African Roots

(By George Tyson, summarized by Robin Swank)

George Tyson, one of our pre-eminent historians and researchers in the USVI, spoke to the membership on April 10th about The St. Croix African Roots Project (SCARP). Still in progress, it is clear that SCARP’s first product—an intricate database gleaned from thousands of archival sources amassed during the period of Danish sovereignty (1734-1917) has the potential to satisfy an individual’s curiosity about his or her genealogy, as well as provide answers to broader questions about population demographics, social history, or epidemiology of the fairly insulated study area—the island of St Croix.

George Tyson

“There is so much interest in genealogy on St Croix,” Mr. Tyson said, “because many Crucians are seeking information about their families and African ancestors. In the process of exploring their roots, they are also actively engaged in learning about the history of their island and its people.” In 2002, he and three colleagues with similar interests in social history (Dr. Svend Holsoe of Philadelphia, Poul Olsen of Copenhagen, Roland Roebuck of Washington DC) formed the non-profit Virgin Islands Social History Associates (VISHA) to undertake the St. Croix African Roots Project. After securing funding from the Carlsberg Foundation of Denmark, VISHA assembled a team of data entry specialists and volunteers in St. Croix and Copenhagen to attack the mountain of source documents.

“The database now contains about 1.63 million records, each with multiple pieces of information about approximately 100,000 individuals,” Mr. Tyson estimates. The sources of most of the loaded data are Slave Lists (633,000 records); Records from the four dominant Churches – Moravian, Lutheran, Catholic and Anglican (241,000); Census records (208,000); and several thousand Plantation Inventories (183,000). There are many additional kinds of records— Immigration Lists, Slave Ship Manifests, Free-Coloured Registries (citing who was ‘free given’ and by whom), Mortgage and Probate Records, Vital Statistics Records, Property Tax Records, Worker Movement Lists, Emancipation Lists, Burgher Briefs (business licenses), Public School Records, and more. Using this data, researchers can confidently trace individuals and families back to the slave ships their ancestors came on, and even to African homelands.

Mr. Tyson discussed some of the opportunities and challenges in creating links between individual records. During slavery, when people had little freedom of movement, it is possible to follow named individuals through their place of residence, using plantation inventories and the annual head tax lists that were compiled for every slave owning property. A near complete set of these head tax lists exists for the period 1772-1818. Starting in 1793, these lists began to classify individuals by occupation. From 1803, they began to differentiate Creoles from Africans. However, variations in spelling, duplicate names and gaps in the records make the creation of inidividual biographies a time consuming process. In the Unfree Censuses of 1841 and 1846, ages, religion and birthplace are also specified and a ‘Moral Character’ assessment (not too bad, good, tolerable) might be added. Also the number of children were listed with the enslaved women, but their names would not be.

In the post-emancipation era, when slaves were no longer taxable property and laborers could change their place of residence once a year, consistent information is harder to get. The primary sources for the years 1848-1917 are the Census and Church records, which have their own peculiarities. For example, in the early Church baptismal records, a black child’s white paternity might be absent, while in later years white paternity became more acceptable, so much so, that in some cases the sponsor of a mixed child was the father’s white wife. After 1850, children often took their father’s first name as their last name. In the Census Records, the use of surnames and the specification of family relations (wife, father, grandmother) does not be common before 1860. There is also the problem that individuals often took new, unofficial given names. Church Records sometimes bore additional names. Police Records also often contained references to aliases or alternate names, but these are not yet entered onto the database.

To demonstrate that records can be successfully linked, Mr. Tyson displayed the file that has been created for Butler Bay plantation for the period 1765-1917. It contains over 12,500 individual records that have been linked to create biographies and family trees for over 1200 enslaved and free individuals. “You can use the data to look forward or backward,” explains Mr. Tyson, showing us how “Charlotte” came to St. Croix from Africa, had 2 children, Sam and Catita, and how their lineage unfolds through time, creating a genealogy.

He also demonstrated how aggregating discrete data from the approximately 350 Crucian estates aligns demographics with social policy and political reality. After colonization started in 1734, the enslaved population climbed steadily to about 24,000 in 1779, flattened out, and then rose again to about 27,000 in 1803, reflecting the last influx of slaves to due to Danish subsidies of slave trade purchases. After the slave trade ended in 1803, the population drops until it reaches about 16,000 in 1847, a decline of 33 percent due to relatively high death rates and low birth rates Infant mortality was staggeringly high during and after Slavery. Following Emancipation in 1848, the total Crucian population remained fairly stable until 1870, sustained largely by immigration. But thereafter, it declined by one-third to about 15,500 in 1911, due partly to a negative rate of natural reproduction and partly to emigration.

Those of us who have looked through old Danish records are amazed at the volume of information. Seeing samples from the database stuns you with the difficulties in creating it… in transcribing the data accurately, in setting the ‘rules’ down for any assumptions made in identifying one person over time or identifying how ‘links’ between the same individuals called only by first name could be made, in identifying the list of attributes that should be attached to multiple individuals, so that a genealogy can be created. Thoughtfully, the original annotated source documents and anecdotal data are to be archived with the database, so that all linkages can be verified. Hard copies of the documents used to compile the database now comprise a major archival collection, which will be placed in a suitable repository on St. Croix where it can be consulted.

The remaining tasks are completing the data entries, verifying, cleaning and standardizing the entire database, creating the ‘user friendly’ resources: website and CD-ROM access to the data, users guides, and educational ‘packages’ that will enable students and adults to develop and authenticate their genealogies and tools to frame and launch population demographic studies.

When will we have this elegant resource? Not yet!

Although there is enough finished database product to whet the appetite, (e.g. a consolidated 1890 Census and the linear history of the Butlers Bay estate population), the authors are currently focused on acquiring funding ($300,000) necessary to finish the loading of the data and quality-checking the entire database.

“A web presence can be both a reward and a distraction,” Mr. Tyson explained , “and we have a lot of information yet to load, about 428,000 records, of which the majority, 220,000 are tax records.” He said VISHA planned to concentrate on that, so that the biographical demand from those who seeking information will be satisfied by a quality product. After that, they will develop the user interface tools, and commence their demographic study.

Is St John data in the database plans? Certainly later, along with St Thomas, the British Virgin Islands, Culebra and Vieques, which Mr. Tyson refers to as “a family of Islands”. But although St John data has already been used for several studies, and there is information about St. Johnians in the database, it is not as complete as the St Croix data.

SJHS Members, if you unfortunately missed the update on this project and you have a funding source idea contact George Tyson at gftyson@viaccess.net.

George and Camilla, thank you so much for visiting with us; when we see you next season, we hope funding is secure and you’re now getting to the fun part!!

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George Tyson

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