In genealogy, tracing names and dates is often the initial goal, but, for many, desire soon turns to learning about the embodied lives of those who came before them. This type of texture is hard for any genealogist to locate, but excruciatingly hard
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In genealogy, tracing names and dates is often the initial goal, but, for many, desire soon turns to learning about the embodied lives of those who came before them. This type of texture is hard for any genealogist to locate, but excruciatingly hard for those seeking to trace family histories that include ancestors who were enslaved in the northern parts of the colonies that would become the United States. Often, records thin to nearly nothing and frame all lived experiences through the lens of an enslaver. This is true especially of public records, created, maintained, and curated by the state apparatus. By adhering to the proposition that even materials that do not immediately reveal much about Black life may be useful if we consider what is missing and left out, this article suggests that these types of documents might help breathe some fullness into the individual and collective lives of those Black ancestors whose humanity the state denied. Emerging from a larger project to locate stories and histories of Black residents of one of the first colonized spaces in British North America, this article focuses on the ways in which the publicly available Massachusetts pre-1850 Vital Records—which have specific “Negroes” sections—serve as an unexpected source of useful, if fragmentary, evidence of not only individual lives, but collective histories of the communities in which Black ancestors lived. Highlighting creative approaches to analyzing these particular vital records, and centering women’s lives throughout, this article demonstrates what is possible to learn about patterns of childbearing, relationships between and among enslaved persons owned by different families, the nature of religious lives or practices, relationships between enslavers and enslaved, and the movements, over time, of individuals and families. Alongside these possibilities, the violence, limitations, and challenges of the vital records are identified, including issues related to Afro-indigenous persons, the conflation of birth and baptismal records, and differential access to details of the lives of enslaved men vs. women.