How to Find Your Irish Ancestors

Episode 18 Video and Show Notes

Live show air date: July 23, 2020
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An Irish Genealogy Brick Wall

This week I’m taking you on a bit of my own genealogical journey. It’s that one line of my family that crosses the pond to Ireland with my 2X great grandparents. I first learned about Michael Lynch and Margaret Scully as a child from my maternal grandmother. They were her husband’s (my grandfather’s) grandparents. She didn’t know much about them.

Margaret Scully of Limerick Ireland

Margaret Scully born in Limerick Ireland 1840


Michael Lynch

Michael Lynch born in Ireland in 1818

In 2000 I got an opportunity to sit down with my grandfather’s sister – the historian of that generation of the family – and ask her about them. She was nearly 90 years old at the time, and she told me the family lore that Margaret was supposedly from a more well-to-do family, and Michael was not.

Aunt Bea in 1937

Aunt Bea in 1937

“He was a groom. And they eloped. I don’t know where they came in. I don’t know which port, but I think it was Canada.”

A few years later after Aunt Bea’s passing I got in touch with some distant Lynch cousins through a bit of online genealogical research. They were descended from Ellen’s siblings who had stayed in the area where the Lynch family had lived (Western Wisconsin and Eastern Minnesota).

These distant cousins supplied with a few more pieces of the puzzle.

  • They mentioned Kildysart, though my notes are unclear whether that was the possible location for Michael or Margaret.
  • There had some sketchy parents’ names through family lore and Margaret’s death certificate.
  • Margaret’s parents were supposedly James Lynch and Bridget Madigan.
  • Michael’s were possibly Michael Lynch and Johanna Healy but no evidence was provided.

I searched extensively several years ago but was unable to find a passenger list record. I did find the family in East Farmington, Wisconsin. where Michael purchased land and ran a dairy farm.

East Farmington Wisconsin History postcard

East Farmington Wisconsin postcard

My research questions were:
Who were the parents of Margaret Scully born in Limerick Ireland on approximately July 9, 1840? Where in Ireland was she born?

My Aunt Bea said Margaret was from county Cork. This was based on her conversations with her mother Ellen. However, Ellen left Wisconsin as a young woman and lived her adult live in California, far from her family.

The Wisconsin cousins were sure Margaret was from Limerick. They believed Michael was from Cork. Considering that their parents had known Margaret well, I put more stock in their information.

Then the cousins produced Margaret’s obituary from Fargo ND where she died a widow living with her son John in 1929. I clearly stated she was born in Limerick. I became even more confident that Limerick was the place to focus.

A secondary question which would be a bonus was ‘where were Michael and Margaret married?’ Was it true that they had eloped in Ireland and came to America via Canada as my aunt had said? And did any of her brothers and sisters come to America as well?

I’m not an expert in Irish genealogy. I have interviewed a few experts over the years, so you might think I would have jumped right into this Irish research. Instead, I found it a bit daunting.

So, earlier this month, I sat down for a 45 minute consultation with Kate Eakman. She’s a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists specializing in Irish research among other areas.

Kate Eakman, professional genealogist

My consultant: Professional Genealogists Kate Eakman

These 45-minute consultations are designed to evaluate what you have, and kick start or restart your research.

As a seasoned genealogist, I want to do the research myself. This short focused consultation was perfect for helping me move forward with confidence.

Before we discuss the path we followed in the consultation, let’s talk a moment about how to prepare for a genealogical consultation.

Preparing for a Consultation with a Professional Genealogist

There are three things you can do ahead of time to help a professional genealogist help you.

1. Be clear what you want to accomplish.

It’s only 45 minutes, so one clearly defined research question is best. Avoid “I just want to find whatever is available”. It needs to be a specific question.

I wanted to specifically find out who Margaret’s parents were which I expected would also tell me where she was born.

2. Gather what you already have in advance.

I didn’t have much, but I made every effort to distill the known facts down in a list. I then added all source information I had for those items.

To get the most from a consultation it is important to not only share what you have but the strength of the source. Many of my sources were family lore. These rank low on reliability. The death certificate my cousin sent me ranked higher.

Remember time is limited and costs money, so don’t bog the genealogist down with EVERYTHING you have. Focus on the items that a relevant to the question.  

