Search Spotlight: African American Records

For Black History Month, we are highlighting two databases available on our website focused on African American families in Massachusetts: Hampden County, MA: Black Families in Hampden County, 1650-1865 and People of Color in the Massachusetts State Census, 1855-1865. These resources provide users with the ability to trace families throughout this period of history. We’ll walk you through a case study of using both of these databases, and we’ll talk about other database collections available to research African American families.

Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1865 was first published as a book written by Joseph Cavalho III. This resource provides information about the history of Hampden County in the context of events that particularly affected the African American community. The work goes on to provide sketches of individuals who lived in this region during the relevant time period. The sketches are organized alphabetically by surname to allow for simple browsing of the resource. (Records of slaves without surnames are provided following the main section.) This database can be searched by first and/or last name; both of the primary individual of each sketch and any individuals mentioned in these sketches. You also have the option to search this resource by subject keyword, such as towns located in Hampden County, using the Keywords field on the database search form.

In one of the Hampden County sketches, you can find information about Wayne Curry, who was born in New Milford, Connecticut in 1836 as the son of Thomas and Ann Curry. The sketch states that Wayne can be found in the 1855 Massachusetts state census for the city of Springfield, where his occupation is recorded as ‘barber’, and his race is listed as ‘mulatto’. Mulatto is a term that was historically used to refer to individuals of mixed white and black ancestry. The Hampden County sketch proceeds to mention that Wayne married Charlotte H. Tatten in 1864, providing a citation to the volume and page number for their marriage record in the state collection of Massachusetts vital records. The sketch concludes with information relating to Wayne’s military service during the Civil War and a reference to Charlotte’s death in Springfield in 1879.

Wayne Curry’s Hampden County sketch can be supplemented by a few of our online databases to both document its contents and discover additional details about Wayne’s life and family. People of Color in the Massachusetts State Census, 1855-1865 provides users with a more direct way of searching for minorities in these resources. While Massachusetts conducted state censuses every ten years from 1855 to 1925, the enumerations from 1855 and 1865 are the only records to have survived. Searching this resource for Wayne’s entry in the 1855 census locates a match in Springfield under the spelling Waine Curry, age 19, occupation barber, race mulatto, and place of birth Connecticut. While the Hampden County sketch does not include a reference to Wayne’s family in the 1865 Massachusetts census, this database does contain an entry for a Wane Currey in Springfield, age 28, occupation barber, race mulatto, and place of birth Connecticut. Paging through this database can locate other members of an individual household, and Wane is reported to have been living with Charlotte H. Currey, age 24, and Chas. S. Currey, who is listed as only five months old.

The People of Color in the Massachusetts State Census, 1855-1865 database is a useful resource to quickly tailor a search to locate records of minority ancestors. Unfortunately, this database does not provide images of the original source material. AmericanAncestors.org does, however, provide users the ability to search the Massachusetts 1855 and 1865 state censuses separately for any individual residing in the state, and these broader collections do include images of the census returns. These databases do not allow users to search by the race of an individual, so the more narrowly focused, transcript-only database is a good starting point to locate a reference to an individual or family, which can then be used to locate the associated images in the 1855 and 1865 censuses.

Information from Wayne’s Hampden County sketch can also be supplemented by the Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-1910 database. The sketch provides a citation for the 1864 marriage of Wayne Curry and Charlotte Tatten, referring to volume 171, page 330. If you know the exact citation of a record in the Massachusetts vital records database, you can enter these values on the search form once you have selected that specific resource from the database dropdown menu. The volume and page navigation controls on the record detail page is another way to more easily navigate to a particular citation. This database is also useful to search for additional information relating to Wayne’s family. Knowing that Wayne and Charlotte’s son, Chas, was less than one year old when the 1865 state census was enumerated, we’re able to locate a record of the birth of Chas S. Currey, son of Wayne and Charlotte (Tatten), in Springfield in December of 1864.

AmericanAncestors.org offers other notable database collections when researching African American ancestry. Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830 was originally published in 1925 under the direction of Dr. Carter G. Woodson to provide information about the age and gender of each individual as well as the number of people living in each household, organized by region. Some of our vital record collections also allow users to search by race as a keyword, such as North Carolina: Deaths, 1906-1930 and South Carolina: Deaths, 1915-1943. This can be particularly useful for more common names to help narrow the amount of relevant results received for your search.

As part of our Black History Month promotion, guest users of AmericanAncestors.org will have free access to the following databases:

If you have questions about these or any other of our database collections, don’t hesitate to contact us at webmaster@nehgs.org. We’re always happy to help, and we look forward to hearing about your own research success stories!