African Americans have participated as soldiers in military campaigns for generations in the United States. Before America was a nation, slaves and free men of color took up arms to fight for the patriots against the British crown during the American Revolution. Thousands also joined British lines motivated by promises of freedom from slavery. Again, during the Civil War, slaves and free persons of color joined the Union army in regiments composed of African Americans. These 175 regiments were called the United States Colored Troops (USCT). They contained between 178,000 to 187,000 men and comprised more than ten percent of the Union Army. The Union Navy contained another 20,000 African Americans. The records generated by the Civil War can contain some of the most valuable genealogical information for African Americans looking to learn more about the backgrounds of their ancestors. Service records and pension files are the two main records created about your ancestor’s participation in the Civil War.
Military service records were created about a soldier’s enlistment and service in the Union Army. These records were created after the war using enlistment files, muster lists that might have been taken weekly or monthly, hospitalization records, assignment lists, payment vouchers, lists of deserters, muster out records, and records of deceased soldiers. In a service record the researcher will get basic biographical details like full name, age, height, enlistment location, possible birth state or country, prior occupation, and in the case of some African Americans the names of former slaveholders.
Pension file records were created as veterans or their nearest kin applied for financial benefits due to service in the United States armed forces. Civil War pension files are genealogical goldmines for anyone with direct ancestors or close relatives who fought in the war. Veterans had to provide information about their service in the war, data about their marriage and information about children, in case there were minor children who might be eligible for benefits. Widows of veterans applying for a Civil War pension had to provide all the above and proof of their marriage to the soldier. Sometimes if there was no marriage certificate or other written record, affidavits were collected from witnesses who knew both the widow and veteran to verify relationships, service, injuries sustained in the war, and illnesses impeding their ability to work or provide for themselves and their family after the war. Pension file affidavits can provide details about the origins of everyone’s ancestors, as well as uncovering the names of previously unknown relatives. Nonetheless, for formerly enslaved African Americans, one of the most valuable pieces of information contained in pension file affidavits can be the name of former slaveowners.
How do you determine if your African American ancestor(s) served in the Civil War?
- Step one - determine which male ancestors were old enough to have enlisted in the Union Army or Navy.
- Step two - search for these ancestors’ names in Civil War service records lists, such as U.S. Civil War Soldiers 1861-1865, U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles 1861-1865, or U.S. Colored Troops Military Service Records 1863-1865 in the Ancestry database, or Civil War Service Records Union Records in the Fold3 database. Another online database to try is the American Civil War Research Database. All three of these databases can be found on Houston Public Library’s Genealogy Resources page. You can also search the “Index to compiled service records of union soldiers from [state] 1861-1865” on microfilm by last name for your ancestors once Clayton reopens. The name the soldier served under, his rank upon enlistment and mustering out, and his regiment and company should be listed on the card. If your ancestor is listed, the next step is to search for their service records. The database Fold3 has digitized copies of military service records for some Civil war soldiers including all USCT. African Americans’ service records are found under Civil War Service Records Union Records Colored Troops.
- Step three - search for them in a Civil War pension file index.
Caveats for determining if your African American ancestor(s) served in the Civil War:
- Not all Civil War soldiers applied for and received a pension, but it’s a worthwhile strategy to search this pension file. If you are fortunate enough to locate an application index card for him, more information will be available! In Ancestry the main pension file index to search is, the “U.S. Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files 1861-1934.” On National Archives microfilm this same index is just called “General Index to Pension Files 1861-1934.” In the Fold3 database there are four record sets you can check for your soldier’s pension file. They are: Civil War Pensions Index, US Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, Pension Numerical Index, and the Civil War "Widows' Pensions." The index card should have the soldier’s name, the person applying for the pension, the regiment name and company, the application number, and finally the pension certificate number if the pension was approved. Usually the soldier himself or the widow applied for the pension. Sometimes the surviving minor children are the ones to apply. There may be separate index cards for the soldier and anyone else who applied under his service. Copy information down exactly as spelled on the card and send a request to the National Archives for the pension file. Visit the National Archives website to order the file.
