Posted by Erika Manternach on June 21, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

Tracing ancestors in the American South in the 19th century produces some of the most frustrating genealogical challenges. The troublesome trademarks of these searches are all too common: ancestors who married before 1850, and therefore do not appear by name with their parents in earlier censuses; a female family member who married and changed her surname; or a search that requires slogging through record collections from 1800 to 1850, which can sometimes be spotty or—sorry to say—nonexistent. If you have ever wished out loud that the censuses before 1850 had included the names of all household members (perhaps even, ahem, cursing each tick mark for its obscurity), you are not alone.

Elusive cases like these are the primary focus for Virginia McAlister, a research manager at AncestryProGenealogists. She has spent decades researching family trees centered in the South after the family members threw up their hands in despair and deemed the search unsolvable. McAlister shares three primary ways to seek answers when census records don’t cut it or shaky leaves fail to appear.

#1: Probate Records

When easy-to-access resources run dry, go after wills or probate records for known family members. They are the primary record type that can provide definitive statements of relationships. Men (or women) often named all of their surviving children in their wills.

Not all probate record collections are available online yet, but Ancestry has a very large collection. Be prepared for the fact that they are not all indexed, and significant time and know-how may be required to search them. Still, McAlister says a search targeted by state or county where the ancestor died is definitely worth a shot.

If you do know the name of an ancestor’s potential parents, or the death date of a male ancestor, check the collections in FamilySearch, too. If you’re lucky, you’ll hit a searchable database.

“Other times, you’re looking in digitized versions on microfilm, and you’re looking at the indexes, and you’re reading the old handwriting,” McAlister said. “You’re doing the heavy lifting yourself.”

Probate records can yield a trove of information, such as which family member was (or wasn’t) in favor with the deceased and what kind of property the family owned. This could offer insight into occupations or levels of prosperity. Sometimes African American ancestry can be illuminated by probate records of potential slave owners. Probate records can also shed light on whether widows could keep their inheritance if they remarried or were only allowed to keep the property if they remained widows. Other details, like the choice of executor or guardian for minor children, add to the family story.

#2: Land Records

As dense as they can sometimes be, land records offer the next-best opportunity to find evidence of relationships. Look for transactions between people with the same surname, indicating a transfer from fathers to sons or brothers. Sometimes a settlement of the father’s estate will indicate that his land was distributed to the various children, or all of the children together sold to one relative. Daughters (or their husbands, if they were married) were often named in general settlements, too.

“Quite often the land records will not state what the actual relationship is, so in this case you’re inferring relationships more often than not,” McAlister said. “I’ve seen land records that state ‘To my beloved son,’ or ‘For the love and affection which I hold for So-and-So,’ which basically states that this person is a child. Or if they’re only selling [land] for a dollar or five dollars—if it’s well below market value—then you can infer that it’s a parent-child relationship or, occasionally, brothers.”

Don’t forget to follow the trail of neighbors, either. Landowners of adjoining property can provide helpful clues.

#3: DNA

If the first two suggestions provide no breakthroughs, McAlister has a clear directive: “Go to DNA at that point.”

Take a DNA test, look for matches for the elusive surname and see if that match has a family tree containing helpful documentation. “You might be able to connect to an ancestor who is a few generations back than what you’re necessarily stuck on, but you can build that ancestor’s tree forward and try to figure out how your ancestor fits,” McAlister said.

If you strike out and are still stuck, call an expert! Professionals like McAlister and her team know their way around record collections and have the expertise to analyze findings that may appear unhelpful to newer genealogists. She and her colleagues also have access to collections not available online, and they have contractors on the ground in places where records have not been digitized or are only available in a courthouse.

Erika Manternach

Erika Manternach writes family history narratives for AncestryProGenealogists and appreciates all opportunities to share compelling stories. Before joining the Ancestry team, she worked for ten years as a TV anchor/reporter in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Indiana, and Utah. She then taught high school journalism and writing for 6 years. Erika and her husband live in Draper, Utah.


  1. John Bortugno

    My grandfather (Michael Sterris) imigrated from Greece around 1914. His last name was shortened. Don’t know what it was originally. ??

  2. Karen Gordon

    I’m looking for Charles Reed who was married to Jean who had two daughters Susan and Karen. Also the Reed family was given land in fall river where they have the family plot. Also I’m looking for and living relatives of the rodman family-as I am a decent relative . Please direct me in the right direction. I love your site . Thank you for your hard work.

  3. Glenna

    And one more reason we Southerners have difficulties tracing our families. For a variety of reasons, after the War Between the States, Southerners often deliberately avoided the 1870 census, adding another hurdle in tracing our ancestors.

  4. Robert BJ Railton

    At university I wrote a thesis on the experiences of the over 50,000 British convicts transported to America 1607-1776 prior to Australia becoming a penal colony in 1788. During my research, I consulted references which included the convicts names, where they were tried, their sentences, the ships on which they were transported and disembarkation locations (mainly in the Chesapeake). Some references such as wills, refer to where freed convicts settled and details of their estates. If anyone is interested, I would be only too happy to answer any queries.

