vital records in Rhode Island and another article, "Using Arnold's Vital Record of Rhode Island — In Print and Online" provides tips on using the database. For African American genealogists, the Vital Record of Rhode Island database can be searched in a manner similar to the Massachusetts database. However, the indexing of terms and names is slightly different, so you need to evaluate this database as well. For instance, you will only get one result if you type “Negro” in the surname box, but you will get fourteen hits from the keyword box.

    There are several CD-ROMs available from NEHGS that contain vital records. These databases use Folio database software, which allows you to either browse through the records or search on specific words.

    Genealogies of the Families of Braintree, Massachusetts 1640-1850, by Waldo Chamberlin Sprague, AB, contains some information on African Americans on the South Shore before the Civil War. The majority of the entries are probate records that list slaves by name, but there are some vital records included. Use the “Advanced Query” search and enter a name or descriptive term.

    Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800 and The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston 1630-1822 by Annie Haven Thwing.
    This CD-ROM is particularly valuable because it contains more fields to search. Under “Database Search” the “code” category is for gender and racial identifiers. “A” is the code for African Americans; “A F” for African American women; and “I” is the code for “Indian.” There are 4,854 records for African Americans, 2,144 of which are for African American women. There are seventy-eight records for Indians.  If you choose the “Advanced Query” option, search on the descriptive terms listed above.

    The Records of the Churches of Boston and the First Church, Second Parish, and Third Parish of Roxbury including Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, Admissions and Dismissals, transcribed by Robert J. Dunkle and Anne S. Lainhart.
    This CD-ROM also has a wealth of vital records information for African Americans, although there is a slight overlap with the Thwing CD-ROM. The latter returns more specific information.

    As NEHGS continues to add more vital records sources to its online databases and CD-ROM collection, the opportunities for tracing African American ancestry in New England will also grow. Members can come back at regular intervals to refine their family trees and persist in searching for missing ancestors as the accessibility of these resources expands.

    Sources Mentioned in this Article

    Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850

    Arnold’s Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1636-1850

    Genealogies of the Families of Braintree, Massachusetts 1640-1850

    Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800 and The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston 1630-1822

    The Records of the Churches of Boston and the First Church, Second Parish, and Third Parish of Roxbury including Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, Admissions and Dismissals

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