Social History for Genealogy and the Colored Farmers’ Alliance

Social history plays a significant role in successful genealogical research. The events of a particular time-frame shed new light on the lives of our ancestors and ultimately lead us to new finds. In this post, Gems Reader Trisha asks questions regarding her family’s ties to the Colored Farmers’ Alliance.

social history for genealogy

“The Colored Farmers’ Alliance.” NBC News. NBCUniversal Media. 29 July 2007. NBC Learn. Web. 22 January 2015.

Did a Member of the Family Belong to the Colored Farmers’ Alliance?

Our Genealogy Gems Editor, Sunny Morton, received the following email recently from Trisha:

I am researching my great-grandparents in Northeast Arkansas. The census records I have found so far list that my great-grandfather was a famer. So, I started looking up farming associations hoping that maybe he was a member and I could find out more information about him and possibly any relatives that lived nearby. I came across the Colored Farmers’ Alliance that was in existence from 1886- 1891 in the southern states, but I have only been able to find out basic general public information about this agency. Do you know if, or how, I can find an Arkansas member list or something similar? Any help or advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

The History of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance

The Colored Farmers’ Alliance was formed in 1886 in the state of Texas. A group of southern African-American farmers had been barred membership to the other Farmers’ Alliances and hoped by creating this group, they would be able to cooperatively solve the common problems of its members. The group also encouraged African-American farmers to become economically independent by purchasing homes and eliminating debt. [“Colored Farmers’ Alliance,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/populism-and-agrarian-discontent/timeline-terms/colore : accessed 28 Oct 2016).]

The organization took off and spread across the Southern United States. It’s peak membership was up to 1.2 million in 1891. However, the organization did not survive long. In 1891, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance called a general strike of African-American cotton-pickers and demanded a wage increase from 50 cents to $1 per hundred pounds of cotton. The strike failed and the group dissolved. [“Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colored_Farmers%27_National_Alliance_and_Cooperative_Union : accessed 28 Oct 2016).]

Pulling Together Some Answers

We pulled the whole team together for this one, and Sunny reached out to me regarding Trisha’s questions. In our initial research, we didn’t come across any references online to membership lists for any branch of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, including Arkansas where Trisha’s ancestors lived. We did however find an article titled Preliminary research for writing a history of the Colored Farmers Alliance in the Populist movement: 1886-1896 by Omar Ali, written May 11, 1998, which states:
“Little detail is known about individual members of the Colored Farmers Alliance, including its leadership.”
That may not be surprising considering that the organization was attempting to improve member’s situations and fight for better pay. It’s possible that members may not have wished to be named due to concerns about repercussions. It would be important to learn more about the organization and the political and historical environment in which it operated in order to determine the probability of membership rolls existing or surviving.
While not everything is online (by any stretch of the imagination,) the web is the best place to do further homework to track down offline resources. Trisha could start by contacting the Arkansas State Library, and then exploring these search results from WorldCat.org which include a variety of works on the subject. It would also be very worthwhile to spend some time digging into the wide range of online resources such as Google buy syphilis medication Books and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America digital newspaper collection. Let’s do that now!

Google Books

A search of colored farmers alliance delivers several results on the topic. Use search operators to help Google deliver even better results, by putting quotation marks around the search phrase “colored farmers alliance.” This instructs Google to return only web pages that contain that exact phrase. You’ll find more Google search strategies in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, which also includes an entire chapter on using Google Books for genealogy.

Here’s an example of one book I found called The Agrarian Crusade: A Chronicle of the Farmer in Politics by Solon J. Buck (1920).

 

Click here to see the entire search results list for the search query Colored Farmers Alliance in Google Books.

While I didn’t discover any references to actual member names beyond some of the leaders, Google Books certainly offers more depth and history on the Alliance.

