Monday, July 28, 2014

Building Your Family Tree, Part 2

I volunteer my services to the Bay Area Genealogical Society (BAGS).  We meet at 6:30 PM on the last Friday of every month at University Baptist Church, 16106 Middlebrook Drive, Houston, TX 77059 (Clear Lake City).

If you become a member of BAGS, you are entitled to a free one-on-one Getting Started session with a member of the BAGS mentoring team.  We will walk you through the process of building your “Family Tree” on the website.  Here is an outline of what we cover in our “Getting Started” session:

  • How to obtain a Family Search account
  • How to start a “Family Tree” on Family Search.
  • How to use the Family Search Learning Center including recommended beginner courses:
    • “5 Minute Genealogy” Video Series.
    • “Family Tree” Training Lessons and Videos.
  • How to use the Family Search Wiki.

You can use the videos at the learning center to do all of this on your own but one of the keys to success is keeping a short list of places where you can get in-person help.  Here are a few places that you should plan to visit:

  • A local Family Search center- one of the great things about the Family Search organization is that they have local Family Search centers in thousands of locations around the world.  For a list of Family Search centers go here.
  • A public genealogy library- many cities, counties and states provide local public libraries that offer genealogy services.  In Houston, we have one of the top genealogy libraries in the United States, the Clayton Library.  It is also a Family Search center with the most extensive service hours in our area. Genealogy libraries often provide free or low cost training programs.  You will find a list of genealogy libraries here.
  • A local genealogy society- BAGS is one example but there are several more societies in the greater Houston and Galveston area.  Check this site for a local genealogical society near where you live.
    • BAGS has monthly meetings and we have offered special interest groups based on various ethnic backgrounds including but not limited to British, Irish and African American genealogy.
    • The African American Genealogy Class sponsored by BAGS will meet on the 1st Thursdays at 10:30 AM at Friendswood Public Library on the following dates: August 7, September 4, and October 2.  
    • We are planning a special interest group for German ancestry in 2015.  
    • The next general meeting of BAGS is our annual Barbecue Dinner and Show & Tell.  Members will be making a series of five minute presentations about the heirlooms and stories of their ancestors.  Join us at 6:30 PM on Friday, August 29 at University Baptist Church, 16106 Middlebrook Drive, Houston, TX 77059 (Clear Lake City) for our next meeting.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Building Your Family Tree, Part 1

One of the services that I provide for my clients is to build Family Trees for them on either or  Many of my clients have already started their trees on one of these sites and they allow me to edit their trees.  I am able to add documents, photographs and stories to their family tree that help to authenticate and illustrate their family history.

If you are just starting your family history, you may be wondering which of these sites that I recommend.  They both have their advantages and the answer is:  “It depends”.  Do you believe that you get what you pay for?  Or do you believe that things that are really worth having are free?  I have been hedging my bets and using both sites as well as several others for my personal genealogy.

Our friends at Wikipedia offer the following:
  • Inc., formerly The Generations Network, is a privately held Internet company based in Provo, Utah, United States. The largest for-profit genealogy company in the world, it operates a network of genealogical and historical record websites focused on the United States and nine foreign countries, develops and markets genealogical software, and offers a wide array of genealogical related services.[2] As of December 2013, the company provided access to approximately 12.7 billion records and had 2.14 million paying subscribers. User-generated content included 191 million uploaded photos and more than 16 million uploaded stories.[3]
  • FamilySearch is a genealogy organization operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch maintains a collection of records, resources, and services designed to help people learn more about their family history. FamilySearch gathers, preserves, and shares genealogical records worldwide. It offers free access to its resources and service online at, one of the most heavily used genealogy sites on the Internet.[2] In addition, FamilySearch offers personal assistance at more than 4,500 family history centers in 70 countries, including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.  FamilySearch cites as its motivation to provide genealogical information the "beliefs of the LDS Church that families are meant to be central to our lives and that family relationships are intended to continue beyond this life."[3]

The things that I like about
  1. The optional Family Tree Maker software that allows me to back up and synchronize my online trees to my computer.
  2. The International Collections have helped with my Irish, British, German and Italian ancestors
  3. I get lots of messages from other users with corrections, additions and complements on the material that I post.
  4. I can control the appearance of my trees without interference from other users.
  5. offers a smart phone application that allows you to carry all of your family trees with you on your phone.  I can refer to my phone when I am searching for your ancestors and mine in books in the stacks of a genealogy library.