3. Briefly jot down what you’ve done so far.

You may have tried research avenues that were fruitless in the past. You definitely don’t want to spend precious time in the consultation going back over those. Making a list of what you did, and the outcome clears the way for your consultation time to be spent on new strategies.

A Consultation with a Professional Genealogist

My consultation in this episode of Elevenses with Lisa is focused on Irish research. You will see us using many of the most valuable online resources available.

But if you don’t have Irish ancestors, I encourage you to listen carefully to the process. The questions she asks, and her approach to finding answers. You may be pleasantly surprised to hear some things that can translate to your research process.

Irish Genealogy Websites

Searching at ($)

They have:

  • Baptisms
  • Marriage
  • Burial / Death
  • Census
  • Gravestone Inscriptions
  • Griffith’s Valuation
  • Irish Ship Passenger Lists
  • Census Substitutes


  • Search by name and birth year (+/- 5 years)
  • Narrow by county
  • The records will list the parents.

Online Research Tip: Right-click on each results to open in a new tab.

More Strategies:

  • If no results, revise your search to go broader.
  • Look at sponsor names as well.
  • Use maps to see where places are located and their relationship to each other.

Griffith’s Valuation at Ask About Ireland


Click Griffith’s Valuation or go directly to

From the website: “The Primary Valuation was the first full-scale valuation of property in Ireland. It was overseen by Richard Griffith and published between 1847 and 1864. It is one of the most important surviving 19th century genealogical sources.”

The value of family stories

“These family stories always have some kernel of truth to them, even if they seem outlandish. There’s something that’s true. Her parents were wealthy, or he was a groom, even if it wasn’t this falling in love with a groom and running away and getting married.” – Kate Eakman

More Strategies

  1. Spend some time looking for children of the suspected parents (James Scully and Bridget Madigan)
  2. Children may have been baptized as “girl” or “infant.” Look for these while searching.

National Library of Ireland (NLI) Parish Registers

After finding the parents James Scully and Bridget Madigan, the next step was to look for parish registers at the National Library of Ireland.  Search parish registers by clicking on Family History Research > Visit Catholic Parish Records. They are not indexed by name. You have to know who you’re looking for and where. But if you have an idea of the parish, you can enter that. Choose Baptism and the year and month in known. 

If you are not sure about the name of the location, search for it at the NLI to see if their system recognizes it or suggests a slightly different spelling.

We then headed back to to look for marriage records.


Click Civil Records

From the website: “All civil marriage records from 1845 to 1944 are now available online to members of the public, along with the release online of birth register records for 1919 and death register records for 1969.  Over 15.5 million register records are now available to the public to view and research online on the website. The records now available online include:  Birth register records – 1864 to 1919; Marriage register records – 1845 to 1944 &  Death register records – 1878 to 1969.”

  • Kate likes to sort results by date.
  • First and last name won’t always be together in the results.

Searching for Records in North America

Kate and I dug for and discussed U.S. records that might lend more information that could help with the search in Ireland such as:

  • Marriage Records
  • Passenger Lists
  • Military Records
  • Documents relating to his work as a civil servant

Researching forward (known as Reverse Genealogy) could lead to collaboration with more cousins and the discover of letters or other helpful items.

Canadian Passenger Lists at the Library and Archives Canada

Action Items for My Irish Genealogy Research

My consultation with a professional genealogist specializing in Irish research left me newly found records and the confidence to continue exploring Irish records. I also had in hand a list of steps I could take to move forward:

  • Compile a list of all of James and Bridget Scully’s children.
  • Find birth, marriages and deaths for the children.
  • Look for siblings in America (start with Farmington, Wisconsin area)
  • Research the sponsors of the baptisms
  • Conduct a browsing search of the Parish Records for a baptism that lines up with Margaret Scully’s known birth.

More Irish Genealogy Websites

Irish Ancestors by John Grenham

Check this web site to confirm what’s available before you start searching more in Ireland. I searched for Kildysart and found it here!

Our Finds During this Genealogy Consultation

I was very satisfied with the progress we made in just 45 minutes!

