North Carolina: No Longer The "Rip Van Winkle" State When It Comes To Online Genealogy Research

by Diane L. Richard | Jun 20, 2012

Early in its history, North Carolina was considered the "Rip Van Winkle" state. Now, after what has been a concerted effort in the last few years to place historically (and genealogically) significant and relevant resources online, which has resulted in many digital resources, it's at the forefront of Internet genealogy research.

This article outlines the many resources available online for North Carolina, focusing on those specific to the state and several broader databases with a regional focus. There is much much more than will be discussed here - check out the Genweb project, university libraries and their websites, county genealogy society and library websites, etc.

North Carolina State Archives

This is always my first stop. Select resources that you want to make sure and check out are:

  • The Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives: County Records (2002) -- gives an excellent overview of surviving records located at the state archives, organized by county. The newer print version (2009) (available for purchase) also includes mention of CRX records (county records which came to the archives though not directly from the county).
  • The MARS catalog (essentially the catalog of the NC Archives) -- is a listing of types and topics of documents available in the collection and the books located in the research room. It also includes links to digital images of select early colonial documents, Edenton District Superior Court Records, wills covering 1660-1790, along with listings of Revolutionary War Army Accounts, Wills, Land Grants, Civil War Pensions, select cohabitation records and many other records.
  • An Overview of Record Types -- explains the particularities of North Carolina's records. Additionally, you do want to check out the "Container Lists of Selected County Records" which includes select county lists for these types of records: Civil Actions, Coroners' Inquest, Criminal Actions, Divorces, Estates, Guardians, Marriage Licenses, Widows' Support, and Wills
  • There are many other resources, such as collection finding aids and circulars, on topics including Revolutionary War Pay Vouchers, African-American research, colonial records, Civil War research, etc.
  • Services available to out-of-state researchers
  • Microfilm from certain unrestricted collections (typically documents created by state entities and newspapers) can be purchased
  • North Carolina Archives Blog - History for All People

The State Library of North Carolina

  • One of the most important stops to make on your tour of the website is the Government & Heritage Online Catalog. I typically search on a county, church, topic, etc., find a relevant book, copy the first portion of its call number, e.g. 929.3 N8cho [for Chowan County, North Carolina], and re-search using that call number.
  • North Carolina Newspaper Locator (new in 2012) - this easy-to-use resource provides guidance on which newspapers existed and which you might consult for a particular community at a particular time (it is based on the newspapers housed in the Government & Heritage Library)
  • Genealogical Services -- a quick overview of electronic and print resources, and includes information about their email reference service.
  • Government & Heritage Library (GHL) Blog

North Carolina Digital Collections

This is a collection that just keeps getting better and better, larger and larger.

Some of the highlights, from a genealogical research perspective are the following collections:

  • Civil War 150
  • North Carolina Family Records (bible records and published items from 19th century Raleigh newspapers)
  • State Government Publications - a gem in this collection are the laws (public and private) of the NC General Assembly - though this page lists each session chronologically, I do suggest that you use the search function to determine if your family is listed
  • North Carolina Maps [see separate discussion below]
  • North Carolina Newspaper Digitization Project - Over 23,000 digital images of historic (1752-1890s) North Carolina newspapers are keyword searchable. Included are newspapers from cities like Edenton (1787-1801), Fayetteville (1789-1795), Hillsboro (1786), New Bern (1751-1804), Salisbury (1799-1898), and Wilmington (1765-1816).
  • NC WPA Tombstone Transcription Project - this includes information for 97 of 100 counties. This documents pre-1913 headstones and is the basis for the card catalog in the North Carolina Archives research room.

Do know that you can either browse an individual collection or search across "all the collections." Sometimes the latter can overwhelm you with results and it never hurts to try.

North Carolina Maps

As described in the graphic, this is a comprehensive online collection of historic maps for NC ranging in date from the early seventeenth century to the late twentieth century. Starting with the earliest maps through those created for the civil war to soil survey maps to modern maps, you will find them all. I typically browse by location (e.g., county) though you can browse many different ways. When you do browse by location, the maps will be presented chronologically from oldest to newest.

Sometimes, when I am looking at the older maps, from before when many of the counties were created, I will browse maps by date. This allows one to focus on say the maps of the early 1800s when you are considering how your ancestors might have migrated westerly across NC and then out of the state.

Do check out the Historic Overlay Maps feature. Selected maps from the North Carolina Maps project can be viewed as Historic Overlay Maps, layered directly on top of current road maps or satellite images (via Google Maps). By fading or "seeing through" the historic maps, users are able to compare the similarities and differences between old and new maps, and to study the changes in North Carolina over time. Maps for each county are available as well as some "classic" early maps such as A Compleat Map of North-Carolina, 1770 and the First Actual Survey of North Carolina, 1808. Given how challenging it can be to correlate older landmarks on a modern map and vice versa, this feature is one you don't want to miss.

And, speaking of maps, do not forget to check out this collection of North Carolina County Formation Maps. All too often North Carolina researchers get frustrated when they cannot find the records they seek and often it's because they haven't accounted for the fact that the county where the ancestors lived at one time is not the same county where the "land" was located historically.

Digital NC

My favorite elements of this North Carolina digital collection are the collection of North Carolina city directories (including Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Wilmington, Winston-Salem and more), college and university yearbooks from the 1890s to the present, and a collection of student and community newspapers published from Brevard to Elizabeth City.

North Carolina Register of Deeds (ROD) Offices & Their Online Presence

Register of deeds offices are the keepers of land records as well as birth, marriage and death records. Increasingly, more and more RODs are putting material online - whether it's indexes or digital images, you want to check.

I typically just search on the name of the county + ROD and the North Carolina Association Register of Deeds also has a handy map feature where you can click on the county of interest.

Recognize that the online presence of the ROD offices ranges from contact info to indexes to indexes & deeds (e.g. Wake, Chatham) to indexes, deeds & vital records indexes (e.g. Mecklenburg) to more. For example, the Duplin ROD has all the aforementioned records and has also posted cohabitation bonds (created in 1866 to recognize slave era marriage unions when both parties are still alive and consider themselves married) and (coming soon) public officials bonds & oaths.

Regional & Local

These are some regional records collections that you will want to make sure and check out. Use these as a template to search out others.

And, there are a couple of "county" websites which are stellar examples of what happens when in individual or local organization focuses on making local "gem" information available.

When it comes to cemetery records do check out CemeteryCensus - which covers North Carolina and a few Virginia counties/cities.

Additionally, religious collections might have relevance and here are a select few of the ones located in North Carolina. Typically these collections have not placed documents online and their finding aids can be invaluable. Do contact any religious repository before visiting since due to privacy policies you may not be allowed to personally do research at their location.

Since this article only scratches the surface of North Carolina repositories, never mind online collections created by societies, do check out NC ECHO and check out the list of almost 1,000 cultural heritage institutions in North Carolina - you never know where you might find that important record.

So, I think you will agree that North Carolina is no longer the "Rip Van Winkle" state when it comes to online resources for genealogical research.


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