This is an example of one of the family trees that I have built on  This tree shows my ancestor Ernest Ellsworth Coffman in the Pedigree View.  Five generations of Coffman ancestors are shown in this view.  Let me build or edit a family tree for you!

The things I like about
  1. IT IS FREE!  I began my digital genealogy with the Personal Ancestral File software for the same reason.  FREE!   I contributed to the Ancestral File and the Pedigree Resource File in appreciation for the fact that the software and their support services were FREE!  The WORLD’S LARGEST GENEALOGY ORGANIZATION has also made sure that all of the data that I contributed has migrated to their new Family Tree.
  2. I like the idea of having only one World Family Tree and getting users to collaborate, cooperate and source only one profile for each of my ancestors and only one profile for each of their descendants.  Cooperation and collaboration require a little more patience, trust and effort to get the information right for the long term but in the end, I think it is the right thing to do.
  3. Placing your genealogy on a free site makes it easier for your family members that are more casual about their interest in family history.
  4. The latest news is that Family Search is also offering a smart phone application.  I downloaded it to my phone but have not been able to give it a test drive.  This is another example of the improvements in FamilySearch which make it increasingly competitive with
  5. Did I mention FREE?

This is a pedigree view of Ernest Ellsworth Coffman on which shows a slightly different arrangement but very similar to  I can build or edit your tree on either or both of these sites.

I have invested much more of my time in the last ten years building trees on  The one Family Tree at has only recently been improved to the point where I think it is competitive with the multitude of Family Trees at  I have recently begun working to improve and update the profiles of my direct ancestors at  I have started adding some of the stories and pictures that I have on my trees at to the FamilySearch Tree.  I encourage all of you to start contributing to the unified tree at

I have twenty five years of experience expanding and documenting family trees. I can build or improve your tree for you on either site.  Some of my clients are starting from scratch.  Some of my clients have started a rudimentary online tree but need my help to find the origins of their immigrant or slave ancestors.  If you would like to give your family tree a “JUMP START”, please use the contact box in the right hand margin.  I welcome all inquiries and can advise you about both free and paid research assistance.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Slaves That Freed Themselves, Part 3

The Slaves That Freed Themselves, Part 3

The Contraband Camps described in Part 1 and Part 2 grew even larger after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.  The draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that was issued in the fall of 1862 did not include the provisions for the recruitment of African Americans into the military.  Abraham Lincoln at first was not convinced of the necessity for black troops.  The exodus from the plantations resulted in an excess of fugitive slaves within Union lines.  This fact coupled with the shortage of white Union manpower led to Lincoln’s decision to encourage the exodus further and put the refugees to work in the Union army.

The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army.  Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, engineers, light artillery, and heavy artillery units, were recruited from all states of the Union and became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT).
Historian Steven Hahn proposes that when slaves organized themselves and worked with the Union Army during the American Civil War, including as some regiments of the USCT, their actions comprised a slave rebellion that dwarfed all others.

Recruiting Poster for the U.S. Colored Troops

Approximately 175 regiments composed of more than 178,000 free blacks and freedmen served during the last two years of the war. Their service bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war's end, the men of the USCT composed nearly one tenth of all Union troops. The USCT suffered 2,751 combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes. Disease caused the most fatalities for all troops, black and white.[Wikipedia, Article United States Colored Troops]

The numbers of troops recruited in the south came primarily from the contraband camps.  One exception is Texas as there was not a strong Union presence in Texas until the end of the war.

Numbers of United States Colored Troops by state, North and South[edit]

The soldiers are classified by the state where they were enrolled; Northern states often sent agents to enroll ex-slaves from the South. Note that many soldiers from Delaware, DC, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia were ex-slaves as well.
Connecticut1,764    Alabama4,969  
Colorado Territory95    Arkansas5,526  
Delaware954    Florida1,044  
District of Columbia3,269    Georgia3,486  
Illinois1,811    Louisiana24,502  
Indiana1,597    Mississippi17,869  
Iowa440    North Carolina5,035  
Kansas2,080    South Carolina5,462  
Kentucky23,703    Tennessee20,133  
Maine104    Texas47  
Maryland8,718    Virginia5,723  
Michigan1,387  Total from the South93,796 
Missouri8,344  At large733  
New Hampshire125  Not accounted for5,083  
New Jersey1,185  
New York4,125  
Rhode Island1,837  
West Virginia196  
Total from the North79,283  
Source: Wikipedia

The good news for African American genealogists is that the service records and the pension files for these veterans are gold mines of family information.  Consider the case of Eliza Davis who was married to two veterans.  The pension file of her second husband, Lewis Mackel was over 200 pages and included genealogical gems such as this one:

GENERAL AFFIDAVIT State of Mississippi, County of Adams:  In the matter of Pension claim of Eliza Davis now Mackel, late widow of Wm. Davis, late Co. H. 63rd USCT.
   Personally came before me a Justice of the peace in and for aforesaid County and State William Shorter, aged 73 years, citizen near Bullits Bayou, County of Concordia, State of Louisiana, well known to me to be reputable and entitled to credit and who being duly sworn, declares in relation to aforesaid case as follows:
I am a minister of the gospel and have been for 45 years and I joined in the Holy Bonds of Matrimony one Eliza Davis and Lewis Mackel at the Morgan plantation in Concordia Parish, Louisiana on the 7th day of November 1869 and I know the said Eliza Davis to be the widow of the above named soldier William Davis who is now dead.     Signed- William Shorter.

Lewis Mackel was working as a constable in Concordia Parish, Louisiana after the war but he was also a veteran of Company H of the 63rd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops.  The original name of this regiment was the 9th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent).  The index card for the pension file was found on and it opened the door to an explosion of information about the life of Lewis Mackel.  Here is another example:

p. 23      Deposition by Benjamin Thornton states:
 “…his age is more than 50 years, a drayman, residence and P.O. address Natchez, Mississippi.  I have been acquainted with Louis Mackel for a good many years.  We both formerly lived near Bullits Bayou, Concordia Parish, La. when Louis was first a magistrate and later a constable.  While a constable he was sent to serve an attachment on some mules belonging to a woman named Ann Walker.  Willie Nulty in some way or for some reason unknown to me shot Louis Mackel in the face.  I was not present and did not see the difficulty and don’t know how it started but I have always understood that he, Louis was in the discharge of his official duties when shot.  I did not see him at all the day he was shot.”  Sworn 13 August 1902

To find a dramatic story like this about your ancestor is both amazing and intriguing.  Further indexing of the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau and of these federal pension files will open the door to thousands of similar dramatic stories.  Publishing stories such as this one will also help to open the doors of discovery.  If you are interested in learning more about how to research your African American ancestors, please contact me or attend one of the following classes:

The African American Genealogy Class sponsored by the Bay Area Genealogical Society will meet on the 1st Thursdays at 10:30 AM at Friendswood Public Library on the following dates: 
  • August 7
  • September 4
  • October 2

The address of the Friendswood Library is 416 S. Friendswood Drive.  This road is also known as FM-518.

I am going to cover the following topics:

Session 1
Start with yourself
Family & Home Information Source Checklist
Charting Your Family History
Why Genealogy?
The Genealogical Approach to History
African American Surnames
Interviewing Relatives

Session 2
Case Study Showing the use of 19th & 20th Century Census, Vital Records 
and Military Records
Student Show and Tell Session

Session 3
African American History & Genealogy in Texas
Sources for Texas Vital Records
Genealogy Records of Special Value to African Americans

A 45 minute overview of the above topics will be held  on Saturday, September 6, 2014 at the Bayland Community Center, 6400 Bissonnet Street Houston, Texas 77074.  This session is being sponsored by the Houston Genealogical Forum.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Slaves That Freed Themselves, Part 2

The Slaves That Freed Themselves, Part 2

In Part 1, we told the story of the first major contraband camp of the Civil War at Hampton, Virginia outside the walls of Fort Monroe also known as “Freedom’s Fortress”.  The Grand Contraband Camp grew to become a city in the early years of the Civil War with a population estimated between 7,000 and 10,000 people.  Another example of a contraband camp was the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island, where 3500 former slaves worked to develop a self-sufficient community.  In my research on the slaves that freed themselves in the early years of the civil war, I discovered a website dedicated to sharing the history of Civil War Contraband Camps: Last Road to Freedom.  The following quote from the website explains the varying forms taken by contraband camps:

“Contraband camps took different forms in different places. For instance, while in Memphis camps were created, often from the ground up, along or in [islands of] the Mississippi River, in South Carolina many camps existed on the same plantations where blacks had been slaves. Still other camps simply consisted of a number of blacks resident at Union encampments. Especially in the case of newly-built camps, the populations were ever-changing since fugitives arrived daily, men were recruited into service, and women were often sent to work on abandoned farms or plantations. Some of what is known about these makeshift communities comes from official records while important details have been provided through the writings of various people—often associated with religious groups or benevolent organizations--who visited them. The most remarkable of these first-hand accounts is provided by Quaker Levi Coffin, who transitioned from his work on the Underground Railroad directly to fundraising for the contraband. Two other witnesses to camp life were Michigan Quaker and Underground Railroad operative Laura Haviland, and John Eaton, Jr. General Superintendent of Freedmen.”