  • A good candidate for James Scully in Griffith’s Valuation
  • James and Bridget Scully’s marriage record at Roots Ireland
  • James and Bridget Scully’s original marriage record at the National Library of Ireland
  • Baptisms for seven of the couple’s children.
  • A large gap where Margaret’s birth would have been.
  • We found Kildysart in county Clare. (I’m still not sure where that fits in by I now suspect the place is associated with Michael Lynch and not Margaret Scully.)

Postscript to My Consultation with a Professional Genealogist

I was so encouraged by our research session, that I combed back through the papers I had collected over decades in my Lynch binder. There I found a death date for Michael Lynch given to me by one of the distant cousins. The place of death was Stillwater, Minnesota.

A quick look at a map revealed that Stillwater, Minnesota was just 21 miles down and west across the Saint Croix River from East Farmington, Wisconsin.

On a hunch I did some digging and I discovered that Michael and Margaret were married at St Michael’s church in Stillwater, MN!

Marriage Certificate

Marriage Question Solved!

Book a 45-Minute Consultation with a Professional Genealogist

Thank you to Kate Eakman of Legacy Tree Genealogists for sharing her expertise and helping me make significant progress on my genealogical brick wall!

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Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 240 Evidence & Proof, Organization and DNA

The Genealogy Gems Podcast is the leading genealogy and family history show. Launched in 2007, the show is hosted by genealogy author, keynote presenter, and video producer Lisa Louise Cooke. The podcast features genealogy news, interviews, stories and how-to instruction. It can be found in all major podcasting directories, or download the exclusive Genealogy Gems Podcast app to listen to all the episodes and receive bonus content.

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Podcast host: Lisa Louise Cooke
April 2020
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In this episode you’ll hear from genealogy experts on genealogical evidence & Proof, DNA, and organization. 

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Elevenses with Lisa is the new online video series by author and international genealogy speaker and host of The Genealogy Gems Podcast, Lisa Louise Cooke. Tune in live or watch on your own schedule.


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  • Organization: It’s not a project, it’s a system.
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Lisa Lisson and Lisa Louise Cooke at RootsTech 2020

Lisa Lisson and Lisa Louise Cooke at RootsTech 2020

Lisa Louise Cooke’s Tip:

  • Put the year in the file name first. It automatically puts your files in chronological order. (Genealogy Gems Premium Members can learn how to implement Lisa’s entire computer filing system by watching the Premium videos Hard Drive Organization Parts 1 & 2.)
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Andrew Lee and Lisa Louise Cooke with a lucky winner at RootsTech 2020

Andrew Lee and Lisa Louise Cooke with a lucky winner at RootsTech 2020

GEM: Evidence & Proof with Kate Eakman

Kate Eakman Legacy Tree GenealogistsThe Genealogical Proof Standard tells us that we need to conduct reasonably exhaustive research in order for our work to be credible. If you’ve ever wondered just what constitutes “reasonable” (and if your family tree is up to snuff) my guest author Kate Eakman, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists, has answers.  

Read Kate’s article Genealogical Evidence and Proof: How to know if you’ve compiled enough evidence at the Genealogy Gems blog.

45 Minute Online Genealogy Consultations: Sometimes the wrong evidence or assumptions can push us into a brick wall. A fresh set of expert eyes can help you identify the problem and recommend the sources you need to pursue in order to compile trustworthy evidence.

If you are looking for some assistance in your genealogical research, Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. Our affordable ($100 USD)  Genealogist-on-DemandTM Virtual Consultation service provides you with the opportunity for a 45 minute one-on-one discussion of your research with one of our expert genealogists. We can help guide you in evaluating evidence and determining research strategies to move forward with your research confidently. 



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Genealogical Evidence and Proof: How to know if you’ve compiled enough evidence

The Genealogical Proof Standard tells us that we need to conduct reasonably exhaustive research in order for our work to be credible. If you’ve ever wondered just what constitutes “reasonable” (and if your family tree is up to snuff) my guest author Kate Eakman, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists, has answers.  

genealogical evidence and proof

Professional Genealogist Kate Eakman explains evidence on the Genealogy Gems blog.

Genealogical Evidence: Have You Got What It Takes?

How do we know when we have compiled enough evidence to constitute proof?

Is a birth certificate or an autosomal DNA test result sufficient to declare this person is the child of that person?

Must we collect every record regarding an individual – the deeds, the tax lists, the newspaper clippings, the census reports – before we can declare a familial connection?

