How far back can you trace your family history?

Tracing African American ancestors before 1870 is more difficult for some.
Posted at 1:19 PM, Feb 19, 2024

BRYAN, Texas — Tracing family roots is a fun pastime activity for many, but it's harder for people with African American ancestry.

  • The Brazos Valley African American Museum offers a Family History center where museum-goers can create a family tree as far back as they would like.
  • The center uses resources like birth and death records, ship manifests, land deeds and more to find and confirm ancestry.
  • Finding written documents of African American ancestors often requires more boots-on-the-ground research.


A few clicks, several Google searches, and some patience –

“So, there’s four? Three. Three generations on this headstone.”

That’s all it takes for these two enthusiastic genealogists to dig into their past.

“I really love it when people see their ancestors or relatives on records for the first time, like I’ve had a number of people like tear up when they first pulled up that first record and then they they'll stop and they'll call their family members,” said volunteer Noel Gomillion.

Gomillion is a volunteer for the Family Search Center in the Brazos Valley African American Museum.

Today, she’s helping their intern, Reagan Smith, grow her family tree.

“She has a lot of really good information on her people that came from the United States. And then over here, there's kind of some missing information where she has ancestors from Poland,” Gomillion said.

So, they get to work.

“Step number one is to make a family search account,” Gomillion said.

A few searches and redirections later –

“This is where he was from. And so, a nice little country town. Probably farming. And then over here is where they would come to church,” Gomillion said.

But they weren’t quite there yet –

“So what we want to do is we want to figure out what parish this town is part of.” Gomillion said.

Then finally –

“I think those are your great great-grandparents buried in Poland. Wow. Yeah. That's really cool. That's awesome.” Gomillion said.

But it’s not always this accessible when dealing with African American ancestors.

“They show up in all of the records that I would expect anybody else to show up in after 1870 before 1870 is kind of the murkier area. The ancestors will show up in in wills, and they'll show up in freedmen records,” Gomillion said.

“And then also newspaper records, people after the civil war, were trying to reconnect with their family and they put newspaper advertisements out for looking for family members.”

Sometimes, it’s just boots on the ground research.

“I have an appointment tomorrow to go and see if I can figure out where the person came from because he came over before Texas was a republic. And so, he's settled over in Robertson County. And so, I’m trying to figure out where his owner lived,” Gomillion said.

But the effort – often brings a sense of belonging.

“There's always been kind of, for me a sense of longing for a heritage, people to belong to.”

“Now this is giving me blood family that I belong to and that there are stories attached to.”