  5. Issac Jerome smith

    I haven’t se3n my father in 30 years…everyone in my supposedly family has BIN adopted or seems to lie about being my family from akron ohio my father’s name originated from Montgomery his name is Michael Steven Smith… if you could please help me cause I’m seeking closure on who my family truly is …thank you

  6. Jane D. Jones

    I am searching for the parents of Benjamin H. or M. Nelson and spouse Frances
    (Fannie) L. Peach .They lived on GA 1840-1850. According to GA census
    Benjamin said he was born in Europe (probably England) c. 1815 d. in
    Bossier Parish, LA 29 Oct. 1861. Fannie said she was born c. 1810 in AL died in LA 1873.
    They had two AL and one in LA–Emma., Sally and Fannie, Who
    married Moses Mays in LA. Benjamin was a blacksmith and planter.
    Any help would be appreciated!

  7. Angela Hockenberry

    We have been stuck on my maternal 3rd GGM Margaret Irene Galigher b 26 May 1858 location not known died in 1937 in Marion, Grant Indiana. We think she used a random surname and cannot locate her in any census before 1880 when she married my 3rd GGF Harvey Wright.
    We think she may have been born in Russia/Prussia and Royal family.

  8. Leslie Palmer

    Would love to trace my family, but being a Southerner delivered by a midwife with not so great records kept. I was told one thing and settled for what Government insisted. Not what Family Bible noted.

  9. Musically

    And one more reason we Southerners have difficulties tracing our families. For a variety of reasons, after the War Between the States, Southerners often deliberately avoided the 1870 census, adding another hurdle in tracing our ancestors. Thanks for this.

  10. My grandfather (Michael Sterris) imigrated from Greece around 1914. His last name was shortened. Don’t know what it was originally. ?? Any idea?

  11. Virginia Calder Kennedy

    Hello! This is a great site. A few years back I found a young half niece and a second cousin. Now, I would really like to find Calder and Boone relatives here in California. My 2 sisters and I were adopted in the 1950’s. The youngest sister is unavailable because she is too traumatized .
    My father’s family of 5 siblings had children who, except two, were all at least 12 to 14 years older than we are. I have not seen them for many years. I saw some Calders in the Southern California edition of the Scottish journal I prescribe to. Unfortunately, the journal couldn’t help. So close, yet so far!

  12. Virginia Calder Kennedy

    I noticed several Greek names, Steris, when I googled. This might be it. Good luck.

  13. Mary Jo Hess

    Please, help me find Jesse Graham. Came to Dickson County TN from Orange County NC early 1800s. Married Cynthia Horner abt 1821. Cannot find b/d/m proof. Has 8 children: William, Sarah, Jessie, plus 5. Thank you.

  14. Stephanie D. Kane

    My great grandfather George Kane was left to be found as an infant on the doorstep of The Kane’s residence in Ohio County KY. Desperately looking for information in where George came from.

  15. Cheryl S.

    I would have put tax lists as #3 for tracing southern ancestors, and they are especially valuable for places where deeds and probate records were lost to a courthouse fire. For success in using DNA to get through a brick wall be aware you will need to spend a ton of time slogging through the junk/fantasy trees of your matches. Ball park estimate, and I think I’m being conservative – 90% of Ancestry member trees are seriously flawed on more than one branch.

  16. Jon Bloom

    I Have been told that Bloom is Russian Jewish in Origin. Does anyone have any advice about this name.

  17. Nathaniel A. Gray

    In response to the comment, July 4, by Cheryl S. – yours was the most helpful in this thread. I am an “unbroken line male descendant” of a Gray who died in SC in 1816. Based on the names of his children in his 44-page estate packet, we know for a fact that the Sarah Gray wh died not far from my home here in GA were husband and wife. Her will, dated 1834 and probated 1837 list the same names of children as his estate documents. Over the past several years I have found other documents in various court houses, libraries, the SC Dept. of Archives & History, the GA Dept of Archives, and more which I had hoped would help me and members of my family break through the brick wall. There are five of us men with same surname, Gray, who have taken the Y67 DNA test with FTDNA, which certainly was a critical key to solving another piece of the puzzle. All of us previously believed we did share a common ancestor who was born in the early 1700’s so when we saw our Y genetic match data, we were more confident. The problem is even though we are Y DNA matches and our Genetic Distance numbers range from 1 – 4, not even that can prove my 4th great grandfather was the brother of my more distant cousin’s 4th great grandfather….though hundreds of Ancestry (and FTDNA and Geni and MyHeritage) trees claim they were. I totally agree with you, based on examining many of their profiles and finding no sources provided (I would agree with 90%), these autosomal matches are also of little help. Bottom line, in order to prove my 4th gg grandfather, William Gray, was the same William Gray born in Somerset, NJ in Jan 1754 as extant source documents show, we will never know. The two have to be linked with a valid source document. That means a trip to NJ or to a state in-between where William lived before buying his first land in SC in 1787. Tax digests are a good suggestion since we’ve searched church records, land deeds, probate records, and more. Some have suggested I hire a professional genealogist but the cost would be prohibitive since he/she would need to travel to a number of states in which William may have resided between the time he left NJ until his first land purchase in SC. Thanks again for your input.

  18. Debra Campbell

    Hi I would like to find our Grandmother on my Mother’s side heritage . Fanny(Francis)Alexander also if anyone knows how she passed . Did she get sick? My mom was only 5or6 when she passed away. Debra Campbell

  19. Margaret Oyler

    I would love to find out about my grandmother (mother’s mother) Dorothy Irene Bennett Tate. My mother said she was born in Hamilton, Ontario Canada. Her family came from England. Would like to really know about her and her family.

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