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Try census records to track pre-Civil War information

One of the problems you will have when doing research in the south is the loss of records when many of the courthouses were burned around the time of the Civil War. So what so you do when you don't have the luxury of these records?

In those counties where there are no courthouse records for the time period you are interested in, you will have to rely on census records more heavily. You will need to explore the other census records available, not just the familiar population schedules. There were also separate schedules for farming, industry, mortality and slave owners. Censuses were also taken at the territorial, state, county and local levels.

Another option is tax records. Tax records were sent to the state capitals and Washington shortly after being collected, so most of them were spared when the courthouses burned. Many counties sent tax records every year which is more often than the various censuses were taken. The downside of tax records is that only landowners are listed. If a person didn't own land, then they didn't have to pay property tax. The family members of the landowner are not named. However, these records still contain a lot of information. You will know whether or not the person owned land and how much they owned.

You will be able to see in which district they lived which narrows down where in the county the family was located. It will show how many slaves the person owned which will tell you a bit about how wealthy he might have been as well as what their occupation was. A lot of land plus a lot of slaves equals a plantation owner. You can also guess the age of a person using the tax records. For the most part, a landowner was a male age 21 or older.

If your ancestor shows up in the tax records in a certain year and then every year thereafter you can say that he most likely either just turned 21, was able to buy property for the first time or maybe that is when he first moved into this county. You can also use the tax records to determine what time period you need to be looking for a possible land grant.

Other alternative sources of information that should not be overlooked are Bible records, old letters and genealogies written a long time ago. When you find a book about your family or about the county in which you are interested in that was written in 1890 you have found a possible gold mine. These books were written much closer in time to when the events actually occurred and the writer was privy to information you don't have access to. Many times these old genealogies relied on the recollections of elderly people. A 70-year-old person that was interviewed in 1890 had first hand knowledge of the events in question and can be considered a fairly reliable source.

Don't get discouraged when you find record losses in the county you are researching in. There are always other places to look.

Web posted on Wednesday, April 6, 2005


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Updated: 04-Nov-2010 10:01

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