Researching Your Appalachian Ancestors

by Sunny McClellan Morton | Mar 20, 2012

Sunny McClellan Morton

The first frontier of the young United States was Appalachia, a rugged region that didn't easily welcome settlers. Those who already lived there resisted invasion. Politics had hampered colonial movement westward. Highland terrain provided perhaps the most imposing barrier of all. Yet Appalachia's rich and beautiful lands were an all-but-irresistible draw for hardy settlers.

What does Appalachian research mean for genealogists? Unique challenges and opportunities. Some traditional genealogical sources are scarce, because early settlement preceded government and other record-keeping institutions like churches and schools. Personal records like diaries and letters can also be hard to find, because folks leading hardscrabble lives without much formal education didn't create or preserve these as frequently. Appalachia tells its story in its own way, often in bounty land and ethnic records, oral histories and other very local sources. You may have to mine the mountains yourselves, so to speak, for some of these resources, but you'll often find rich veins of information about your Appalachian heritage.

Backcountry Backstory

The "Appalachia" appellation describes inland highlands that stretch from New England to the Deep South. All of West Virginia and parts of twelve surrounding states are considered the cultural heart of the region.

In the early 1700s, explorers described the region as laced with towns and trails of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, Shawnee, Creek and other natives. They were gradually and often violently evicted from the region well into the 1800s (ie, the infamous Trail of Tears). Some natives found refuge in the hills and continued to live there for generations. (Melungeons, an Appalachian ancestral group, are commonly described as having a mixed Native American, European, African and possibly Mediterranean ancestry.)

Settlers first came from the nearby colonies, northern England, Germany and the Irish province of Ulster (Scots-Irish). The Great Wagon Road (Philadelphia to Georgia), the Valley Pike (Shenandoah Valley to Roanoke, VA), and the Carolina Road (Roanoke to the Carolina Piedmont) were major migration routes. The Proclamation of 1763 prohibited British colonists from moving west, but that didn't deter newcomers. By the 1770s, the Wilderness Road (which became the Cumberland turnpike) opened a route to the much-desired Kentucky area.

Arable valley land was claimed first throughout Appalachia. But homesteads eventually perched on sharp mountain ridges and hilltop "knobs," and nestled in narrow valley hollows (or "hollers"). The decades before the Civil War saw migration toward southern Appalachia. There was a gold rush in Georgia in the 1830s and relocation from the Carolinas and Virginias from the 1830s-1850s because of economic conditions. During the Civil War, Appalachia was terribly divided, and small-scale guerrilla warfare was common. After the War, laborers poured in to strip the region of its timber and coal. The population increased by a million between 1880 and 1920, many of them poor immigrants and African-Americans.

That trend reversed around the time of World War I, as factory jobs in the Midwest lured Appalachian workers out. At first the outflow was just a trickle. But the Great Depression made things worse in the mountains, and gradually the floodgates opened. In the twenty years after World War II, a million people left Appalachia.

Find Your Folks

When searching for Appalachian ancestors, start with family memories and documents. Then turn to vital records, census returns, and county records like wills and deeds, a variety of which you'll find on When you've exhausted this list, turn to bounty land grants, ethnic resources, oral histories and local miscellany.

Bounty land records exist for veterans who received land grants as payment for military service rendered up through the Mexican War. Veterans applied for these awards; successful applicants were issued warrants. Redeemed warrants--and supporting documentation with military service and inheritance information--became part of individual bounty files, even for soldiers who sold their lands without settling them.

In Appalachia, most military bounty lands were awarded by state governments after the Revolutionary War. Many Appalachian states awarded western lands within their current borders. A few states granted land that would eventually become parts of other states. For example, North Carolina distributed lots in modern-day Tennessee (northeast of Nashville) until that state was formed. Virginia handed out military bounties in what is now Ohio and Kentucky.

Land files (even for rejected applications) still exist in the archives of the states that awarded them. Look under both early land and military records. Digital access to some state bounty records is available; try the Kentucky Land Office and the Library of Virginia . You may want to consult a master index to state awards, Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck.

Ethnic resources. Small immigrant communities thrived in Appalachia in colonial days, but the foreign-born population really picked up after the Civil War. Logging and mining companies recruited workers from parts of Europe where similar work was done (like a certain type of mining). Large numbers of Germans and Welsh came to western Pennsylvania. Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, Greeks, and others scattered across Appalachia. Another ethnic population was the African-American workers who fled Southern life after the Civil War.

Ethnic groups tended to settle in isolated but cohesive communities and neighborhoods. Churches are the first place to look for ethnic records. Scots-Irish ancestors may have been Presbyterian. Germans were often Lutheran, Catholic or Jewish. Baptist and Methodist sects later claimed folks of all ethnicities. Look for church records in the Archives of Appalachia , Southern Appalachian Archives, and regional or religious archives. Then look to published ethnic histories like Welsh Founders of Pennsylvania by Thomas Allen Glenn, Coalfield Jews by Deborah Weiner, or Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee by Bobby L. Lovett and Linda T. Wynn (read it at ). Finally, check with regional or national ethnic genealogical societies for additional resources, including the Melungeon Heritage Association. If you may have Cherokee ancestry, check records of both exiled and "eastern" Cherokee in government censuses, indexes to which appear in Cherokee Roots by Bob Blankenship.

Oral histories and other local miscellany. Appalachia has a rich oral history tradition that historians began capturing in the 1930s. It's a longshot to find an interview with your own ancestor, but stories told by their contemporaries can help you understand your ancestor's daily life. Stories told by someone in the right neighborhood may even include small-town gossip about your family.

Most oral histories are in archives or library collections, like:

Some oral histories have been published, like Voices from the North Carolina Mountains by Lynn Salsi; others appear on websites like The Boom Days of Coal.

Oral histories and other local resources are best researched in-person. The best sources for your ancestor's tiny coal town or logging camp may not be Google-searchable. You may need to dig into dusty photograph collections, store ledgers, a long-dead postmaster's diary, or local industrial collections. Contact town and county genealogical and historical societies and ask what records exist that might mention your [African-American, coal-mining or Presbyterian] ancestor.

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