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5 Tips For Finding Your Southern Ancestors in Your Genealogy

Southern US Map with title Tips for Researching Your Southern Ancestors

Do you need help finding your Southern Ancestors and want to learn how how to start climbing that tree? Follow these tips from Amy Carpenter, a young genealogist who specializes in Southern research.

I spoke with Amy Carpenter, from Musings of a Young Genealogist and she shared 5 fantastic tips and strategies for finding your relatives in the south.

Video: Start Researching Southern Ancestors in Your Family Tree

To watch the full interview, go here.

Tip #1: Know Your Jurisdictions

It’s really important to know where records are held, especially in the American South. Where the records are housed can become crazy especially since the jurisdictions may have changed often.

For example, South Carolina originally had parishes. Then they switched to counties. Then they scrapped that for jurisdictional districts. That didn’t last long and soon they went back to counties in districts. There were still more changes to come!

If you have family in South Carolina, or anywhere in the south, you have to know in what location they lived and when they lived in that location. This will help you know where to look for records. They won’t all be at the county courthouse. They could be at a district facility.

Tip #2: Become Skilled With Land and Probate Records of the South

In New England and in the north, they were a lot better about keeping specific records about birth, marriage, and death. In the south, they didn’t have the culture that wanted to keep these records. There is one source that will dramatically increase your chances of finding your southern ancestors and that is PROPERTY!

As such, land records, deeds, and probate records were important to ensure that things got passed down correctly. Marriage records were kept well because if you weren’t a legitimate child then you couldn’t inherit.

Even if your ancestors are from ‘Burned Counties,” these locations were really good about recreating their land and probate records. Many records were destroyed in the 1850s-1860s but many government offices recreated records and you should be able to find some decent stuff.

Tip #3: Utilize the FAN Network More Than You Typically Do

The FAN network stands for friends, associates, and neighbors. In the South, especially with land records, people tend to buy land around people that they are connected to. When they move, they typically moved as a group.

When you’re researching probate records, pay attention to not only who was buying, but also who signed as a witness, purchaser, and bounded neighbors. Research those surnames as a group so that you can easily track your family when maybe the county records did burn but another family survived.

Amy then shares how she discovered a probate record that helped open up a brick wall. A female ancestor was recorded in that probate record with three different married surnames. That record caused her to look for more probate records using the other surnames and she discovered the woman had a daughter, a son, and two stepchildren.

Tip 4: Access Southern Land Records using FamilySearch

Amy’s go-to location for finding land records for southern ancestors is the FamilySearch website, specifically the card catalog. When you key in your location, you should be able to find the deed books for the area. Since many of the original records were destroyed, you’ll see books compiled by other authors about what they’ve found through news clippings or through probate records.

When you do find land records, always check the indexes of the volumes. They are usually at the right of the book. If you don’t see one at the beginning flip to the end of the book flip me through to the end of the book because they often have indexes at the back.

Check for your surnames but make sure you’re looking for variable spellings.

Tip 5: Don’t Superimpose Our Current Views on the Past

Amy says, “it’s important when you’re researching in the American South to not superimpose our current views on their historical choices. Respect them for who they were and to accept them completely as part of your family.”

If you discover your ancestor was a slave or held slaves, the best thing you can do is not judge them. For many southerners, it was an economical decision or it was the way that they were raised. Surely be sensitive, but if we can stay objective and understand that they were just doing what they were taught then it makes it a little bit easier to process.

Bonus Tip: Trace Slavery in Probate Records

In probate and land records, researchers may find slave ownership. You will also find bills of sale of the slaves. You may find agreements where slaves were rented out to other plantations.

Sometimes you will find a will that names all the slaves separately and sets them free on their death. It’s not very natural to think about a person as property, but this is where you research slaves and slave owners.

↪️ Are you looking for more genealogy resources?

Grab your copy of this FREE Genealogy Research Guide:

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What questions do you have about researching ancestors in the American South?

Amy shared many great tips. If you have more questions, share them in the comments section on this blog post or the video above. If you are looking to hire a researcher in the American South, contact Amy at

Discover and use these 5 tips for researching your ancestors who lived in the Southern United States. #genealogy #AmericanSouth #researchtips

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