The focus of this column is the genealogy of the southern United States and colonial America in general. These are my areas of specialization and the need for information for this sector of genealogy research is growing. Companies and non-commercial genealogy organizations are shifting away from these areas to the larger population of descendants of more recent immigration.
There are many resources already on-line for starting genealogists. Therefore, most of the material here is intermediate to advanced level. My research focuses on land studies, military records, legal records, and tracing of collateral lines. These projects are more time consuming and expensive but eventually necessary for this time and place.
ISSUES IN SOUTHERN RESEARCH
The nature of the land defines research in the South. It is mostly rural with a widely scattered population. The people often lived in remote locations and did not want to have dealings with the government. Exceptions to this were military service, records of land ownership, and payment of taxes (when they had no other choice).
Consider death in the rural 19th century South. The only reasons the sheriff and county court would take notice and create records were:
-the deceased left property in their name
-the deceased had minor heirs
-the death was other than natural causes (accident or homicide)
As a result, deaths of the elderly are often absent from county records.
The courthouse fire is the other nemesis for the southern genealogist. The courthouse was the only repository for records in the historical South and usually built of heart pine timber. This lumber is immune to the fungi and insects that destroy buildings and records in this hot, humid region, but you could burn down a building with a single match. The resulting fires were much hotter than a normal wood fire and usually nothing survived. The political corruption in some counties and lawlessness found in the Civil War and Reconstruction caused most of this destruction. These were widespread in Alabama and Mississippi but the Virginia fires destroyed the largest volume of records.
Colonial America has its own issues. There are no census or federal records. Few newspapers, military records, or church records exist. The town records from New England are not found in the Southern colonies. We must rely on probate and land records for information.
Consider a convenient division of the historical periods involved:
1600-1700 Early Colonial Period. Colonies present: Virginia, Maryland, New England, New Sweden, New Netherlands in the early part of the century. Later in the 1600s came New York, North and South Carolina. Main record loss is for Virginia, as most other colonies have abundant records.
1700-1783 Later Colonial Period. Colonies established: Georgia, French Louisiana, British West and East Florida. Main record loss remains Virginia followed by colonial Georgia.
1783-1815 Federal Period. Expansion into Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and the lower Gulf Coast. Flatboat and Federal Road era. Records loss in Virginia. Other states and territories have records, but today are scattered over many archives.
1815-1861 Antebellum South. Expansion into Florida and Texas. Era of river steamboat and telegraph. Cotton plantation slavery expands and Native Americans forcibly removed. Records loss largely confined to Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Better censuses, War of 1812, and land records become available.
1861-1900 New South. Era of the railroads. Civil War records, censuses, cemeteries, newspapers, and local courthouse records are largely available. Abolition of slavery makes African American genealogy more feasible.
20th Century. Records include papers of older family members, census, city directory, newspaper, military records from World War I and II, state vital record registration and courthouse records.