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)

The Genealogy Proof Standard (GPS) directs us to perform reasonably exhaustive research, which requires that we identify and review all available records related to an individual.[1] This is being as thorough and accurate as possible and is a goal toward which we should all aspire in our genealogical research.

But, let’s be honest: most of us do not want to spend weeks or months (or even years) documenting one person before moving on to the next individual. We don’t want to know every detail of grandpa’s life before we turn to grandma.

We want to build a family tree which accurately provides us with the names of our ancestors so that we can identify our immigrant ancestor, or join a lineage society, or enjoy the satisfaction that comes from a balanced tree extending back a hundred years or more.

We want to be thorough and accurate, but we also want to make some progress. How do we balance the need for accuracy with the desire for results? How do we determine the necessary quality and quantity of evidence for our research?

Below are some guidelines to demonstrate how we can go about compiling the necessary information to say with confidence “this person is my ancestor.”

Genealogical Evidence Guidelines

1. One record/source is never enough.

Any one piece of data can say anything. A mother might lie on her child’s birth certificate for a number of reasons. A grieving spouse might not correctly recall the information for a husband or wife’s death certificate. There are typos and omissions and messy handwriting with which to contend. Even a lone DNA test is not sufficient evidence to prove a family connection.

We need multiple sources, and different kinds of sources, which corroborate the details of the others.

marriage license genealogy

A single source is not enough. A marriage license does not guarantee that John and Griselda married. Photo courtesy

A census report and autosomal DNA test results.

A deed and a will.

A birth certificate and an obituary.

Or, better still, a birth certificate, a census report, a deed, a will, an obituary, and autosomal DNA test results.

2. The more contemporary the source is to the person or event in question, the better.

Records of events made immediately after the event tend to be more accurate, and provide better details, than records created months or years later. As time passes, details become fuzzy, two events can be confused with each other, and our memories fade.

The passage of time between an event and the record of the event also allows for some revisionist history to creep in.

Here are some examples:

A birth year is adjusted to make someone appear older or younger in order to avoid the draft, enlist in the military, mask a dramatic age difference between spouses, or conceal an out-of-wedlock birth.

An obituary ignores the deceased’s first marriage because of some embarrassment associated with that marriage.

A census report enumerates everyone in the household as natives of Stepney, London, when they really were born in Stepney, and Hackney, and Whitechapel, which explains why the baptismal records can’t be found in Stepney.

newspaper obituary

According to this obituary for Griselda, she was the widow of Willis Tenney, not John Wise. It appears Griselda and John did not marry after all. Photo courtesy

According to this obituary for Griselda, she was the widow of Willis Tenney, not John Wise. It appears Griselda and John did not marry after all. Photo courtesy

This is particularly true when it comes to autosomal DNA testing. My autosomal DNA is more useful for identifying my ancestors than is my son’s because I am one generation closer to those ancestors. This is the reason we encourage people to test the oldest members of their family first: their DNA has the potential to be the most useful simply because they are from an earlier generation (or two).

3. It is okay to make appropriate assumptions, but be careful!

In genealogical research we must sometimes make assumptions. When research theories are based on logical reasoning, it is perfectly acceptable to make those appropriate suppositions.

Determining which assumptions are appropriate can be simple: the two-year-old child enumerated in the home of a 90-year-old woman in the 1850 census can safely be eliminated as a biological child of that woman; the man born in 1745 could not have been buried in 1739; the person with whom I share 3150 cM of DNA is my sibling.

The challenge is to avoid making what seems like an appropriate assumption but is really based on faulty reasoning or bias. For instance, we presume that every child listed in a household in the 1860 U.S. Census is son or daughter of the two adults listed first. However, the household could include step-children, cousins, or individuals not even related to the family who were erroneously assigned the same surname.

Other inappropriate assumptions can include:

  • the notion that a baby was born within a week of his baptismal date;
  • a woman’s reported surname on her marriage certificate is her maiden name;
  • there is only one person in any village, town, or city with the name of your ancestor;
  • someone who shares 2000 cM of DNA with you must be your grandparent, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, half sibling, or grandchild (they could be a ¾ sibling, the child of one of your parents and the sibling of the other parent).

