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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 is forgetting this 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 in fact the Pre-Columbian peoples, they settled the island in 670 AD and 800 AD respectively in two different waves, culminating in a culture which 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, however a few survived with there being descendants of those first Jamaicans today still living on the island. 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 churches Rector was charged with the task of recording all baptism/births, marriages and burials in his parish. As the population grew there were more churches added and an Island Curate 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, this was changed with the passing of a new set of laws in 1870, which herald the fledgling beginnings of Civil Registration, which was originally called Law 6 Registration which crossed all religious denominations and religions in general, allowing not only Anglican records to be consider official state record keeping, but instead all citizens to be registered. However, before this law had been passed, an attempt at inclusion was done after the emancipation of slavery in 1838, with the addition of the Dissenter records for marriages which were officially collected by the Anglican Church, however the Dissenter baptism records were omitted and could only be found scattered all over the island held by each individual church house. Dissenter faiths were all other denominations which were not recognized as official by the state, namely the Baptist, Methodist, Moravian and Presbyterian faiths.

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, State Papers, Patents of Land Grants, Wills and their accompanying Inventories of Estates, Crop Accounts, 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, 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.

Where to get started?

The most common question any genealogist will ask, is where do I get started, and the answer depends on what do you wish to accomplish with your research. The following locations now hold the resources needed to track down your genealogy in Jamaica.

The Jamaica Archives and Records Department which 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, with the appointment of a Government Archivist, the division however became an autonomous department in 1982 in and of itself with the passage of the Archives law in 1982. Here you will find, Patents, Government and Colonial State Papers, Ship Manifests, Inventories of Estate Probates, Manumissions of Slaves, Crop Accounts, Historic Naturalization's, and Slave Returns, to name just a few, they also house the unindexed Baptism, Marriage and Burial Original Parish Records for the I.R.O.

The next place which every genealogist should be aware of is the Registrar General’s Department of Jamaica which also encompasses the Island Records Office. The RGD as its more commonly called contains the right to collect and store all records associated with Civil Registration, hence continuing the role of the I.R.O and the earlier Secretary’s Offices, 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, also housed are the original Law books from 1659 though those are no longer available for use. Also housed there are the Deed Poll Ledgers and a number of other records which may or may not be helpful to genealogical research, but are not available for viewing by visitors to the R.G.D.

Your next and final stop is the National Reference Library of Jamaica, a compendium of rare books, cadastral maps, Estate maps, original illustrations, photographs of various places and people, newspaper publications all oriented around Jamaica and to some extent the wider Caribbean. Biographical information on individuals of note and lodged collections of manuscripts dating from the Spanish era through to English colonization 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, are arranged easily in alphabetical order. The researcher can also consult the indexed many defunct and active newspaper publications to acquire primary data about the life and times events which would have influenced their ancestors lives. Also recommended is the consultation of the Jamaica Almanac collection for information on military placements, property ownership listed by the parish in which the properties were located, then the researcher can look up for that estates original map, to see its boundaries and property features, like 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 where the Great House, which was the name used in reference to the property owners house on a plantation, which was oftentimes the grandest structure on the estate apart from the factory facilities and also where the slave quarters were located.

Now Happy Hunting to all my fellow genealogists whether professional or a family research enthusiast.

By Dianne T. Golding Frankson

Chief Genealogical Researcher 


Genealogy and DNA: mapping the new frontier in self realization 

What is genealogy? In a nutshell, it's the retelling of one’s ancestral past, either orally or by documenting the deeds of those who have gone before us. Most people, who have read the Bible, first became aware of the practice while reading the Old Testament, where there are passages which recounted the lineage of one biblical figure or the other or in the New Testament when Jesus was linked to King David as a descendant through his mother’s line. However Jews were not the only culture or peoples to practice the art of lineage recounting. Many other societies did this namely the Europeans, the Maori, the Melanesian's, the Polynesians and the Asians to name only a few. Africans specifically for millennia were divided into tribes which were divided further into clans, and each clan had their own individual common ancestor from which each member of the clan had to be descended from to be regarded a member of that clan, as a result each village or community in Africa employed the services of a village elder whose only role was to record the clan’s lineage and transmit this information accurately from one generation to another, making additions along the way. Actually all human beings once they evolved a socialized structure became obsessed with the preservation and transmitting of communal genealogies.