Digitized Newspapers

colored farmers alliance

Indian chieftain., March 03, 1892, Image 1 at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America.
(The Indian Chieftan was published in Vinita, Indian Territory [Okla.]) 1882-1902

While only a small fraction of newspapers published throughout history are digitized and online, what can be found offers a wealth of information. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America offers an excellent cache of searchable newspapers for free. Subscription websites such as Ancestry’s Newspapers.com and Newsbank’s GenealogyBank offer real value if the newspaper you seek is held within their collections.
Since Chronicling America is free, that’s a good place to start. At the main search page, click the Advanced Search tab. On that page, you will have the option to search by state, publication, and dates. Under “Enter Search” fields, there are three options. Type the phrase colored farmers alliance into the “with the phrase” field. That will narrow the search results down to newpaper pages that include the entire phrase and will eliminate pages that have some or all of the words independent of each other. A search of all states for that phrase delivers over 325 digitized newspaper pages featuring articles that include that phrase.
At Newspapers.com, I found dozens of references as well, many from Arkansas newspapers. I also noticed that several individuals wrote and signed letters to the editor on the subject.

For more help on researching newspapers for genealogy, listen to my two part podcast series titled “Find Your Family History in Newspapers, Part 1 and Part 2.”

colored farmers alliance

members named

Google Scholar

Google Scholar offers not only well-researched works on a given subject, but also the ability to request only results with source citations. These citations not only help you weigh the accuracy and value of the paper, but provide intriguing new leads for research materials.
Using the same search operators as I did in Google Books, I retrieved over 175 results. To filter these results to only those with source citations, click the “include citations” box on the search page at the bottom, left side.
google scholar search for colored farmers alliance
The savvy genealogist will also want to experiment with variations on the query by adding words and phrases such as members included, members list, list of members, and so on.

YouTube

Since I devoted another chapter of my book to using another free Google tool, YouTube, I would be remiss if I didn’t run a quick search at the video giant website. Here is a link to the video I found online.

It’s amazing what the family historian can discover from the comfort of their own computer. With so many valuable resources discovered through an online search, a well-prepared trip to the library or archive will prove even more fruitful.

How to Navigate the FamilySearch Wiki (and find what you need!)

Show Notes: The FamilySearch Wiki is like an encyclopedia of genealogy! It’s an invaluable free tool that every genealogist needs. However, many folks get frustrated when they try to search the Wiki. In this week’s video premiere I’m going to help you navigate with ease.

how to navigate the FamilySearch Wiki

Video and Show Notes below

You’ll learn: 

  • what the Wiki has to offer,
  • how to access the FamilySearch Wiki
  • how to navigate the FamilySearch Wiki effectively
  • and how to overcome the number #1 reason people get frustrated when searching the Wiki!

Watch the Video 

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout  (Premium Membership required)

How to Access the FamilySearch Wiki

(00:42) There are two ways to access the FamilySearch Wiki. The first is to visit the website direction at https://www.familysearch.org/wiki. This will take you to the home page of the Wiki. Although you can sign into your free FamilySearch account on this page (in the upper right corner) it isn’t necessary in order to use it.

The second way to access the Wiki is to go to the FamilySearch website. You will need to log into your FamilySearch account or sign up for a free account if you don’t already have one. Once you’re signed in, then in the menu under Search click Research Wiki. This will take you to the same FamilySearch Wiki home page. However, you will see that you are signed in and able to use some of the additional features like participating in discussions, posting and creating watchlists.  

FamilySearch Wiki known as Research Wiki

On the FamilySearch website: Search > Research Wiki

Searching the Wiki by Location

(01:21) On the home page, what you see a map of the world. This is a great way to search the Wiki because in genealogy, it’s really all about location. We need to know where geographically we want to search for ancestors, and from there we can narrow down the timeframe. Typically, you’ll have a sense of at least in which country you need to be researching. So, the map is typically the best way to start.

familysearch wiki

The FamilySearch Wiki Home Page

You’ll notice also on the home page, there is a search by place or topic search field. You could bypass using the map, and just start by typing in a place. If you do, you’ll notice that it starts to prompt you on the kinds of things that are commonly searched for. This could be kind of nice if you are really focused on a particular thing such as Italian census records. You can just start typing Italy and see if census is one of the prompts. If it is, simply click it and it will take you right there.