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assigned John Eaton, an ordained Presbyterian minister, to organize contraband camps for the runaway slaves that were flocking to the protection of his army of the western theater. Grant had employed the contrabands as teamsters, laundresses, cooks, and hospital assistants. As the numbers of escaped slaves grew into the thousands, a more permanent solution was required. Grant approved the idea of a refugee camp at Grand Junction, Tennessee, and appointed Chaplain John Eaton, Jr., of the 27th Ohio Infantry, to oversee its organization and operations in November 1862.  Eaton was assigned the title of General Superintendent of Contrabands the following month. Eaton's first challenge was to provide food, shelter, clothing and security for the refugees throughout the Mississippi Valley. By 1863, he had received a commission as colonel of the 63rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment. Later he was appointed assistant superintendent of a district for the Freedman’s Bureau, which he held until his resignation in 1865.

It appears that most major cities behind Union lines had contraband camps as is shown in this map of Washington, D.C.  There is information on the internet about some of these sites but the heavy lifting will be done by scholars and genealogists in the federal records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  The place to start will be in the records of the Freedmen's Bureau (Record Group 105) and related military records.  The Last Road to Freedom website is starting this process by extracting the lists of settlers in the contraband camps.  An example of a list of camp settlers is here.

The federal government became integrally involved with the lives of African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction period.  This involvement was principally managed by the Army and the Navy during the War. It is estimated that approximately four million slaves became freedmen through a variety of federal laws and presidential proclamations culminated by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  The federal government established an agency in 1866 to assist the newly freed men, women and children which is usually called the Freedmen's Bureau.  The formal name of this agency was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.  This more formal name is somewhat more explanatory of their role.  Feeding the refugees, educating the freedmen and employing freed people on the abandoned lands were all included in their duties.  The Freedmen’s Bureau inherited many of the records associated with the contraband camps but some of the records remain in military files.    An overview of the Freedmen’s Bureau records can be found here.

The following two paragraphs extracted from the National Archives site above encapsulate the potential for indentifying the occupants of the contraband camps:

“Of all of the types of records listed in the appendixes to the three-part inventory of records of the bureau field offices, the "pre-bureau" records are particularly valuable for research on African Americans during the Civil War. Because there was no centralized agency such as the Freedmen's Bureau during the war, records for this period are not as plentiful and are more difficult to locate, but they do show how the federal government became involved with freedmen and why the bureau was established. As soon as the war commenced, slaves fled to Union lines or were abandoned by their fleeing masters. Since most possessed little more than the clothes on their backs, the military began to dispense basic relief of food, clothing, and shelter and to employ as many as possible. In parts of the country where large numbers had gathered, commanders appointed superintendents to be in charge of all affairs relating to them. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed Oliver O. Howard to be commissioner of the bureau, he reportedly gave him a large basket of records of the superintendents of freedmen, and these, most likely, are the pre-bureau records in RG 105.

Although somewhat fragmentary, records of the wartime superintendents of freedmen, some of which begin as early as March 1862, show that the Freedmen's Bureau was in many respects but a continuation of operations that had started during the war. The most voluminous records are those of the general superintendent of freedmen in the military Department of Tennessee among the bureau records for Mississippi and those of the superintendent of the Bureau of Free Labor in the military Department of the Gulf among the bureau records for Louisiana. For both states there are records of "home colonies" and camps where freedmen were put to work cultivating abandoned plantations. Registers kept at these places give the names and ages of the freedmen employed and often the names and addresses of former owners. Other registers show the dispensation of relief or the people treated in hospitals. Less voluminous, but also significant, are bureau records for South Carolina and Virginia, which include those of the superintendent of contrabands at Beaufort in the military Department of the South and the superintendent of Negro affairs at Fort Monroe in the Departments of Virginia and North Carolina. Bureau records for the District of Columbia also include registers of freedmen's camps, one in the city and the other on Mason's Island, that were established during the war and copies of letters sent by the quartermaster officer in charge of freedmen in the military Department of Washington.”

The potential that these records hold for African American history and genealogy is enormous.  Next time we will summarize the story of the “Volunteers of African Descent” and the rich records of the pension files at the National Archives.  Stay tuned!