The Basics of Southern Genealogy

What states are included in southern genealogy tactics?

If your roots are in the South, you may be from one of the fifteen states that are often considered to be part of this region. In addition to the obvious ones in the Deep South, that list might include Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. However, conducting your ancestor research will be quite different if your family lines rise from Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, North & South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, or West Virginia. I will be focusing in this blog on the genealogical research concepts that are important to know if you are researching a family from that latter list of states.

What you need to know before you begin your search:

The development of the US South was based on an agrarian economy, and this impacted all forms of record keeping in the region in both positive and negative ways. Farmers, whether owners of large plantations or small holdings, paid more attention to their crops and their land than to anything else. This was their lifeblood. Consequently, many births, deaths, and marriages were not recorded immediately, or never recorded. Obviously, if social record keeping was not important, it causes a nightmare for southern genealogists today.However, what makes our task easier than in other regions is just that agrarian economy: southerners valued their land greatly. Consequently, they kept excellent records of land transfers and sales, of taxation, and of court judgements. Although you might find it difficult to find out when your ancestors married, you will usually be able to discover what land they owned, what land they sold, and to whom they left it. An agrarian economy has land boundaries that change more frequently than those in other types of economy, but this also means you will have many more records than in other places.

Unless, and this is the next large challenge of southern genealogy, it burned.

We all remember learning of the widespread destruction of crops, civic buildings, homes, and barns that occurred in the South during the Civil War: the loss of those records greatly affects our ability to conduct successful research today.Finally, if your family is African American or of mixed blood, the records of your ancestors may not have ever existed, or may be much more difficult to uncover. Marriages were often not recorded, surnames were often simply that of the ‘owner’ of the person, and even first names were not considered critical to write down.

Yet, all is not lost.

Just because southern genealogy research is difficult, does not mean it is impossible, and the recent digitization of southern records makes it all that much more convenient. Where can you go to find your roots in the South?

  • State and county archives: formal state archives are still great repositories of local ancestral information. Be sure to check adjacent states to the one where your ancestor lived, because they may have owned property in different places. Many land records were maintained at the county level, and still exist in the archives today.
  • Pension and other military records: in a region where community records are sparse, federal government repositories have vast holdings from the Civil War, as well as the War of 1812. These records can illuminate names of widows, origins of military units and muster sites, etc. Also within this category of record will be bounty land tracts given to citizens for serving in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. This land was often in the southern states.
  • Church records: while the southern agrarian society might not have had time to record their events, the people were meticulous about their religious time, and you will find that churches maintain those records to this day. In addition, family Bibles are also a wonderful source of family tree information.
  • State and local genealogy societies: Most locales, either at the town, city, or county level, keep excellent records, many of which are online. Always be sure to do a search for the genealogical or historical society in the area you are researching.
  • Family Search wiki for ‘record loss’ in the History section. This will outline places you can search to find out which records are simply gone. Looking at the “Burned County Research” section will offer you great help and will save you time.
  • Departments of Archives and History within particular states. These will offer you databases of holdings that exist, and often online in a digital format.
  • Digital libraries of the states and NARA holdings. These maintain documents that will help your research and that have been digitized.
  • Probate records, including wills. While southerners may not have recorded who got married, they were very careful about their wills.

Searches specific to African American ancestors:

In 1860 there existed almost 4 million slaves in the US South, as well as 500,000 free African Americans. The difficulty in finding your family among this huge group of people rests with the custom then of ‘slave owners’ not recording marriages or last names of their slave workers. How do you overcome the lack of records? Several solutions exist:

  • 1850 and 1860 census slave schedules. In these you will find the names of ‘slave owners’ and the number of men and women who worked their land. Often, slaves took on the surnames of the people who ‘owned’ them.
  • Deed records. The great tragedy that was the existence of slavery produced good records of when slaves were bought or sold as property, often with the first names of the individuals.
  • Digital Library on American Slavery. This library maintained by University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has a vast holding of, for example, information and documents on over 150,000 people from the pre and post Civil War era in the South, and listings of over 86,000 slaves who were kidnapped and transported from Africa to America.
  • African American records from post-Civil War: 1867 voter registration lists; 1870 census; list of United States Colored Troops in the Civil War; the Freedmans Bureau Online.
  • Check the northern and western state records. Before the Civil War, 125,000 slaves were moved by the ‘owners’ to Texas, where records were better kept than in the Deep South. In the 1870s – 80s, 25,000 former slaves moved to Kansas. Later, in the 1880s, thousands of former slaves moved to California, Kansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.
  • Amistad Resource Center. This amazing resource houses millions of documents from the 1790s to the present, personal letters, photographs, original source records, art work, oral histories, etc., documenting the diaspora of Africans, and including in large part the slave records of the United States. It is a research facility that is committed to open access.
  • Fellowship records. Shortly after emancipation, African American and mulatto citizens formed supportive societies, which maintained records. Some of these include the Brown Fellowship, the Humane Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Chicago Historical Society has a holding of some of these records.
  • Plantation records. These are held in the Library of Congress, local archives, local and university libraries. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these is Kenneth M. Stampp’s collection that can be found at the Family History Center, among other places. It is referred to as the Stampp Collection, but its formal name is “Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations from the American Revolution through the Civil War.” It contains microfilmed records of writings, business records, artwork, personal writings, and any document imaginable that might have existed on a plantation during the era. This is an invaluable resource.

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Written by


October 31, 2017
Wesley is the founder of

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