Getting From Alabama To North Carolina Can Be Challenging, Satisfying, and Successful!

by Diane L. Richard | Jul 12, 2012

Diane L. Richard

What if you only know "born North Carolina" from the Census? Is it possible to figure out where in North Carolina? This is one of the frequent questions that I am asked in my role as a professional genealogist. Feel free though to substitute any other state into the question. With the 1850 census as the first census that provided the names of all of those in a household as well as age and birthplace, this is often the first clue to where ones ancestors were born and often it's NOT where they are found living!

Given that most state records are organized and often retained on a county level, it is often not feasible, as in North Carolina, to search through the records of all 100 counties to find someone.

Does this mean that it's hopeless to try to learn "where" in North Carolina someone came from? No! Though, it will take perseverance and you might have to "rely" on some serendipity to be successful in such an endeavor.

First, let's talk about what our "general" research game plan might be to solve this particular issue. Then we'll look at an example of a "success!"

  1. Learn everything you can about your ancestor after he left xx. Too often, there is a gap in what is known between when this person is documented in a locale, in say Alabama, and when he could have entered the state from say North Carolina or possibly from an intermediate stop, possibly in Tennessee. These details are important. You MUST look further than census, vital records and probate-related documents.
  2. Create a timeline/matrix summarizing "everything" you know about your ancestor. Do explicitly note possible extended family, friends, associates and neighbors. Below is an example of one format that I like to use for this - in this case, Mahoney is the target family.
  3. Identify other individuals, also born in xx, who seem to be in the same community, consistently, especially in the earliest records. Maybe they are extended family or neighbors who likewise migrated at the same time from the same place. Look at the in-laws, especially if the spouse was born in the same state.
  4. Look for community-focused biographies & histories for the family members; they sometimes provide a basic timeline for a family.
  5. Did the ancestor serve in the military and/or apply for a pension? This paperwork does sometimes list birth places, siblings, marriage date and place, surviving children and spouses, etc.
  6. Does there appear to be a family "trade" involved? Can that thread be followed through the census, apprentice documents, etc?
  7. DNA testing is something to also. Genetic matches can sometimes "help" narrow where your ancestors may have lived. BEWARE though that all too often DNA results match a "different" surname. Only do this if you are "prepared" for such an outcome.
  8. Understand the migration patterns & routes that might have come into play for your ancestors.
  9. Where is the family buried? Are they buried with another family? Could they have migrated with them? In Missouri, the Andrews family was buried in the Earney Family Cemetery which led to locating the Andrews family ancestors in Lincoln County (North Carolina).
  10. Is your ancestor connected strongly to a particular faith and/or ethnic group (e.g., Scottish and so Presbyterian, Finnish and so Lutheran, French and so Catholic, etc)? If so, check into church records & archives for the same "faith" in the birth state.
  11. Along the same lines, tracking "ethnic" newspapers can sometimes be helpful. The Growth of Newspapers Across the US; 1690-2011 (Stanford University) is a great tool for identifying what US newspapers existed and in what language. Additionally, census demographic information can also provide context, through time, where a particular ethnic group may have resided.
  12. Research what others have done to "solve" brickwall problems. It only takes one valuable suggestion of a new technique or a previously unknown-to-you record group to help you "smash" what was previously a brickwall!
  13. If you have exhausted the records where the migrant moved and are absolutely desperate, determine which counties in the target state had large or changing (in terms of migrating out) populations with the same surname - prioritize these and just start researching!

Now, let's look at an example of where we successfully learned "where" in North Carolina someone's family came from. Recognize that only a "few" highlights are shared here. Much, much more research than is reported here was performed!

Case Study

Provided information for Marshall James (possibly born c1809 North Carolina)

  • Census records - 1860 Federal census (Fayette County, Alabama), 1866 Alabama (Fayette County, Alabama), 1870 Federal census (Monroe County, Arkansas)
  • Land records in Fayette County, Alabama - a purchase on 7 May 1849

The research objective: Trace paternal James line to North Carolina and other locations if possible in the years prior to 1840.

Doing The Research ...

Below is an edited version of the research sequence. The first focus was for "low hanging fruit" followed by delving into the harder-to-research and/or harder-to-access records ...

  1. Fill in the gaps in the census records. The 1850 census shows Marshall James in Fayette County, Alabama with a wife Mary. This census shows that all of the family was born in North Carolina though this conflicts with the 1860 census where the parents are listed as North Carolina-born and the younger children (John and Selena) are listed as Alabama-born.