- The spelling of the soldier’s name may be different on his service record and his pension file. You need to find the exact spelling found on the service record or pension file index cards because the archives will not find the requested file if the spelling you send is different than the information on the index card. Before sending for the pension file, check the Fold3 database to see if your person’s file has been digitized and displayed online in the Civil War "Widows' Pensions." It can take weeks to several months for the pension file to come from the National Archives. Patience is a virtue! The wonderful thing about Civil War pension files is that each one is unique. Some files are hundreds of pages long while others are only a few pages. Many have death certificates, marriage licenses, witness testimonies, and even in rare cases tintypes of soldiers have been found in the files. You never know what surprises you may find!
You may ask? What if I don’t find an ancestor who fought in the Civil War? My answer is to look for your ancestor’s brothers, cousins, and even in-laws who were of age to have enlisted. Many times, the records they created can unlock genealogical nuggets for your own ancestors. Apply the strategy of “Cluster genealogy” to reconstruct your ancestor’s family and their associates. The testimony of a military comrade of a cousin of mine who served mentioned an aunt I had no idea existed! You never know. Best of luck and happy hunting!
If you detect a doctor in your family tree, you have a good chance of finding additional records. Their education, professional activity, and standing in the community made it likely that they created and were included in records. You may have been tipped off to a doctor ancestor from their occupation listed in a census or city directory, or an ad for their services in a local newspaper. To learn more about a doctor ancestor, use the American Medical Association’s deceased physician card file, issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Clayton Library resources.
Family Search.org has a database of card files from the American Medical Association titled “United State Deceased Physician File (AMA) 1864-1968." The cards found in this database give the doctor’s name, year of birth, educational history, professional history, date and place of death. You may also find the cause of death. The death information source, such as the spouse or a professional colleague, is typed sideways on the card’s edge. The cards can reveal much more than bare facts. For example, the card for Alonzo Davis notes he died in a prison hospital of cardiac failure. His card shows his license was revoked for unprofessional conduct and that the Supreme Court of Oklahoma affirmed the medical board’s decision in revoking his license. The flip side of his card gives insight into this tantalizing tidbit. Davis was “charged with performing an illegal operation on a woman who died...[and] was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.” All this from an index card! A researcher could continue to look for court records and newspaper articles.
Older issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) can be found in the Internet Archive. With its second issue (v.1 no.2, July 21, 1883), JAMA began reporting members’ deaths, typically with a short biography, in the Neurological or Miscellaneous sections towards the back of each issue.
These notices can potentially hold key information for genealogists, as in this example:
Dr. Moritz Michaelis, of New York City, died there on the 23rd of June. He was well known as an obstetrician. He was born at Detmold, Germany in 1811, and came to New York in 1849.
With this information a researcher has a great start in looking for a baptism record, a passenger list, or a death record.
JAMA also offers articles, reviews, and editorials that your ancestor may have contributed, as well as medical society news, college news, and minutes of the JAMA’s annual session that name officers, delegates, and committee members. Luckily the Internet Archive has a search function, so if you don’t want to browse each issue, you can type in a name and view the results.
Clayton Library has several books that may help in researching your doctor ancestor once we reopen, including:
Directory of Medical Specialists: Holding Certification by American Specialty Boards by the Advisory Board for Medical Specialties
Chicago, IL: Marquis-Who's Who, 1939-. Clayton call number 610.69 D598 USA.
Fisher, W. Douglas
African American Doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016. Clayton call number 940.47573 F537 USA.
Medical obituaries: American physician’s biographical notices in selected medical journals before 1907
New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1981. Clayton call number 610.92 H745 USA.
Smith, Ethel Farrington
Colonial American doctresses: a genealogical and biographical account of women who practiced medicine and chirurgery in colonial America
Boston, MA: Newbury Street Press, 2003. Clayton call number 610 S646 USA.
There are also many books on a local level about doctors, such as the two listed below:
Physicians of Williamson County: a legacy of healing, 1797-1997
Franklin, TN: Canaday Enterprises, 1997. Clayton call number A375 WILLI TENN.
Ericson, Carolyn Reeves
Early Doctors of Nacogdoches County,Texas
Nacogdoches, TX: Ericson Books, 2011. Clayton call number E68 NACOG TEX.
Professional certification was not accessible to everyone. Some practiced medicine without certification or formal schooling, in which case we may have to rely more on oral histories, local histories, personal correspondence, or newspapers. We can also look to see what's available at the county courthouse or in local historical societies and libraries. The odds are in your favor, when researching a doctor ancestor.
