Tracing Slave Ancestry Just Got Easier

Host Liane Hansen speaks with George Tyson, president of the Virgin Islands Social History Association, about a comprehensive collection of records from the Caribbean slave trade that went up last week on ancestry.com. The collection comes from the St. Croix African Roots Project, which compiles records to document the population of the island of St. Croix while it was under Danish rule.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Genealogy is a hugely popular pastime for millions of Americans. For some it's an adventure that can take them back centuries and to distant lands. For others it can be a frustrating path down blind alleys leading to dead ends.

African-Americans often make the most difficult journey. There's the emotional toll of reconstructing lives spent in bondage and the sheer frustration of finding documentation. Most slaves didn't have birth or death certificates and many records, like bills of sale, had only first names and approximate ages.

Now a group in St. Croix is working to make that research a little easier. The Virgin Islands Social History Associates has compiled a comprehensive set of records from the Caribbean slave trade and is working with ancestry.com to put those records into a searchable online database.

George Tyson is president of the Virgin Islands Social History Associates. And he joins from Frederiksted, St. Croix. Good morning, Sir.

GEORGE TYSON: Morning, Liane.

HANSEN: What kind of documents have you been compiling? What kind of records? What information do these documents contain?

TYSON: Well, the records that we've been using are very diverse. We have, of course, census records. They start in 1835 during a period of slavery. We have an enormous amount of church records that start in the 18th century in the case of the Moravian Church that came here to proselytize among the enslaved population. We have so-called negro slave tax lists because the Danes required the slave owner, starting in the early 1770s, to compile lists of the slaves that they had.

We have plantation inventories, records of sales from the slave ships to the plantations, which enable us to track people who are coming off particular ships onto particular properties on St. Croix.

And collectively it enables the researcher to develop detailed life stories about many, many of the people who lived on St. Croix during the period of slavery, and to follow them and their families into the post-emancipation period.

HANSEN: You found the story of a woman. Her name was Venus, would it be Johannes?

TYSON: Johannes, that's correct.

HANSEN: You traced her story. What is it?

TYSON: I was going through the police records and they came upon this story of the Venus Johannes. She was being enslaved illegally here on St. Croix and the authorities interviewed her and the interview has survived. And she tells the story of her capture in what is today Senegal along the Saloum River, her being taken to Goree where she was enslaved to the Peppine(ph) family. And in 1800, an American ship captain came from St. Croix on a slave trading voyage, became attracted to her and eventually arranged to marry her.

And then the ship captain, a man by the name of Maddock(ph), had to return to St. Croix and when Maddock and Venus arrived here in Frederiksted in 1800, he sold her into slavery. And she remained a slave until 1815 when the authorities investigated the case. And as a consequence of that she became free.

She had already had four children by then. After she became free, she had three other children with a man by the name of John Johannes and she took the name Venus Johannes. And we were able to use the database material to track the family up to 1917 and then connect them to people who are alive today on St. Croix and in the United States.

HANSEN: Now that the Virgin Islands Social History Associates have compiled this gold mine of information and the records are going to be available online, what should someone with no experience in genealogical research begin?

TYSON: I think you really need to begin with a census record and that's what we have online right now. Then once they have found somebody, you will get information, of course, about their general age and their religious affiliation. And if you are lucky, they will have information about their families, because the families would be in the same household and they would identify family relationships.

It is possible then to track people backwards to the period of slavery. And then you can use the records that have to do with the slave list, the plantation inventories, and use those records to track your ancestors back into the 18th century.

HANSEN: Would you begin with a contemporary ancestor and work your way backwards?

TYSON: Yes, you must. We only go to 1917. So anybody wanting to use this database is going to have to find an ancestor who was alive in 1917. And the best way to do that, of course, is to do family interviews. Talk to your parents or your grandparents or great grandparents if you can, and see if they can give you some of the names of their ancestors so that you can get somebody back to 1911.

Of course it is not that easy. There's a lot of cross-referencing. It's very difficult to use these records in some ways because names are not spelled in a regular manner. One has to be very cautious about and creative in terms of how one uses the names that we have here.

And the other problem is that these records are old and as a consequence, they were not always easy to transcribe and compile into the database. So there will be challenges for people to do this. But I can tell you, having used the database myself, it can go very fast.

HANSEN: George Tyson is president of the Virgin Islands Social History Associates. Thank you for your time.

TYSON: Yes, thank you very much.

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