Research in the South can be both challenging and rewarding. Historically, the southern states’ culture and economy have been deeply rooted in agriculture. As an agrarian society, many areas were not meticulous in keeping records. When living on farms any significant distance from the courthouse, taking care of business at home took precedence over a lengthy trip to the courthouse. Births and deaths might not be recorded until months or years later. Deed transfers within the family might not be formalized for a generation. As a researcher of the American South, it is imperative to understand the agrarian way of life.
Another challenge for the Southern researcher is burned counties. Many counties have lost records over the years to fire and/or natural disasters. Certainly the Civil War played a role in the loss of courthouse records. While research in a burned county can present a brick wall for the researcher, the brick wall is not insurmountable.
Don’t despair! Research of your southern ancestors will still be a rewarding experience.
5 Online Places to Find Your Southern Ancestors
- The State Archives – More and more records are becoming available online for the genealogy researcher. A good place to start is with the state archives where your ancestors lived. Each state will have its own unique holdings. For example, if you have North Carolina ancestors, visit the State Archives of North Carolina website. You will be able to search their holdings and explore their digital collections. Examples of what you will find include family Bibles, Civil War Pension Applications, and War of 1812 Pay Vouchers. The State Library and Archives of Florida’s Florida Memory Collection is another good example of using a state archives’ available online records. On their site a sample of what you will find includes Spanish land grants, WWI Service Cards and Civil War Pension Applications.
- State and Local Genealogical Societies – The amount of information found on state and local genealogical societies will vary quite a bit. The information is usually provided by the society’s volunteers. Still, be sure to check these societies for where your ancestor lived. Depending on the individual society, variable local records will be available. For example, transcripts of individual will and deeds might be found. Photographs of local residents and landmarks are another example that may be found. Some of the information may only be available to the society’s members while others are available to the general public. These sites are certainly worth a look.
- Documenting the American South (DocSouth) – The University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) sponsors this online resource for southern history, cultural and literature. Among its collections are first person narratives of slaves, women, farmers and soldiers. Other collections include personal diaries and papers relating to the Civil War and slave narratives. DocSouth is an invaluable resource for any southern researcher.
- The Library of Virginia – While obviously focused on the records of Virginia, many southern families of other states such as Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama can trace families back to Virginia. The LVA website is also a valuable resource for learning about the southern culture and way of life.
- The Digital Library on American Slavery – If you have African American ancestry, this site sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is an excellent place to visit. Many slave deeds, runaway slave advertisements and slavery era insurance records may be found here.
Remember: For all the excellent records available online, there are many more that are not. To be complete in your research, sometimes you need to travel to a repository or use the assistance of a local genealogist.
Now…. Go grab a tall glass of iced tea and start exploring your southern roots!
You can learn more about southern genealogy research in these Legacy webinars:
Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and Etsy-prenuer who writes about her never-ending pursuit of ancestors, the “how” of genealogy research and the importance of sharing genealogy research with our families. Specializing in North Carolina and southern Virginia research, she also provides genealogical research services to clients. You can find Lisa online at Lisa Lisson.com.