4. All of the data from the various sources must correlate, and there can be no unresolved contradictions.

When the birth certificate says Richard was born in 1914, the 1938 newspaper article about his wedding reports Richard was 24 years old and the 1942 World War II Draft Registration card notes Richard’s date of birth occurred in 1914, we can confidently declare Richard was born in 1914.

If the wedding article declared the groom was 23 years old the contradiction could be explained by the time of year in which the wedding occurred – before or after Richard’s birthday.

But if his birth certificate reported a 1914 birth, and the newspaper article noted Richard was 32 years old, while the World War II Draft Registration listed his year of birth as 1920, we have some important contradictions. It is most likely the records are for three different men with the same name.

genealogy record Tenney


additional genealogical evidence

By collecting additional evidence, we finally learn that Griselda and John Wise did marry, and after his death Griselda married Willis Tenney. If we had collected only one of these four records we would not have had the most accurate information regarding Griselda Paul. Photos courtesy

It’s important to remember that once we have accomplished that initial goal of building out our tree a few generations (or identifying our immigrant ancestor, or determining if we are related to that historical person) we can – and should – go back and collect other sources related to that person. This will result in uncovering a more complete story of their lives in the process.

As we can see from the four documents regarding Griselda Paul’s marriages, her story is much more than a simple list of birth, marriage, and death dates. As we identify, review, and analyze the other available sources, Griselda’s story will come alive with the facts and details we uncover.

A Fresh Set of Eyes on Your Genealogy Brick Wall

Sometimes the wrong evidence or assumptions can push us into a brick wall. A fresh set of expert eyes can help you identify the problem, and recommend the sources you need to pursue in order to compile trustworthy evidence.

If you are looking for some assistance in your genealogical research, Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. Our affordable ($100 USD)  Genealogist-on-DemandTM Virtual Consultation service provides you with the opportunity for a 45 minute one-on-one discussion of your research with one of our expert genealogists. We can help guide you in evaluating evidence and determining research strategies to move forward with your research confidently. 




About the Author: Kate Eckman

Legacy Tree guest blogger Kate Eakman grew up hearing Civil War stories at her father’s knee and fell in love with history and genealogy at an early age. With a master’s degree in history and over 20 years experience as a genealogist, Kate has worked her magic on hundreds of family trees and narratives.

Kate Eakman Legacy Tree Genealogists

Professional Genealogists Kate Eakman


[1] “Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS),” Board for Certification of Genealogists,, accessed March 2020.

Favorite Resources for Finding Colonial Ancestors Online

Colonial ancestors pose a unique challenge to the genealogist in that they often appear in many online family trees, but those trees frequently lack sufficient documentation. Eliminating the purely speculative and identifying verified relationships and accurate data is the goal. Here are three of our favorite online resources for finding colonial ancestors.

Thanks to Bob Call and the experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists for this guest post!


The fantastic subscription-based website,, is the creation of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. NEHGS was founded in 1845 and is the oldest genealogical society in the United States. As such, they have had nearly two centuries to gather and preserve materials pertinent to family history. According to their “about” page, presents “more than 1.4 billion records spanning twenty-two countries” and is “one of the most extensive online collections of early American genealogical records.”

Of the 435 databases hosted on, 286 are focused on pre-1800 records. These databases include vital records, censuses, migration, bible, cemetery, tax, voter, property, probate, court, and military records as well as family histories, local histories, biographies, reference material, and periodicals. Searching these records is easy with the “Search All Databases” page, which allows the user to add a variety of search terms—names, years, record types, locations, keywords, and additional family members. With so many record types available to the genealogist, the databases at are a must for colonial family history research.

Besides research databases, offers access to a number of other helpful services. Two of these services are the Digital Collections and the Library Catalog both of which are portals to the extensive collections housed at the NEHGS library in Boston, Massachusetts. When searching the Digital Collections webpage the family historian will find personal family papers such as photographs, diaries, and letters as well as records created by non-family entities like organization and business records and newspapers. The Digital Collections section of the website also has a focus on the history of the Jewish community in the Boston area and offers material helpful to both the historian and genealogist.

