Southern genealogy research and southern plantation records go hand-in-hand. Learn where and how to look to find out more about your southern heritage.
8 Types of Records to Assist Genealogy Research
The William Moore plantation was built in 1840 and was owned by the author’s parents in 1986.
Southern genealogy research involves many records sources to find our ancestors and learn about their lives, especially pre-1850 (before many vital records, censuses that recorded names, and other more modern resources). Plantations in the southern states often come to mind when thinking about southern research, and indeed, many families descended from plantation owners. What records would you expect to find for plantations, and where would you find them? This article will provide a broad overview of the primary records and where to begin research.
What Records Were for Small Plantations?
Plantations come in many styles and sizes, and the types of plantation records are no different. A smaller plantation may have produced only traditional documents, such as deeds made during the owner’s lifetime and will and estate inventories when the owner died. These records contain genealogical information such as generational links, details of enslaved persons, locations of where family members resided, and household goods of the owner. Many clues can be found in these records, assisting family history research.
Excerpt of a deed c. 1817 from the author’s collection.
Deeds: More Than a Land Description?
Not all ancestors left deeds, or they possibly lived in counties that suffered enormous record losses due to fires and other disasters. Seek out as many types of deeds as are available. Deeds can be as simple as the land description, the grantor, and the grantee, or they often contain family names and their relationship to the people involved in the deed. Often, deeds were created by parties who lived outside of the county and stated the deed was written, giving clues to what happened to a missing ancestor.
Deeds and mortgages did not always involve land and were also used to make transactions involving the buying and selling of enslaved people, personal property, and debts owed. Make sure to search deeds throughout your genealogical research.
My love of deeds stems from the land descriptions that have provided many years of finding my ancestors’ property and walking in their footsteps in places that today remain as they did hundreds of years in the past.
What Is In a Plantation Will?
A will could be as simple as the deceased person leaving all he owned to his wife and children [no names provided] and be no longer than a few paragraphs of boilerplate language, a date, and a signature or mark. Other wills could be elaborate and name the wife if living at the time, sometimes even a previous wife if both women had children—also, the names of children and their spouses, even grandchildren.
Descriptions of land, enslaved people, and other personal belongings can be found, and often a dispute between the deceased and his family members. Frequently, you can find an index. Still, it is essential to search out a copy of the original document if available because mistakes are common in transcriptions.
Example of a will, courtesy of FamilySearch.
The Ancestor Died Intestate [no will]. What now? Estate Records.
Not all ancestors left a will, whether they owned large plantations or small farms. Some died early. Others did not seem to care and left the division of their estates to the probate court. Researching probate records may be more time-consuming than having a person’s desires simply spelled out in a will. Estate records can provide a wealth of information, such as inventories, which list human and personal property, their value, and the final estate sold for and to whom. The estate records often identify family, neighbors, and genealogical clues to extend a family’s lineage.
Example of an estate inventory document, 1843, courtesy of FamilySearch.
The traditional records involving individuals and small plantation owners can be found at county and state-level facilities, such as county courthouses and state archives. Most state archives house original copies of the probate, wills, estate inventories, and donated items such as personal ledgers and papers of an individual. Before embarking on a research trip, one should consult the facility to determine the types of records available to the public. Fortunately, many of these records can also be found in digital format on county, state, and federal websites and FamilySearch.
A pocket-sized memorandum book of the author’s ancestor dated 1783. North Carolina State Archives.
Large Plantations, Better Records?
Across the southern states, some plantations comprised thousands of acres and hundreds of enslaved people to grow crops such as cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane. Unlike small farms and plantations, the more extensive plantations were owned by the wealthier class and run as businesses that made a wealth of “in-house” records.
Among many records, five significantly stand out: manuscripts, logs of enslaved people, diaries, photographs, and personal letters. Each record type would vary depending on the person who wrote the documents.
Example of James Henry Hammond’s manuscript papers, courtesy of FamilySearch
In the previous example, James Henry Hammond noted he arrived at Silver Bluff with his family, and his land amounted to ten thousand eight hundred acres, valued at $36,000. James listed one hundred forty-six enslaved people on the same day and provided their names and ages.
Whether researching the genealogy of a direct ancestor or searching for enslaved African American ancestors, the plantation records have volumes of information that could benefit the researcher, given time and patience.
Where To Begin Finding Southern Plantation Records?
The repositories for Plantation records are plentiful, and many records are available online on multiple websites such as FamilySearch and State and Federal Archives. A recommended starting place is the book, “Index to Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames, and Collections,” (2nd ed.) by Jean L. Cooper. The university libraries, such as the Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Southern University John B. Cade Library, and the University of South Carolina Libraries, are excellent starting points for researching brick walls in genealogy research.
In summary, researching our ancestors who lived in the United States’ southern states before the 1850 census can be challenging. Nevertheless, many other types of records are often used for genealogy research. Southern states genealogy research often involves tracking down these records and piecing together clues from each document to build a family’s story.