Trying to get motivated to work on your genealogy can be difficult. Our mind set right now is keeping us from moving off the couch and getting back to normal. We invite you to read a few magazines that might rekindle your genealogy spirit. The Houston Public Library (HPL) offers digital access to many magazines through the Recorded Books (RB) Digital Service. To access these magazines you can either; download the RB Digital app and select HPL as your library, or connect to RB Digital through the E-books and More page on the HPL website and access the magazines on your desktop computer. You will be required to create an account for yourself using your HPL MY Link library card and PIN. Free magazines are at your beck and call. I have selected all my favorite women’s reads, but I have also selected historical, archeological, geographical, and genealogical magazines.
For example: Archaeology, current issue, has an article about Camp Nelson, Jessamine, Kentucky during the Civil War. Colored Union Troops were recruited, trained and housed at Camp Nelson. Orders were specific about no families, women or children. The interesting evidenced gleamed from an archaeology dig on site found that women, children, and families came with their soldiers to the encampment in larger numbers than recorded. The article includes pictures, facts and artifacts. The National Geographic, June issue, celebrates the 75th anniversary of World War II with stories from soldiers who made it home. For the outdoors man is the American Frontiersman. The March issue has an article about Joseph Greer and the King’s Mountain men. I have a few ancestors that were in that fight. The articles range from history to re-enactment, tools and skills.
Now don’t stop with American magazines. You can find foreign titles too for example, British Columbia History, Spring 2020 issue, has two different articles mentioning Internment camps one Japanese and the other Italian. Another article is about children that were sent to residential schools and never made it home, and missing or deceased children. I am going back to finish this issue. I did not know that Canada had internment camps. Another book topic search will be in my future.
My last review is about the All About History magazine. I love the format and the information is written in an easy to read style of snip, stories, pictures with Q & A section, and more! Children as well as adults will enjoy this read, and it is great for history classes.
The American History, BBC History, and Family Tree magazines are the history and genealogy magazines I have selected to read. I have the issues set to upload to my RB Digital account when the new issue is released. The Family Tree magazine appears online sooner than the mail copy.
RB Digital has over 3,700 magazine titles. If back issues are available, take the time to read the older editions. Some titles have at least a year’s worth of editions and the date of the issue is listed. RB Digital also includes e-audiobooks, Acorn TV-British TV titles, and The Great Courses to checkout. The Great Courses includes a 15-lecture course entitled Discovering Your Roots: An Introduction to Genealogy and is taught by John Phillip Colletta, Ph.D. Each of his lectures is about 30 minutes. Enjoy your reading and listening materials. You never know what you might find to add to your family history.
The Houston Public Library subscribes to nearly 150 online databases. Many of these are NOT located in the Genealogy category listed on the Databases by Category page on the HPL website. It is our goal by reviewing some of these non-genealogy databases that your research will be expanded, you will discover new sources, understand the history your ancestors were part of, and offer background information that will help you write your family story.
Houston Chronicle Historical Archive (HCHA) is found on the Newspapers Resources page on the HPL website. The HCHA is available both inside the library and at home with an HPL My Link library card and PIN. The HCHA is a digitized version of the microfilmed issues of the Houston Chronicle, covering the years 1901 (when the newspaper began publication) through 2015. It is expected that back issues for 2016 through 2019 will eventually be added to this database. (Digital images for the most recent 3 months of the Houston Chronicle can be found in the related database “Houston Chronicle Digital Archive”.)
The two most common uses for genealogists will likely be searching for obituaries/death notices and searching for news articles in which they or their family members might be mentioned. The default search is a full-text search of the OCR-indexed digital images. Searches can be limited to a specific year or range of years, or even to a specific month or day.
As an example, a keyword search for the last name “Bychowski” pulls up an article from 2 April 1986, in which a young fifth grader named Steven Bychowski is featured as the new Humble ISD Spelling Bee champion. If you are looking for obituaries, try including the keyword “Deaths” along with the last name of the deceased (“Deaths” was the official heading used on the obituaries pages). If you are still getting too many matches, try using the phrase “passed away” or even “in memoriam” along with the surname, as those phrases are almost always found somewhere on a Death Notices page.
We invite you to explore this resource in your family history research. For help with the database contact a Clayton Library staff member.