For many of us, the Caribbean is a getaway—a sunny collection of tropical islands with waving palms and sugar-sand beaches surrounded by azure waters. Or maybe you think of the Caribbean as a backdrop for swashbuckling pirate movies. But for others, those islands represent an essential link in the chain connecting their family’s present with its past.
If you’re in the latter set, the Caribbean might’ve been your ancestors’ temporary stop between the Old World of Europe and the New World of the United States. Or your forebears may have been among the nearly 4 million African slaves taken to the West Indies between 1451 and 1870. Perhaps your Caribbean kin were native Caribs or Arawaks who lived there long before Columbus’ arrival in 1492. Who knows? Maybe your roots even include buccaneers—real-life Pirates of the Caribbean. Whatever your Caribbean heritage holds, this guide will get your family history adventure started.
Setting sail in search of your Caribbean ancestors can present challenges daunting even to Johnny Depp’s cinematic Capt. Jack Sparrow. Nathan Zipfel, coordinator of the Caribbean GenWeb Project, an essential starting point for your quest, warns the Caribbean is the most difficult of any genealogical area: “Your search may take you to Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, the United States or from island to island, following the migration of an ancestor,” he says. “Records of the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks are nearly nonexistent, which makes a complete lineage impossible for many descendants. Records have been destroyed by hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, slave rebellions, fire and frequently changing governments.”
But before you abandon your quest and opt to lie on the beach instead, here’s some good news: The Family History Library (FHL) has microfilmed a wealth of Caribbean records, bringing your island ancestors as close as your local branch Family History Center (FHC). Records from the Bahamas, for example, include land conveyances, appraisals and indexes to wills covering 1700 to 1852. In the British Virgin Islands, most St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla vital records from 1859 to 1910 or 1930 are on film. The FHL has 71 reels of census records from what’s now the US Virgin Islands, covering most areas from 1841 to 1911. There’s even a census of Barbados dating all the way back to 1715. This is just a tiny sampling, of course; check the FHL’s online catalog, as well as the Candoo guide.
- Vital records: Depending on the island where your ancestors landed, you might not find the vital records you’re used to in US research. In former British colonies, birth, marriage and death records are generally at a registrar general’s office.
- Court records: Don’t be shy about poking into a Caribbean ancestor’s “criminal” past, Zipfel says. He notes the smallest transgressions could result in a criminal record, such as a black woman wearing a silk slip or a slave or servant whistling in public.
- Church records: These can be particularly valuable in the Caribbean, where missionaries arrived as early as 1736. In general, Danish colonies had Lutheran churches; British had Anglican churches (as well as “nonconformists,” typically Methodists); Dutch had Dutch Reformed churches; and French and Spanish had Catholic churches. Your African or native ancestors may have joined a missionary church such as Moravian or Baptist, although Catholics also baptized many slaves.The FHL has microfilmed many Caribbean church records. If, for example, your ancestors lived in Curaao, you can look for them in Dutch Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic records ranging from 1714 to 1842, plus more-recent Catholic records dating from 1902 to 1962.
- Jewish records: Jews, including many Sephardim who fled the Spanish Inquisition, also have a history in the Caribbean. You’ll find history information and records projects online at sites such as JewishGen’s Sephardic Special Interest Group, Tracing the Tribe, The Jewish Community of Nevis Archaeology Project and Candoo. Also visit the FamilySearch Jewish genealogy page to download a research outline and see the guide in August 2006 Family Tree Magazine.
- Plantation records: Often overlooked, “stock books” Caribbean plantation owners kept list slaves and indentured servants. Not all forced laborers in the West Indies were African, Zipfel points out: Irish prisoners worked on plantations, and the “Deficiency Act” required plantation owners to have one white worker for every 10 blacks, to reduce the islands’ ratio of blacks to whites. Local island libraries and archives are the best places to seek old stock books.
Many islands have excellent archives or history museums. The University of the West Indies, which serves 16 English-speaking Caribbean nations, also has libraries on its three campuses: Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad. Don’t overlook stateside libraries with strong Caribbean collections, too, including the University of Miami Library and the Florida International University Library and Latin American and Caribbean Information Center.
You often can overcome brick walls with records in an island’s colonizing country: The Danish Demographic Database, for instance, has census records from St. Croix.
Although subscription sites such as Ancestry.com tend not to focus on the Caribbean, sometimes records for an island’s colonizing country will pop up. Ancestry.uk, for example, has 1834 Barbados slave registers containing names of 100,000 slaves and their owners; other years and islands are in the works.
Volunteers on many Caribbean GenWeb sites have posted a variety of data from their islands. The Caribbean-L mailing list on RootsWeb has nearly a decade’s worth of queries and tips, and many islands have their own e-mail lists. The Caribbean Genealogy Research page is an exhaustive compilation of archives and other resources. And don’t miss Jim Lynch’s Caribbean Surname Index. If you have African Caribbean roots, the Caribbean Research Forum at AfriGeneas is packed with information.
It’ll help to have some knowledge of the language of the Europeans who claimed your ancestral island—Spanish for Cuba, French for Guadalupe, or French and Dutch for St. Martin (St. Maarten). Colonial powers passed many islands back and forth, and colonists came from the mother country and from neighboring islands.
For more tips, check out our Caribbean Genealogy Guide!