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When — and whether — our ancestors could vote

It was March 1867, and the Congress of the United States wanted to restore peace and good order to the states that had been in rebellion: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Arkansas.

And so, on March 2, it passed a statute dividing those states into military districts in which military commanders would have the duty “to protect all persons in their rights of person and property, to suppress insurrection, disorder and violence, and to punish, or cause to be punished, all disturbers of the public peace and criminals…”1

But that wasn’t enough. The Congress also wanted civilian governments restored, and that meant having loyal citizens vote for new governments, and — to do that — it wanted a list.

vote-2And so, on March 23, overriding a Presidential veto, it passed a law supplementing the statute it had just passed three weeks earlier. It required “a registration to be made of the male citizens of the United States, twenty-one years of age and upwards, resident in each county or parish in the State or States included …, which registration shall include only those parsons who are qualified to vote…”2

Now any time a list like that is required, it means one thing to a genealogist: records. And in this case wonderful records: records of all adult male voters in the southern states who weren’t disenfranchised by their active insurrection.

For anyone with ancestors in the former Confederate states, the records of these Civil War-era voter registration are a treasure trove.

In Cherokee County, Alabama, William and Lewis Battles registered on August 19, 1867.3

Ages weren’t given, so William could be either my 4th great grandfather or his son, my 3rd great granduncle. Lewis was my 3rd great granduncle.

In Parker County, Texas, on the 31st of July, 1867, my favorite ancestor — my 2nd great grandfather George W. Cottrell — registered to vote, along with his wife’s uncle Charles C. Baker.4 Her brother Josiah Baker didn’t register until 1869.5

George said he was born in Kentucky, had been in Texas 34 years and in Parker County 11 years. Charles said he was born in North Carolina, had been in Texas nine years and in Parker County seven years. Josiah? He said he was born in North Carolina and had been in the state and county 15 years.

I haven’t found my Robertsons yet — they should have been in Lamar County, Texas, by then, but may not have lived there long enough to be qualified to vote there.

There are many more voter registrations than just the Civil War-era lists, of course, and every one of them is a potential goldmine for a genealogist. California’s Great Registers, as one example. (You can find them, digitized, online at Ancestry, with an index online at FamilySearch.) Even Reclaim the Records has gotten into the act, with New York’s voter registrations from 1924 now available on Internet Archive.

Any time you can nail an ancestor’s feet to the floor in a particular location, and get extra information like year or place of birth to boot, it’s a good thing.

So as we ramp up to our own votes here in our own time… don’t forget to look back at the times when they were recording the vote in the past.


  1. “An Act to provide for the more efficient Government of the Rebel States,” 14 Stat. 428, 2 March 1867; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 6 Nov 2016).
  2. Ibid., “An Act supplementary to an Act entitled ‘An Act to provide for the more efficient Government of the Rebel States,’… ” 15 Stat. 2, 23 March 1867.
  3. Cherokee County, Alabama, 1867 Voter Registration Book 1, Precinct 11; digital images, “Alabama, Voter Registration, 1867,” ( : accessed 6 Nov 2016), citing Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records Database, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  4. Parker County, Texas, 1867 Voter Registration, p. 84; digital images, “Texas, Voter Registration Lists, 1867-1869,” ( : accessed 6 Nov 2016), citing 1867 Voter Registration Lists, Microfilm, 12 rolls, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin, Texas.
  5. Ibid., p. 99.
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