Three Ways to Take Aim at Southern Brick Walls

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.