It can be challenging for black families of Caribbean heritage to trace their family trees beyond a few generations. Now, thanks to a number of online resources, that journey has become easier and the world of genealogy is opening up for Caribbean families and African American, black Canadian and black British families of Caribbean heritage.
I was born in Jamaica and raised in Canada. For a number of personal reasons, I developed an interest in learning more about my family history when I was 18 years old. Equipped with an article from Reader's Digest, I began interviewing older records during a family vacation in Jamaica. Some branches of the family were fairly easy to trace back to 1824 and 1826 but others were more challenging. You see, when trying to find family documents through the Registrar-General in Spanish Town, searches are conducted by parish. Based on the information I had from family members, I thought three grandparents were from St. Mary and only 1 grandfather was from Clarendon.
Fast forward a number of decades and resources like ancestry.com, launched in 1996, and familysearch.org, launched in May 24, 1999, are giving a new generation of budding genealogists unprecedented access to family documents. With the ability to conduct island wide searches, I was quickly able to pull up birth, marriage and death certificates that I had been trying to locate for decades. I found ancestors in Kingston and Clarendon, not St. Mary where their descendants in my branch of the family had been living.
Since the British government gave the public access to the Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834, black families can trace their families back even further. These comprehensive and mandatory reports were submitted in Jamaica in 1817, 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832, 1834. The contain valuable information such as the name and age of the individual, whether they were born in Africa or Jamaica (designated Creole), often the mother's name, place of residence, and the name of the owner. Registers are also available for Antigua, The Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Dominica, Grenada, Trinidad, Tobago and 5 other islands.
My search has taken me back to 1812. I have found three ancestors in the British slave registers. In fact, I now have more documentation pertaining to the branch of the family about which I had the least information when I began this search.
Other black families of Caribbean heritage are having even more success. With the help of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the team from TV's, Who Do You Think You Are Actress Gloria Reuben, was able to identify one of her ancestors who had come directly from Africa.
Through the use of U.S. census data, property tax records and Facebook, I have connected with relatives including the son of a third cousin who lives in Florida. Some black families of Caribbean heritage are making connections even further afield.
Many black families from the Caribbean are of mixed heritage so searches will take them to many parts of the world in search of their ancestors.
Paula Williams Madison, former Former NBC Journalist/Executive and her brothers Elrick and Howard had incredible breakthroughs through the use of online and offline resources. Of Jamaican heritage and born and raised in Harlem, the family is of African and Chinese heritage. Through searches on ancestry.com and familysearch.org she not only found birth certificates for family members but the ship's logs that documented her grandfather Samuel Lowe's journey from China to Jamaica and back to China. She located aunts and uncles in China. Her relatives living in the USA, Jamaica and Australia, traveled to China for a huge family reunion. Paula's inspiring journey is fully documented in the feature film directed by Jeanette Kong Finding Samuel Lowe from Harlem to China, which is being screened at the Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto and Markham this week.
Paula's book Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem which is currently available in digital format will be released by Harper Collins in April 14, 2015.
Other black families of Caribbean heritage can conduct a similar search by following these steps:
- Conduct Family Interviews
Gather information from the oldest living relatives in every branch of your family.
Ask specific questions and record:
- the names (legal and pet names), birthdays and places of birth for your parents, grandparents and great grandparents (if possible)
- the places of residence for each of your ancestors
- information about travel or work abroad
- Begin Your Search.
The information your family provided is just a starting point. It is important to search for documents to validate this information. Search for birth, marriage and death certificates. Also search for christening records. If parents were not married, fathers' name will sometimes appear in christening records. They will always appear on marriage certificates.
- familysearch.org (Free)
- Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834
- Legacies of British Slave-ownership
It is amazing how much information has been transcribed and recorded on this site. I have found information from christening records here and also family members in directories like Kingston directory There are also military records, manumission records, excerpts from wills, and much more.
- Once you have identified family documents online, order the hard copies from the Registrar-General for each country.
- Use Facebook to get help in your search and connect with distant relatives.
If your family is of Jamaican heritage, Facebook has a Kingston Jamaica Genealogy Group and also Facebook Genealogy groups for just about every parish.
Facebook also has Caribbean family groups based on surnames, a group for Jamaicans with Scottish ancestry, a Chinese Jamaicans group, a group for Jamaicans with Irish ancestors, and a group where Jamaicans with ancestors who worked in or migrated to Cuba can connect. There is also a British West Indies-Jamaican Planters and Plantations group.