The Library Catalog gives the family historian the ability to begin their research of NEHGS’s extensive collections at home. Of course, a catalog is different than a database in that a catalog lists the titles of the library’s holdings and not every name mentioned within each item. However, if planning a trip to NEHGS to conduct research, it would be wise to have a starting point for your research—that way you can hit the ground running and make the most of your time at the library itself. Use the catalog by searching family surnames and ancestral residences to find books, manuscripts, or photographs that may be beneficial to your research.

2. Digitized Books

Our experience reveals that many online trees presenting colonial American ancestries are based upon genealogies published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (although the online trees themselves frequently do not cite the published genealogies). Genealogies published in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century are not always accurate and rarely included extensive citations supporting each statement of fact as contemporary genealogies should, but they can still be helpful. These genealogies occasionally referenced original sources (such as wills or deeds) or made blanket statements about what type of records were used (like family correspondence or county records).

Additionally, the printed genealogies provide a clearer picture of what previous generations believed about their genealogy before the advent of the internet, which escalated confused and inaccurate pedigrees because of the ease of data sharing and a general lack of quality control. Thus, published genealogies can provide important clues about colonial American families. Accessing these published genealogies was much more difficult just a few years ago, but thanks to websites like and Google Books many can be viewed right at home. These organizations have taken the time to digitize genealogies which are now in the public domain due to copyright laws.

3. The FamilySearch Catalog

One underutilized resource on is the FamilySearch Catalog (formerly known as the Family History Library Catalog). This tool inventories all of the holdings at the massive Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. A majority of the holdings at the Family History Library are on microfilm, which FamilySearch plans to digitize by 2020. While some of these digitized microfilms have been organized into databases available through FamilySearch’s “Historical Records” portion of the website, many are only found listed as microfilm in the FamilySearch Catalog. In other words, there may be a collection of digitized microfilms that can only be viewed online by clicking on the link in the FamilySearch Catalog and will not be found in a “Historical Records” database.

So what does this mean for researching colonial American ancestors? There are two record types in particular where the FamilySearch Catalog becomes exceptionally beneficial to colonial research—property and probate records. These record types are useful because they can prove, through both direct and indirect evidence, family relationships in times or places where other documents (like vital records and census) are lacking. However, because property and probate records are difficult to index there are fewer databases in FamilySearch’s “Historical Records” which focus on them. This is where the FamilySearch Catalog comes in; many microfilms of probate and property records have been digitized and are accessed in the catalog. These high-quality digital images—often of better quality than the microfilm itself—can be clicked through in search of an ancestor’s property or probate records.

Here’s an extra tip: Some of the probate records that have been digitized in the FamilySearch Catalog can only be viewed at the Family History Library or a Family History Center—due to agreements the Family History Library has with the original agencies, the images are locked and cannot be accessed at home. If you can’t make it to your local Family History Center, one workaround is checking to see if that database has the probate records in question. Ancestry’s probate databases include a searchable index, but these indexes are very incomplete and it is best to browse through the images.

Using these resources and many others, our team at Legacy Tree Genealogists has assisted many with their Colonial American research problems and would be glad to assist in discovering your Colonial ancestors as well.

Bob Call is a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. Whether you’ve got colonial ancestors or ancestors all over the world, you can get expert research help and access to records otherwise unavailable when you partner with Legacy Tree Genealogists. Visit their website to learn more and get a free consultation!

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Three Southern Genealogy Record Types You Should Be Using

Researching your U.S. ancestors from the South can lead to frustrating brick walls. Isolation, the Civil War, and natural disasters are all playing a role in the shortage of records. But finding your Southern kin doesn’t have to be impossible.

The experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists are serving up 3 distinct record types you should be looking for to find these elusive missing folks in your family tree. 

Thanks to Legacy Tree Genealogists for this guest post! Learn more about them below.

Pre-1850 Southern Genealogy Records

Doing research in the United States pre-1850 can be challenging anywhere. The colonial and early federal period across the nation generally affords genealogists fewer record types with much less biographical information and variety than later eras. But the South is notoriously even harder to research than other parts of the country.


This is the case for a couple of reasons. First, the South has always been far more agrarian, isolated, and independent in nature than its northern counterpart. Thus, there were few cities and almost none of the vital record-keeping that occurred in New England, for example. With such great distance between communities, it could also be expensive and time-consuming to travel just for the purpose of recording an event like a marriage. In some cases, young couples simply relied on the circuit-riding minister to come around and didn’t bother to register their wedding with the civil authorities. In some areas within Catholic French Louisiana, parish priests were so sparse that they would only get a visit from their religious leader every decade or so!

