Essential Resources for African American Research in The NYG&B Record

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 5:30pm

Are you researching African American families from New York State? This kind of research can be amazingly complicated and full of brick walls.

If you're encountering trouble in your research, or are looking for a good way to get started, check out these articles from the NYG&B Record, which has been published quarterly since 1870.

All members of the NYG&B have access to the full digital archives of the NYG&B Record - these articles (and 147 years of others) are available online and are also text-searchable. If you're interested in becoming a member, check out our member benefits.

"Researching African-American Families in New Netherland and Colonial New York and New Jersey."

Henry Hoff, NYG&B Record, vol. 136, no. 2 (2005): 83-95.

Anyone investigating African American heritage in colonial times should have this article at the top of their reading list.

Hoff notes that researchers will face all of the usual pitfalls typical of this time and place: "lack of records, incomplete records, unpublished records, and poorly indexed records." But he also delves into problems (and solutions) specific to researching African Americans during this time period:

  • Many records fail to identify African Americans as such.
  • African Americans were not included in some records.
  • Dutch naming conventions (which many freed slaves adopted) may cause the first and last name to change from record to record.
  • Many of these families were too well-behaved (rarely appeared in court records, one of the best sources).

He also offers detailed advice in focusing on the following four areas of African American research:

  • Names
  • Church Records
  • Law and Custom
  • Chronology

Aside from listing many further sources for researchers to consult, Hoff includes, as an appendix, a genealogical summary of fourteen African-American families traceable for three or more generations.

Members can read the full article here

"Abstracts of Early Black Manhattanites."

Richard Dickenson, NYG&B Record, vol. 116 (1985), no. 2: 100-104; no. 3: 169-173.

This article, written by Richard Dickenson in a 1985 issue of the NYG&B Record details the origins of early Black Manhattanites. The two-part article also abstracts passages from Volume VI of Isaac Newton Phelps Stoke's six-volume work The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909

Although it is a secondary source, the original volume contained many facsimiles of original documents, which are now very difficult (if not impossible) to obtain.

The article contains dozens of sketches of some of the very first inhabitants of Manhattan Island, including narrative details, appearances in records, family members, and citations.

Members can read part one here

Part two here

"Swan Janse Van Luane: A Free Black in 17th Century Kings County"

Henry Hoff, NYG&B Record, vol. 125 (1994), no. 2: 74-77.

In this 1994 article, Henry Hoff relates "a success story of 17th century New York," that of Swan Janse van Luane. He arrived in New Amsterdam around 1654 as a slave - ten years later he was a free man, and ten years after that he owned land on Long Island.

This enthralling work of history and genealogy tells a fascinating tale through original documentary evidence and will be an excellent resource for early New York researchers, who can learn much from Hoff's sources, methods, interpretation, and knowledge of the period and subject.

Members can read the full article here

"Some Ancestors of Nelly Jane (Franklin) Lefevre: An African American of the Mid-Hudson Valley"

Joan de Vries Kelley, NYG&B Record, vol 145 (2014) no. 4: 245-258; vol 146 (2015), no. 2: 107-116; no. 3: 187-197; no. 4: 283-298, 311.

In this series, which was published in 2014 and 2015, Joan de Vries Kelley outlines the challenges of tracing African Americans in New York's mid-Hudson Valley. Even after 1850, census information was scarce for this segment of the population. As many were poor and illiterate, family bibles, land ownership records, estate settlements and even cemetery tombstones are not usually fruitful sources.

Despite these challenges, de Vries Kelley uses evidence from common sources - and a few unusual ones - to trace the ancestry of Nelly Jane (Franklin) Lefevre. For those interested in learning about the life of African Americans in the mid-Hudson Valley, or those hoping to replicate de Vries Kelley's research methods, this article is a must-read.

Members can read all four parts online:

"Frans Abramse Van Salee and His Descendants: A Colonial Black Family in New York and New Jersey"

Henry Hoff, NYG&B Record, vol 121 (1990) no. 2: 65-71; no. 3: 157-161; no. 4: 205-211.

In 1990, Henry Hoff wrote that the past few decades had seen much written about blacks in early New York, yet "relatively little attention [had] been paid to the genealogies of free black families in New York."

Thankfully, as we can see from his numerous contributions to the subject listed in this article, Hoff produced some excellent work in this area. The Van Salee family, his subject in this series, is one of the few early black families that can be traced into the 19th century.

The article appears in three parts, all of which are available for NYG&B members to read online. As with his other articles, researchers working in this time period will benefit greatly from studying Hoff's method, sources, and insight into this challenging area of research:

Additional Resources

Kenyatta D. Berry, host on the PBS series, Genealogy Roadshow and leading African American ancestral researcher, joined us for a webinar last fall.

Her talk, titled "From Virginia to New York: An African-American Family's Journey to Upstate New York" received rave reviews, and a recording is available for NYG&B members to view on-demand in the webinars and video section of our website.

The New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer also contains a chapter on African American research in New York State and offers the following information:

  • Historical overview of African Americans in NY State.
  • Genealogical resources available at the New York State Archives and National Archives.
  • Helpful slavery records, census records, immigration and migration records, military records, business and institutional records, newspapers and religious records for African American research.
  • Helpful selected repositories, societies and websites
  • Selected bibliography for further reading.

Do you have any other tips for African American research? Let us know in the comments! 

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