In the Jamaican context every family had that elderly Aunt, Uncle or Grandparent who would tell stories from the past, recounting the deeds of their own parents and Grandparents, either when asked or voluntarily offered as information which the younger generation needed to know. In my own family the practice was more deliberate; my grandfather passed to my father the history whether he was willing to listen or not, the story of our family for over three hundred years, which he in turn passed to me when I was but twelve years old. This retelling often comes in the form of history compression, where several ancestors and their lives and major achievements are encapsulated into the deeds of one primary super ancestor.

From the early days of genetic research, when researchers studied the occurrence of eye colour, hair tones and textures and the complexion changes which happened within a generation of a family where persons of either different hair colours and eye colours united to have children, and further into the complexities associated with the complexion changes which exist among offspring of different racial mixes. This early science has always been intimately conjoined with genealogy, thus its evolution into accepting DNA research was inevitable.

What exactly is DNA, it’s a series of chemical markers which are bonded together in a spiral helix of nucleic acids, proteins, lipids and complex carbohydrates called polysaccharides, these molecules are existent in all life on earth. However in humans they have identified markers which are associated with racial, regional and sub-regional groupings called Haplogroups. Because of major projects like the Genome project of the eighties and nineties, we can now define a person’s lineage to specific regions, peoples and tribes. 

But what particularly concerns the genealogist is how to best use this information to assist us in deciphering the ancestry of a person. Commercial companies like 23andme, Ancestry and several others who now offer quick and easy DNA kits from which the individual can be provided a simple pi-chart of the percentages of individual racial admixture and the regions of origin which constitutes that individuals ancestry. This pi-chart is the used by most genealogists to confirm their paper trail of documents, though it can also be used in the reverse. 

Each percentage represents the time the ancestor existed in your lineage, as most DNA markers cannot trace individual contributions from ancestors beyond a five hundred year timeline. After which the DNA markers combine into an indistinguishable mass where all ancestral contributions merge into combined markers spanning hundreds or thousands of years back in time. 

It must be remembered that each individual has two parents and unless those parents are brother and sister, those two parents have two more parents each, which means the average person has approximately 1024 ancestors in eleven generations or 8 Great- Grandparents back and approximately 16,384 ancestors in fifteen generations or your 12th Great-Grandparents, however because of numerous cousin unions and the occasional sibling unions along the way, this number is significantly less, though how much less is very dependent on that individuals lineage verse population ratios for a particular locality i.e. Jamaica. Remarkably whether we know it or not we are all related the further back we go. 

Through DNA one can positively identify the direct male (paternal) line of origin for a man and for a woman, her direct female (maternal) line of origin, with elements of the father’s side represented to a lesser extent in women and the reverse in men.

But the most important question of all is why someone would need to know their genetic make-up and their ancestors, simply because it makes you truly complete. 

A tree without roots may seem to be flourishing just fine until tested by strong winds. And that’s what knowing your past does for you; it provides a strong foundation from which to weather every storm. We Jamaicans live in a society which often has others telling you, who you are and what you are, when you know the facts, that becomes less of a problem. You also now realize that history is not just some meaningless words recounting vague far off events on a dusty shelf, your ancestors lived those events as intimately as you are living through today’s life events, your today will be your descendants tomorrows, and just as you would not wish to be long forgotten, then why should the people who were needed to bring you here be forgotten.

It’s the duty of every person to learn more about their ancestors, so get started.

first published in the Daily Gleaner on the 26/6/2017

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