However, generally speaking, the map is the best way to search for records and information that is rooted in a location. Start by clicking the button for the continent, such as North America. Notice that if you go to click on the map itself, it isn’t an interactive map. You’ll need to actually click the button.

From there, select the county from the menu, such as United States, then drill down by state. This will take you to the Wiki entry for that state.

You’ll notice that the FamilySearch Wiki is a lot like Wikipedia. It’s like an encyclopedia of information. But the exciting part is that it’s genealogy specifically! This means you don’t usually have to worry about including the word genealogy in your searches. 

Location-based FamilySearch Wiki Pages

Oftentimes, our research ends up taking us to a new location where the next set of great grandparents came from. If we’re not familiar with that location, let alone familiar with what’s available from a genealogical standpoint, that can pose a real challenge. You might be asking questions like when did they start recording birth records? Or did that state conduct a state census? Every state, every country, and every county has different types of records available.

Start your orientation over on the right-hand side of the wiki page. There you’ll typically find an overview box.

(04:15) This is a great place to quickly see what’s available here, and what you could dig into further. If you’re really new to research in this particular area, you might want to start with the guided research link. You may also see links to research strategies, and a record finder.

In the next section of the box you’ll find record types. This is going to be different depending on the area that you’re researching. For example, if they don’t happen to have any military records available you might not see that listed under record types. You should expect to see the most commonly used records included in the list. Click the link to the page for more information on that type of record. It will provide more details on record availability, and where you access the records.

Further down the box you’ll find links to background information on the area. It’s really easy to skim over this in excitement over records. But if you don’t want to get stuck at a brick wall, getting to know the place that you’re researching can make all the difference. Learning the background of an area can help you prepare the right questions to ask. It can help prevent you from looking for something that doesn’t exist or that wasn’t applicable to that area. You may find links to more reading, gazetteers and maps, migration patterns, periodicals, and the law. Understanding the law is going to help you understand why records were created, and who they affected. For example, if your ancestor was under 18 there might be certain records that don’t apply to them. Understanding the parameters of who was affected by the law will help guide you through the records themselves.

Next you’ll see cultural groups that you might expect to find in this area, and links to more specific information about researching them.

Under Resources you’ll find links to archives, libraries, societies, and the family history centers that are available in this particular area.

At the top of the main part of the page you’ll find the Getting Started section. Here you’ll find links to beginning step-by-step research strategies and some of the most popular records for that location such as vital records.

(08:35) You might be wondering who is putting this information together. Well, it starts with experts at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. These are people who have worked the reference desks and found answers to thousands of patron questions.

Locating and Using the County Wiki Page

(09:22) Back on the state landing page scroll down further to the map of counties. Navigating by location is still important, even when we’ve narrowed it down to the state. Unlike the map on the homepage, you can hover your mouse over each county and click.

Find county page at FamilySearch Wiki

County map on the state wiki page

The county pages are where the real magic happens because many records such as birth, marriage, death, and court records are typically available at the county level. Here you’ll find out how to contact or visit the current county courthouse.

One of the most common questions new genealogists ask is “should I be looking at the county where the town is located today, or the county that it was when my ancestors lived there?” Counties certainly do change over time. The answer to the question is that we go to the county at the time that are ancestors lived in the area. In fact, the Wiki page provides the history, or genealogy, of the county. Look for Boundary Changes on the page.

