Some of the most difficult genealogical research problems filter down to us through the poor record keeping, burned depositories, and social customs of our ancestors who lived in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern United States. Notoriously challenging, many of the requests that we receive at Legacy Tree Genealogists are to assist others in discovering their Southern ancestors. In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the key record types we use when solving a Southern State or Mid-Atlantic genealogy research problem.
First, three general tips are good to keep in mind when we are researching Mid-Atlantic and Southern ancestors.
Research problems from these states generally require much patience—slowly chipping away at the problem at hand, searching out documents, considering the evidence, and letting it simmer. Rushing through a problem will result in missed evidence, conclusions with insufficient proof, or even just accidental errors. Giving a research problem time allows for more evidence gathering, more critical evaluation, and for fresh ideas and potential solutions to emerge from the documents and our analysis.
Evaluate the pertinent work others have done on the same ancestral families. Usually, the best places to find the best genealogy research are periodicals such as National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (which publishes articles pertaining to all regions of the United States), and The American Genealogist. In addition to these, there are state, regional, and local genealogy journals. Similarly, use search engines and library catalogs (such as the FamilySearch Catalog, university catalogs, and WorldCat) to discover if book-length treatments of your family have been published. Because these volumes are usually not published by academic presses, are self-published, and are rarely peer-reviewed the credibility of each history must be carefully evaluated but could offer important clues for your own research. Online family trees like those found at MyHeritage.com or FamilySearch.org may provide good research or the holy-grail source—a property deed, a family bible, a probate document, etc.—that provides the necessary evidence. Of course, there is a lot of bad information floating around the Internet so be careful about what you accept as reliable.
Pay attention to the extended kinship network and friends of your ancestors. These people often followed similar migration patterns which can help you discover where ancestors originated, especially as people frequently moved throughout the South. For example, perhaps you know your Fitzpatrick ancestors in Georgia were born in North Carolina, but you cannot determine where in North Carolina. If many of the Georgian neighbors migrated from Rowan County, North Carolina, it would be worth a look in Rowan County’s records for your ancestors. Documents pertaining to aunts, uncles, cousins, or in-laws may shed light on your direct ancestors and help untangle the web of relationships not clear from documents related to your ancestors.
Now for some insight into record types we frequently use for Mid-Atlantic and Southern States problems.
Property Records. This record type is one of the most useful when tackling families in the South or Mid-Atlantic regions. Property records document the transaction of real and personal property among the parties to the transaction. This usually means the transfer of land but could also include enslaved people or other high-value items (we’ve even seen the rights to use and sell a patent in designated areas recorded in property collections). The property was often transferred among family members which in turn helps the genealogist in his or her work. Family relationships are not always stated in deeds, but sometimes can be inferred from the phrasing or even just a possible relationship is noted until additional evidence proving or disproving the hypothesis is discovered. Don’t ignore the witnesses! Property records usually include one, two, three or more witnesses attesting to the validity of the transaction and the witnesses were sometimes family. Beginner genealogists sometimes only search the deed volumes, but a county may have kept other types of property records, mortgages being a common one, which should be searched as well. Property records are helpful when researching enslaved ancestors as well because they document the movements among various slaveholders and sometimes the enslaved person’s family relationships. Because property almost always constituted an inheritance—which fell to family members after debts were paid—the distribution of an estate is sometimes documented in the property collections rather than the probate records.
Probate Records. Probate records are the documents a court generates to distribute a deceased person’s estate. As mentioned above, the property almost always was divided among the deceased’s family members (instances where the testator chose to bequeath his or her property exclusively to non-family which was a rarity). Thus, in the absence of good vital records, as is the case in Southern and Mid-Atlantic states for most periods, probates may offer the necessary evidence to prove a family relationship. A word of caution: That someone was listed as an heir to a deceased person’s estate is not proof that he or she was a child of the deceased. Frequently, when an heir was not a child, he or she was a grandchild of the deceased suggesting the parent of the grandchild was deceased and his or her portion of the inheritance then went to the grandchildren. Like property records, probate records can also help in researching enslaved individuals because they were considered property in the law and were included in probate records as property sold to pay debts or bequeathed to the deceased’s heirs.
Guardianship Records. These records were created when a minor needed a legal guardian to represent them in legal matters (especially when the child inherited or could inherit property). It was not necessary for both parents to be deceased for a legal guardian to be appointed for a minor child. We have seen guardians appointed in instances when the mother was still alive, but the father deceased, and when the mother was deceased with the father still living. Guardianships can help prove a parent-child relationship or even whether a set of proposed siblings were truly siblings. These records also help prove the death of an ancestor. Guardians were sometimes older siblings, in-laws, grandparents, or extended families so noting who the guardian was can help crack your Southern or Mid-Atlantic States research problem.
Civil Court Records. Once again, this type of record for Mid-Atlantic and Southern States research problems often focused on property. When a dispute arose over property ownership these matters were usually settled in the courts and there is a good chance that the documents pertaining to those proceedings may survive today. Disputes over property ownership may have been caused by conflicts regarding an inheritance. Or, perhaps neighbors argued over where a property boundary was located and the court records may document how the parties came about owning the property—which could have been through the family. Court records may be more difficult to access because fewer have been microfilmed (the collections at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, are a good place to start but are by no means complete) or digitized, so it may be necessary to contact the local courthouse or the state archives but the patience and effort may be well worth the discoveries.
While Southern and Mid-Atlantic States genealogy research is some of the most challenging research in the United States solving those “brick wall” problems is exciting and satisfying! Patiently working through the property, probate, guardianship, and court records while searching for our direct ancestors and those connected to them can help extend our ancestries and discover previously unknown ancestors.
Legacy Tree Genealogists has specialists who know how to find and piece together the trail of records as people migrated across the U.S., and our experts know a variety of strategies for working around record loss. Many times it takes a combination of traditional research and DNA testing to solve tough mid-atlantic and southern states research problems, and our experts know how to use these tools together to get the best results. Contact us today for a free quote.
Solveig Quass says
Great article. Southern research is difficult. You mentions lots of good places to look.
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Southern research IS difficult, but not impossible! We’re glad you found the article useful.