African Ancestry in the Bahamas
History & Background
The Bahamas is a group of 700 islands situated off Floridas east coast. Fortunately for genealogists, not all 700 islands are populated, the bulk of the 700 consisting of various rocks and non accessible inlets. New Providence - where Nassau is located - is the capitol and main power center. The remaining 25 or so populated islands, known as the "family islands," consists of the following islands:
A short history of the Bahamas
The documented history of the Bahamas begins in 1492 when the Spanish Explorer, Christopher Columbus, landed in the new world on an island that is now known as San Salvador. Back then, the islands were inhabited by Lucayan and Arawak Indians. The slave trade diminished the Indian population of the Bahamas. It would be another 200 years before some Englishmen, known as the Eleutheran Adventures, would find themselves shipwrecked on Eleuthera and thereafter would establish an English settlement there in 1648. The Bahamas would remain under British control for almost 325 years. During that time period, the area would see many changes. Pirates such as the notorious Black Beard used the islands as a place for his stash. By 1717, the first Royal Governor had rid the area of piracy. Crown Loyalists fled the American Colony for the Bahamas during the Revolutionary War, and by the time of the Civil War, the area was use by confederate blockade runners. An use not particularly lacking in irony when you consider that slavery was abolished in the Bahamas in 1838. The nineteen-seventys brought further change to this island nation. On July 10, 1973, the British crown relinquish control of the islands thereby establishing the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. "Onward Bahamasland" proclaims the now independent countrys national anthem, penned by Timothy Gibson, of the Eleuthera Gibsons.
Most of the approximately 275,000 Bahamians currently living in the islands are predominantly of West African descent, the ancestors of former slaves. However, some are white Bahamians who are descendants of the first English settlers, who are related to the Loyalists who fled America during the Revolutionary War, or who are the ancestors of the former slave owners in many cases. Like America, descendants also cross color lines, with some of the colored Bahamians being the offspring of their white planters.
State & Local Resources
In Search of Public Records
The Bahamas is just the kind of place that I dont think your arm would have to be twisted to long to convince you to go there in search of your family tree. Hey, you might want to do that even if you dont have family from the islands! But before you grab the sun screen and buy that plane ticket, you should know that quite a bit of information is available to you right at home.....maybe even off your trusted and loyal computer.
The Family History Library (FHL) and Centers
When looking for records from the Bahamas, I would first check the records maintained at your local Family History Center (FHC). The church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormon Church) maintains a library in Salt Lake City (Utah) of records and books of genealogical value, such as census records, birth certificates, death certificates, military records, and much more. The libarary was established in 1894 and claims to contain records pertaining to over two billion deceased persons. Before going to the library, check out the FHL's "Guide To Research".
Since many people are unable to make the trek to Utah, FHCs have been established around the country to provide local access to the information. I would recommend obtaining a copy of the FHCs publication titled: Using the Family History Library Catalog(TM) which details the worldwide resources available at each center. A list of FHCs nationwide can be found on line. If you cant find a FHC near you listed, you can call 1-800-346-6044 (Monday through Saturday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Time) for additional information. While you are there, dont forget that you can order for a small fee records from Salt Lake City and have them delivered to your local FHC for research purposes.
The FHL has made - via its new internet service dub FamilySearch (R) - the following proprietary family history resources - Ancestral Files (TM), International Genealogical Index (TM) Pedigree Resource File (TM), Family History Library Catalog (TM), Family History Source Guide (TM), along with selected genealogical web sites available on line from the www at the FamilySearch (R) Internet Genealogy Service (FIGS) web site. However, just because you dont find what youre looking for on-line doesnt mean you wont find it at the local FHC or otherwise get it from the Family History Library, and therefore I would still recommend a trip to your local FHC.
The Bahamian Government operates a Department of Archives that maintains various records of interest to genealogists. The Department publishes a book, Looking Back: A Guide to Genealogical Records in the Department of Archives (Nassau: Department of Archives, Ministry of Education and Training, 1996), which contains information on: Records of Birth, Marriages and Death (Church Records, Cemetery Records, Registrar General Department, Local Government and Commissioner's Report); Census Records; Slave Records (Slave Registers, Register of Freed Slaves, Compensation Returns); Estate Records (Wills, Probate Papers); Land Records (Maps and Plans, Deeds, Indentures and Conveyances, Dowers); Contract Labour Records; Naturalization Records; Government High School Files; Miscellaneous Records (Blue Books, Bahamas Staff List, Jury List, Voters List, Registers of Church Membership); Private Collections; Additional Resource Centers.
The address for the Department of
Dont forget that like America - before the Revoluntary War - the Bahamas was once a British Colony. Some limited records, mainly pertaining to colonial plantation records and related correspondence, may be found at the Public Record Office (PRO) in London.
Many of the Planters (i.e., slave owners) in the Bahamas were from Scotland. Thus, it is possible that some vital records pertaining to such individuals may be found through The General Register Office for Scotland . In addition, there is a FAQ on tracing Scottish ancestry on line.
Book Review - Bibliographical Texts as a Resource
Various books have been published on the history of the Bahamas Islands, in particular, and West Indies in general. I discovered a wealth of information from one such publication.
In 1866, Louis Diston Powles (1842-1911), or L.D.Powles, was appointed Magistrate of the Bahamas Island. One of his first acts was to tour the island group, afterwhich he had a book published: Land of the Pink Pearl. One of the islands that he visited was Eleuthera where he learned of and wrote about the Gibson brothers. One of the eight Gibson brothers referenced in the book was my great great grandfather, Richard Gibson.
This is what the book had to say:
"We reached Savannah Sound early the following morning, and had a walk of a mile from the landing place to the settlement. We had been told that the people of Savannah Sound, who are exclusively engaged in agricultural pursuits, were superior to any on the Eleutheran Shore, and they certainly appeared to be so. This goes a long way to prove that, where colored people have opportunities and a guiding hand to teach them how to use them, they are not slow to take advantage of them. Most of the land here is owned by a family of colored brothers named, Gibson, the grandchildren of a Scotch Planter, who left all his property to his coloured offspring. The Gibson brothers were orginally eight in number, but they are now reduced to five. They were all absent but one, and if he is to be taken as a specimen, they must be every much above the average of the Conch, white or black, for not only did he talk intelligently on general topics, but was well posted in European and American politics. But then the brothers Gibson own a three mast schooner, called The Brothers, and trade direct with the States, without allowing the blighting shadow of Nassau to cross their path."
[Source: Powles, Louis Diston. The Land of the Pink Pearl: or, Recollections of Life in the Bahamas. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, Ltd., 1888 (p. 226-227);[Second edition published in Nassau by Media Publishing, Ltd., 1996. (Page 269)]
Powles identified the following persons in his book as coloured, Black, or Full Blooded African:
For other books of historical and genealogy interest on the Bahamas check your local public library for the following titles:
Also, visit the following web pages:
Miscellaneous Record Sources on line
Queries, Surnames & Lookups
The Bahamian Mailing List Web Site contains links to two mailing list for person interested in their Bahamian roots.
The West Indies Surname Interests List is a compilation of surnames of interest to people who have e-mail capabilities. It is intended to help genealogical researchers with interests in West Indian countries identify others with interests in the same surnames, and to help researchers locate others who are researching genealogy in the same West Indian countries. List doesnt appear to have been recently updated (last time being in February 1998).
Questions or comments: Paula Lauren Gibson
Copyright © 1999-2002 by AfriGeneas. All rights reserved.