    • The census records suggest that the earliest that the family arrived in Alabama was probably ~ 1845.
    • Marshall and Mary are consistently listed as born North Carolina
  2. Military Records were looked into.

    • A service record was found for widow of son, Thomas J James, Co A, 19th Alabama infantry
    • Alabama Pension No 20461 had no details about birth place of son, Thomas.
  3. Pursued will, estate et al records for Marshall James, Monroe County, Arkansas - no file found
  4. Looked at other North Carolina-born individuals living in Fayette County, Alabama in 1850 and discovered that there were quite a few!

    • Looked at a few contemporaries of Marshall to see if I could quickly learn "purported" birthplaces - North Carolina birth places mentions included Rutherford, Anson, and Buncombe Counties.
    • Did not pursue further at this time.
  5. Revisited Fayette County records -- looked at court records, bonds, and Baptist church records - no relevant records found.

Essentially, at this juncture, there was nothing found to link Marshall James back to a specific location in North Carolina, nor to link his North Carolina-born neighbors to him (besides the coincidence of birth state).

Next up - the in-laws! It was suggested that Marshall's wife was the daughter of Hardaway (aka Hardy) Harton. Though we found no "direct" connection in Alabama records between the James and Harton families, we decided to "pull that thread" further by just focusing on Hardy Harton and family as "if" he was Marshall's father-in-law. What did we learn?

  1. Hardy died 1839 in Anson County, North Carolina
  2. His will (Will Book B, Page 90) mentions land in Alabama and daughters Sally Holly, Mary James & Martha Poe, etc.
  3. Census research revealed his widow & sons in Fayette County, Alabama in the 1840 census.
  4. Besides Anson County NC, his will was also probated in Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- a county adjacent to Fayette.

It's clear that the purported in-laws, the Hartons, lived in Anson County, North Carolina through the death of the Hardy Harton in 1838 and then migrated to Fayette County, Alabama where the family already had land.

With this information, it made sense to look into the records of Anson County for the James family. Do recognize that Anson is a "burnt" county and though the record losses challenged us, they did not defeat us.

  • Will & Estate records - no mention of Marshall James
  • Deed index - entries for Marshall James!
    • Marshall purchases land 8 Nov 1832 from James Jenkins on east side Mill creek, witnessed by Reuben James
    • Marshall James, along with John Harton witnesses a sale of land, 2 Jan 1839 from Hardy Harton

These, other land entries (see grantee index with notes below), and other records tell us that there is a Marshall James found in the records of Anson County, that he witnessed deeds by the Harton family and that both he and the Harton family seemed to "sell off" their Anson county land holdings c. 1838/1839.

Combining the above information with other extant Anson County records, the timing of "when" Marshall shows up in Alabama, his wife being named Mary, that the will of Hardy Harton (probated in both Anson, North Carolina & Tuscaloosa, Alabama) mentions a daughter Mary James, that the surviving Harton family members all move to Fayette County, Alabama by 1840, etc, provide strong evidence that "the" Marshall James found in Anson County, North Carolina is one and the same as the Marshall James found in Fayette County. Not an airtight case and a strong one.

The James family was then pursued in the records of Anson and a successor county, Union, and there is again strong evidence, though no proof, that the father of Marshall James is Reuben Henry James, his mother was Delila and he had siblings Jordan, James L., John L., Selina and Julia. More research is needed to "cement" these connections and then see if we can prove that Henry James "is" Reuben's father.


Research into Marshall James in Alabama was less than fruitful when it came to "connecting" him to any family or close associates and neighbors. Pursuing his in-laws ended up being the "key" to placing him back in North Carolina, in Anson County.

This illustrates that it is possible to research an "unknown birth place" by using what information you have, filling in all possible details on your target person/family in the time period when found and when they could have migrated, and examining the details of other individuals living in the "neighborhood" and born in a comparable time period in the same place. In this case, it was the in-laws which provided the information needed to get back to North Carolina. Of course, now we are faced with the records of a burnt "North Carolina" county and creating a watertight case and there is still the satisfaction of successfully identifying "where in North Carolina" the James family appears to have moved from!

Though researching an ancestor "born in xx" and found elsewhere can be challenging - it is do-able. And, remember, it will probably take equal measures of perseverance and serendipity!

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