The second – and perhaps most impactful – reason for the dearth of Southern records is the high rate of disaster and destruction, both natural and man-made. Floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, humidity, and insects could erase a courthouse or church’s collection in no time. Then there’s the Civil War and other frontier conflicts. The South sustained a much higher rate of devastation as a result of the war than the North did, and its records often paid the price.

These are important facts to keep in mind when researching Southern ancestors. However, though these things make it more difficult, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Most people who have performed any substantial Southern research are aware that you must rely heavily on records such as land, tax, and probate. Additionally, mysteries are most likely to be solved by stacking pieces of indirect evidence. Seldom is there a “smoking gun” answering that brick wall question.

Although most are not yet fully online and are rarely indexed, those land, tax, and other records are usually accessible on microfilm at the Family History Library, or they can be searched onsite at the location where they are housed. But what do you do when even those hours at the microfilm reader poring over land transactions in Georgia still doesn’t yield the answer? Consider that you may not have actually searched everything! In many cases, the answer lies within the court system.

3 Southern Genealogy Records

There are three particular key court-created records that are not yet as easily available for most Southern areas. They are not online, and sometimes not even held in the Family History Library’s vast collections. In fact, they tend to be still gathering dust on a courthouse shelf in the county of your ancestors, requiring an old-school phone call to the local clerk – or perhaps hiring an onsite genealogist to perform a lookup (which is something Legacy Tree Genealogists can help you with).

Civil and Criminal Case records

Civil and criminal court case records can be quite beneficial should your ancestor ever have had his day in court – and many did. Property disputes, lawsuits, guardianship, appointments to government office, and licenses for various activities are just some of the varied types of legal documents to be found.

If you’re new to court records, visit the FamilySearch Wiki’s United States Court Records page to learn more about them. Then, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the state where you wish to research. You’ll be taken to the web page devoted to court records in that state which will include the history of these records in that state, and helpful links.

Certain Probate Documents

True, sometimes administrations, inventories, and partitions of property can be found online or in the Family History Library, but not always. The biggest focus is typically on wills, but many of our ancestors did not leave one of those fortunate documents. What is not always commonly known is that just because there isn’t a will doesn’t mean that there is no record of the division of a person’s estate. These probate documents can name relatives, neighbors, minor children, and creditors; they’ll allow you to narrow down the date of death for the ancestor, and to gain insight into his or her financial affairs and socioeconomic status. Learn more about probate records from this article by Margaret Linford.

Divorce records

Divorce was rare in early U.S. history, particularly in the South, but that doesn’t mean that it never happened, and we must always be careful to exercise caution in assuming that the end of a marriage was always caused by death. Though marriage records are easily accessible in most places, divorce proceedings have not followed suit. But in a region and era with so few opportunities for finding exact dates and whole family units, divorce records can be a goldmine. Their level of specificity can vary from place to place, but most will at least give the original date of marriage, name of the parties involved, and any children or property to be decided upon. We report recently on a newly available collection of North Carolina divorce records in this article.

Digging Deeper into Southern Genealogy

Good genealogists do their best to perform reasonably exhaustive searches. In the case of Southern brick wall problems, don’t be afraid to dig deeper and expend a little more effort in less-accessible records. It usually won’t be quick or easy but let the potential reward of solving the seemingly unsolvable puzzle serve as motivation!


Getting Professional Genealogy Assistance

Exclusive Offer for Genealogy Gems readers: Receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100. If you are interested in searching for your ancestors in hard-to-reach court documents, consider allowing Legacy Tree Genealogists’ staff of experienced researchers help you. Legacy Tree Genealogists is the world’s highest client-rated genealogy research firm.

Lacey Cooke

Lacey Cooke

Lacey has been working with Genealogy Gems since the company’s inception in 2007. Now, as the full-time manager of Genealogy Gems, she creates the free weekly newsletter, writes blogs, coordinates live events, and collaborates on new product development. No stranger to working with dead people, Lacey holds a degree in Forensic Anthropology, and is passionate about criminal justice and investigative techniques. She is the proud dog mom of Renly the corgi.

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