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Documenting the American South

Southern U.S. research can be… um … challenging.

That’s a good word for amazingly annoyingly hair-pulling-out why-did-my-people-live-where-courthouses-burned frustrating.

DASYesterday The Legal Genealogist got another dose of that frustration. I’m chasing one of my families through North Carolina, and they ended up in Rutherford County. That’s western North Carolina, between Charlotte and Asheville, and the area where they lived is now Cleveland County.1

The court minutes on this family are wonderful. Anything that specifically helps distinguish my guy from everyone else is crucial. Why? Because his name was John Jones.

So seeing the exact dates of every single event in his estate probate carefully recorded in the court minutes is terrific.

Only one problem.

The estate files themselves don’t survive.

There was a fire, see, in 19072… and there’s this very large gap in the estate papers in Rutherford County.

My guy’s early 1800s estate papers? Not there.

This sort of thing happens all the time in southern U.S. research. The records are gone, or they were never created in the first place, or some lightfingered Louie (sometimes wearing a Union uniform) made off with them.


So every single thing we can find to help out is a plus. And oh boy do we with southern U.S. ancestry have one big thing that helps out.

It bills itself as “a digital publishing initiative sponsored by the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”3 And it’s called Documenting the American South or DocSouth for short.

According to the website,

Documenting the American South (DocSouth)… provides access to digitized primary materials that offer Southern perspectives on American history and culture. It supplies teachers, students, and researchers at every educational level with a wide array of titles they can use for reference, studying, teaching, and research.

The texts, images, and other materials come primarily from the premier Southern collections in the libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These original Southern materials can be found in several library locations, including the Southern Historical Collection, one of the largest collections of Southern manuscripts in the country; the North Carolina Collection, the most complete printed documentation of a single state anywhere; the Rare Book Collection, which holds an extensive Southern pamphlet collection; and Davis Library, which offers rich holdings of printed materials on the Southeast.4

The 16 major collections of DocSouth offer an astounding array of resources to researchers. You can find a complete description here on the DocSouth Collections page. Among my personal favorites:

• “The Church in the Southern Black Community” traces the way Southern African Americans adopted and transformed Protestant Christianity into the central institution of community life.

• “The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina” includes documents and materials from throughout the country and from several European repositories covering the earliest days of North Carolina’s settlement by Europeans through the ratification of the United States Constitution.

• “First-Person Narratives of the American South” offers many Southerners’ perspectives on their lives by presenting letters, memoirs, autobiographies and other writings by slaves, laborers, women, aristocrats, soldiers, and officers.

• “North American Slave Narratives” documents the individual and collective story of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

• “Oral Histories of the American South” is a collection of over 500 oral history interviews with a southern focus on a variety of topics, including civil rights, politics, and women’s issues. Interviews can be read in text transcript form, listened to with a media player, or both simultaneously.

• “The Southern Homefront, 1861-1865” presents materials related to Southern life during the Civil War and the challenge of creating a nation state while waging war. This collection includes government documents, personal diaries, religious pamphlets, and many other materials.

There’s so much in each of these collections worth a long leisurely review.

Check it out.

Documenting the American South.

You won’t be sorry that you did!


  1. Cleveland County was formed from Rutherford and Lincoln Counties in 1841. See “North Carolina County Formation,” State Library of North Carolina ( : accessed 12 Nov 2014).
  2. See “Status of Courthouse Records in North Carolina,” North Carolina USGenWeb ( : accessed 12 Nov 2014).
  3. About Documenting the American South,” Documenting the American South ( : accessed 12 Nov 2014).
  4. Ibid.
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