Because these pages are often quite long and dense, use your computer’s Find on Page feature by pressing Control + F (PC) or Command + F (mac) on your keyboard. This gives you a nice little search box at the top of the page. Type in a keyword like Boundary and it will highlight all the locations on the page where the term appears. This is a great way to make quick use of the Wiki. This is also a good trick to use when you don’t see the record type or keyword that you’re looking for in the page’s table of contents. It may be called something else there, but if you search the page for your keyword, it should find it for you. An example of this is that you may not see Birth Records in the TOC because they list Vital Records. However, in the Vital Records section further down the page they definitely mention birth records.

Finding the Dates that Records Began

(14:45) Here’s another reason the wiki is so helpful, and it makes things go so quickly. Remember, we talked about that location is key, but also timeframe. Well, if we are looking for genealogical records, we don’t want to look for a record in this county before they actually started creating those records. The wiki typically provides a nice little chart on each county page showing then some of the most important civil records such as birth, marriage and death were first created.

How to figure out when birth records started

County record dates at FamilySearch Wiki

Often times civil records began much later than church records. Sometimes you will see an asterisk indicating when statewide registration for these civil records began and then another date indicating when general compliance was enforced. All of this is guiding us to success in finding genealogy records, and it’s saving the headache of investing time looking for records that did not yet exist.

(17:42) Further down the page you’ll find links to places. These may link to town pages on the Wiki, but more likely they will take you to Wikipedia where this information already exists. There will be a small icon indicating that the link will open in a new tab and take you to another website.

Next you’ll likely see a Timeline section which gives you a sense of when the first people settled in the county and who those people were. Again, it provides you more context to better understand the records.

In addition to all these individual records, many of them linked over to FamilySearch, Ancestry or MyHeritage, we see Research Facilities. Why is that so important? Because not all records are going to be online. When we’ve exhausted online records and resources we need to go offline, and there are lots of resources here on the wiki to work with: county archives, family history centers in the local area, libraries, museums, and genealogical societies. The wiki provides contact information and links to their website where you may be able to see a listing of what they have onsite so you can plan your visit.

Other website links may take you sites like USGenWeb which is a fantastic free genealogy website. It’s organized by location much like the FamilySearch wiki website. Drill down to the state and then the county. You may also see links to the State Archive, or the state’s Memory project, and, of course, the FamilySearch catalog.

How to Overcome the #1 Search Problem

(22:01) The wiki really should be one of your first stops when you’re going to be starting research in a new area. Let’s wrap up with a quick conversation about the wiki’s search box. You could go ahead and put a topic in there. Many people will come in here and they’ll type in marriage records, Randolph, County, Indiana, and they will get a list of results. They don’t look as clear cut as Google results, and they may not all be on topic. This is where we can get lost. I think probably the number one reason why people give up on the wiki is they get these kinds of search results. They realize, wait a second, this isn’t even Indiana, it’s talking about Kentucky! Why am I getting all these? It can be frustrating.

familysearch wiki search results

The wrong way to search at the FamilySearch Wiki

This happens because we tried to do it ourselves, with our own keywords. Remember, like most search engines, they’ve indexed their content to make it searchable, so that means they’ve already decided how they want to talk about a particular topic. Rather than just addressing marriage record first, the wiki focuses on the location. Where is this marriage record? So, focus first on the place unless you are just looking for general information on a general genealogy topic such as genealogy software.  

Pay attention to the pre-filled suggestions as you type because the wiki is going to suggest what it has in the format it has it. Again, you may want to first go to the country, state or county level page and then look for the record type.

What if you’re looking for marriage records but you don’t see them listed? Well, it might be that the word marriage isn’t the keyword the wiki uses. Or it might be that the type of record you’re looking for is a state or federal record. That’s another reason why the find on page feature (Ctrl + F) is so helpful. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see what you want listed in the table of contents. It may just be a keyword issue. Let the work that they’ve already done in organizing their materials guide you. You’ll be more successful and also avoid frustration. The FamilySearch Wiki is just too good of a resource to miss.

Learn more about using Family Search at Genealogy Gems

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Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

 

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