Legacy Tree Onsite: Beginner’s Guide to Jamaican Ancestry Research
Legacy Tree works with researchers all over the world to access records for our clients. We asked one of our onsite researchers, located in Jamaica, to share her experiences with researching Jamaican ancestry.
Jamaica is a multi-racial society. Though African ancestry occurs in eighty-five percent of the population, there are a large number of persons who also have European ancestry, East Indian Ancestry, Chinese ancestry, Jewish ancestry, and Middle Eastern ancestry. The first mistake made when starting to do Jamaican ancestry research is forgetting the fact that Jamaicans are “out of many, one people,” which incidentally is the coat of arms motto of the country.
The History of Jamaica
The first inhabitants of the island were the pre-Columbian peoples, who settled the island in two different waves in 670 AD and 800 AD, culminating in a culture that is called Taino by academics today. The Taino were the people who greeted Christopher Columbus in 1494, when he first came to the island of Jamaica. However, the Spanish colonization of the island had a devastating effect on the Indian population. Through disease and harsh treatment they were brought to the brink of extinction, though a few survived, with there being descendants of those first Jamaicans today still living on the island.
Early Jamaican Records
The Spanish ruled the island for 145 years, which ended with the invasion in 1655 by the English. By 1660 the English were victorious, and civil administration under the British was established. With this came the division of the island into parishes, with each parish having a parish church centered in a parish capital. Each parish church’s rector was charged with the task of recording all baptism/births, marriages, and burials in his parish. As the population grew, more churches were added and an island curate was appointed to supervise the growing responsibility of record keeping. All records were kept with handwritten duplicates: the original registers and their companion copy registers. These were housed in separate locations to protect the information as best as possible. The Anglican church was the official church of the colony and the only church whose records were officially recognized until 1870, when the passing of a new set of laws heralded the fledgling beginnings of civil registration. Originally called Law 6 Registration, it soon allowed all records, not just Anglican ones, to be considered official state records and all citizens to be registered.
However, before this law was passed, inclusion was attempted after the emancipation of slavery in 1838, with the addition of the Dissenter records for marriages, which were officially collected by the Anglican church. (Dissenter faiths were all other denominations besides the official state church and included Baptist, Methodist, Moravian, and Presbyterian faiths.) However, the Dissenter baptism records were omitted and could only be found scattered all over the island held by each individual church.
Also started in 1659 with the establishment of Island Secretary’s Office was the collection of colonial administration for all parishes and general record keeping, including state papers, patents of land grants, wills and their accompanying inventories of estates, crop accounts, and deeds of transactions, which could include slaves’ sales and purchases, land or dowries or sundry other legal disputes. Slave returns were kept to record the rise and decline of estate slave populations through births, deaths, and absconding or running away. Cadastral and estate maps were drawn up and lodged with the relevant offices. Laws and private acts were recorded, and these too are useful for the genealogist, as private acts deal with specific families being granted specific rights and freedoms or rights to dispose of large estate holdings. There are many more records to be found, but those named are the most relevant for genealogical purposes.
Top 3 Archives for Jamaican Ancestry Research
The most common question any genealogist will ask is where to get started with their research efforts. The following three locations are the best places to begin with tracing your Jamaican ancestry:
- The Jamaica Archives and Records Department originally evolved out of the old secretary’s office and was established in 1955 as a division of the new records keeping arm of the colonial government as the Island Records Office (IRO), with the appointment of a government archivist. The division became an autonomous department in 1982 in and of itself with the passage of the Archives Act. Here you will find patents, government and colonial state papers, ship manifests, inventories of estate probates, manumissions of slaves, crop accounts, historic naturalizations, and slave returns, to name just a few. They also house the unindexed baptism, marriage, and burial original parish records for the IRO.
- Registrar General’s Department of Jamaica, which also encompasses the Island Records Office. The RGD, as it is more commonly called, contains the right to collect and store all records associated with civil registration, hence continuing the role of the IRO and the earlier Secretary’s Office, and still has the rights to house the historical records associated with baptism/births, marriages, and deaths. So it’s here the researcher must come also to find wills and transactional deeds, and also housed are the original law books from 1659, though those are no longer available for use. Finally, the RGD also holds the deed poll ledgers and a number of other records that may or may not be helpful to genealogical research, but are not available for viewing by visitors to the RGD.
- National Reference Library of Jamaica, a compendium of rare books, cadastral maps, estate maps, original illustrations, photographs of various places and people, and newspaper publications all oriented around Jamaica and to some extent the wider Caribbean. The library also holds biographical information on individuals of note and collections of manuscripts dating from the Spanish era through to English colonisation into the independence era of the island. Here the genealogical researcher’s first stop should be the Fuertado manuscripts collection of notable luminaries, military and civil administrative and elected representatives of the Houses of Assembly and the Council, which are arranged easily in alphabetical order. The researcher can also consult indexed newspaper publications, both defunct and active, to acquire primary data about events that would have influenced their ancestors’ lives.
In addition to the three archives suggested above, we also recommend consultation of the Jamaica Almanac collection for information on military placements and property ownership listed by the parish in which the properties were located. The researcher can locate original estate maps, to see an estate’s boundaries and property features, such as the placement of planting fields, where the estate factory was located if it was a sugar plantation, where warehouses were placed, and last but not least, the location of the Great House, the name used in reference to the property owner’s house on a plantation. The Great House often was the grandest structure on the estate apart from the factory facilities and also where the slave quarters were located.
Happy hunting to all my fellow genealogists seeking their roots in Jamaica!
If you need help accessing and obtaining documents in Jamaica to continue extending your Jamaican ancestry, our professional genealogists and onsite agents are ready to assist you! Our experts are experienced at tracking down all kinds of family history records in a variety of locations, and can help you extend your ancestry as far back as records will allow. Contact us to discuss which of our project options would best fit your needs.
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