How Do I Research My Kin’s Jamaican Origins?

Dear Professor Gates:

My great-grandparents migrated from Jamaica. I have everyone’s name but no other information about them. Can you tell me more about their origins and how to research Jamaican ancestors in the 19th century? My great-grandfather was Arthur Ephraim Campbell, born May 20, 1879, in Jamaica. He died April 17, 1936, in Roxbury, Mass. His parents were Stephen Campbell and Agnes Dawson.

My great-grandmother was Agnes Eugenia Cover, born May 9, 1884, in St. Catherine’s Parish, Jamaica. She died March 11, 1934, in Roxbury, Mass. Her parents were William Cover (born about 1832 in Jamaica) and Rachel Stewart. —Traci McDonald

Your ancestors’ migration experience was shared by thousands of black people entering the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century. According to In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, presented by the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a relatively small influx of black migrants from the Caribbean “increased dramatically during the first three decades of the twentieth century, peaking in 1924 at 12,250 per year and falling off during the Depression. The foreign-born black population increased from 20,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by 1930. Over 140,000 black immigrants passed through United States ports between 1899 and 1937, despite the restrictive immigration laws enacted in 1917, 1921, and 1924.” The last law on that list had severely limited immigration outside of Northern and Western Europe and “completely excluded immigrants from Asia.”

Prior to 1905, the No. 1 destination for black Caribbean immigrants was South Florida, followed by New York and Massachusetts, where your family settled. “But Florida’s preeminence was soon surmounted by that of New York, and the number headed for Massachusetts dropped sharply by 1920,” according to In Motion. Ellis Island in New York was a common entry point.

It’s worth noting how this wave of newcomers compared to their fellow immigrants. “The first cohort of twentieth-century Caribbean immigrants to the United States was not only more literate and skilled than their compatriots left behind but also more educated and skilled than the European immigrants who entered the country at the same time. Moreover, they were more literate than the native-born white population in the United States,” In Motion reports. They accounted for a disproportionately large share of professionals and entrepreneurs in the black communities where they settled. Among the notable immigrants who came from Jamaica during this period were Pan-Africanist and Universal Negro Improvement Association founder Marcus Garvey Jr. and Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. More information about prominent Jamaicans can be found in the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, which was co-edited by Franklin W. Knight and Professor Gates, with Steven Niven.

What We Know About Your Great-Grandparents in the U.S.

Arthur Ephraim Campbell’s World War I draft registration confirms some of the information you know about him, including his birth date, that he was married to Agnes, and that he was living in Boston by 1918. According to the record, Arthur had not yet naturalized, but had made an intention to do so. From the Massachusetts Naturalization Index, it appears that he naturalized as an American citizen in 1920. You could contact the National Archives at Boston (located in Waltham, Mass.) for a copy of his declaration on intent and naturalization records. These documents could include more information about his life before coming to the United States.

There is also a marriage record for Arthur Ephraim Campbell and Agnes E. Cover in Massachusetts on June 6, 1910. This record includes the parents’ names of both individuals, and matches the names you gave us. The birth years are close to what you have: 1880 and 1885, respectively.

Searching for Their Origins in Jamaica

There are three Jamaican collections available to search on FamilySearch that will be helpful to you as you search for your great-grandparents’ origins:

Jamaica Births and Baptisms, 1752-1920, which is searchable, but does not include images of the original documents;

Jamaica, Church of England Parish Register Transcripts, 1664-1880, which does include the originals;

and Jamaica Civil Registration 1880-1999, which, likewise, includes originals.

You can also broaden your search to databases that include the entire Caribbean, such as Caribbean Births and Baptisms 1590-1928 or Caribbean Marriages 1591-1905 or Caribbean Deaths and Burials 1790-1906 since they also may contain records for your Jamaican ancestors. After you get leads using these online databases, turn to the Family History Library, which also has a number of additional collections for Jamaica on microfilm, including probate records you could view at your local Family History Center.

A Possible Match Raises More Questions

We were unable to locate a birth record for Arthur in the Jamaican database using the name and birth dates given in records of him in the United States. However, a search for children born to parents named Stephen Campbell and Agnes Dawson returned a number of results. From these results it appears that the family was residing in Brown’s Town, Saint Ann, Jamaica, and that the couple had the following children between the years 1879 and 1884: William Henry, born July 4, 1879; Ann Elizabeth and Frances Isabella, both born Sept. 11, 1881; Joseph Canaldi born Oct. 4, 1884; and Irine Morilla, born July 26, 1887.

We noted that William Henry Campbell’s birthdate is very close to the birth date we have for Arthur, which could indicate a number of things, since the same woman could not have given birth to Arthur in May and William in July of the same year. It could be that Arthur’s year of birth was wrong on the records in the United States. This is not uncommon as sometimes people were not exactly sure when they were born. Civil registration was not mandated in Jamaica until 1878, and even then, it took some regions up to five years to comply. There is a high probability that he could have been born just a year or two earlier than he claimed on U.S. records and that his birth was not recorded.

However, it is always good practice to explore all possibilities. Another option is that this is a record for Arthur himself, but that he changed his name upon entering the United States. The third option is that this is an entirely different family than that of your Stephen Campbell and Agnes Dawson, though it seems almost too coincidental to have only one couple with these names having children in Jamaica about the time of Arthur’s birth for it to not be his family. To determine which could be the case, search for further information on the children of Stephen and Agnes and see if you can connect them to Arthur in anyway. Try to see if you can locate any of them also traveling to the United States or if they ever lived close to Arthur as that may help confirm the relationship.

Another Likely Match Leads to Additional Questions

We had similar difficulty locating a birth record for Agnes Cover; however, when we searched for children born to William Cover between the year 1875 and 1890 in Jamaica as a whole, we noted that the results showed a number of birth records for children with a father named William Cover of Brown’s Town, Saint Ann, between those dates, though in none of the cases is the mother named Rachel Stewart.

When we searched for just the mother, Rachel Stewart, we discovered a birth record for an Agnes Eliza Cover born May 19, 1879, to mother Rachel Stewart in Brown’s Town, Saint Ann, but no father was recorded. This is a good match for your Agnes E. Cover even though the middle name and birth date are different from the information you had on other records. As noted, sometimes information was recorded incorrectly. The informant listed on the birth was William Stewart and it states that he was present at the birth. This record may indicate that Agnes was born out of wedlock to Rachel Stewart and William Cover. It also seems likely that the informant, William Stewart, was a close relative of Rachel Stewart, possibly her father.

Based on the records we located, you’ll want to focus your search on Brown’s Town, Saint Ann, since this is where both families are located. It is likely that Arthur Ephraim Campbell and Agnes E. Cover knew each other in Jamaica prior to their immigration to the United States. You may want to do some searching for other records of their potential siblings if you are having difficulty locating records for them since it may lead you to more information about your direct ancestors.

What Next?

There are a number of websites that have transcribed a variety of different types of records from Jamaica which may point you to records of your family. Jamaican Family Search includes transcriptions of directories, church records, and land records that may include more information on the Campbell and Cover families. RootsWeb also has a useful guide to Jamaica Records including information on repositories and collections to help you identify the types of records available and where they are held so you can contact the right organizations for more help finding more records of your ancestors.

You will likely find that at some point, you will need to request documents directly from Jamaica or have someone locally conduct some research for you as your research progresses since many records have not been digitized or indexed.

Good luck in your continued search!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.

Source: theroot






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