Do any of your ancestral lines go back to the southern colonies of Georgia, Virginia, or the Carolinas? You may have wondered if it is even possible to research families in these difficult localities and times. Often all we need is a new perspective on the research – something that I gained in abundance in my recent course at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), which was coordinated by J. Mark Lowe. I’ll be sharing two of my takeaways from the course in this blog post – using maps and the law to gain more understanding of an ancestor.
First, let’s explore some of the challenges found in southern United States research. Record loss or lack of records is the first to consider – whether from the courthouse burning, a natural disaster, or military activity such as the Civil War. For example, my Royston line traces back to Gloucester County in Colonial Virginia. The Library of Virginia categorizes Gloucester as a catastrophic loss county. Created in 1651, the first record loss occurred in 1820 with a fire, followed by another fire on 3 April 1865 in Richmond, where the records had been transferred for safekeeping during the Civil War.1
Another challenge to colonial southern research is migration and ancestors moving south and west seeking new lands. Connecting them to previous locations is a challenge – especially if there are people of the same name. My ancestor, John Cary Royston, provides a prime example. He migrated south from Gloucester County, Virginia, to Newberry District, South Carolina, then west to Oglethorpe County, Georgia.
Also, record keeping on the frontier was often less than ideal, so even if a record book does exist for the time, your ancestor’s deed or marriage might be missing. If it was too hard to get to the courthouse, they might have visited another courthouse to record the deed or marriage or not recorded it at all!
After considering these challenges, you might be wondering if research in the colonial south is even possible, but it absolutely is! Here are two ideas to help you look at your research with fresh eyes.
Annotate Historical Maps
We generally think of checking maps for county boundary changes, but researching the colonial period requires checking historical maps to see the early roads, topography, and more. Learning all we can about the community through maps could lead to clues for our ancestor’s friends, associates, and neighbors. An excellent resource for early maps is found on the University of Houston’s Digital History website: Links to Historic Maps. This collection includes very early maps of the colonies from the 1500s to 1895 landform atlases of many states. 2
How could viewing the “1795 Map of the Southern States of America” shown below help in researching your ancestors? It’s informative to note the settlements at this time are located mainly along rivers. My ancestor, John Cary Royston, left Gloucester County, Virginia, after the 1790s and relocated to Newberry District, South Carolina, for a brief stint in the 1790s, then ended up in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, by 1802. A great tip mentioned several times by Mark Lowe is to annotate maps with your ancestor’s location. In the image below, I have starred John’s known locations beginning in Virginia, then moving southwest. I had always envisioned an overland route, but looking at this map, it seems much more likely that he would have traveled by sea to Charleston, South Carolina, then overland to Newberry. From Newberry to Oglethorpe County, it is about 250 miles on today’s roads. With additional research, I could look for trails that he might have followed.
Know the Laws
If you’ve been researching long enough, you’ve likely come across a document that puzzled you. Perhaps the wording of a deed or probate record was unclear. Maybe the whole situation left you wanting clarity. One of the ways to gain additional context for the ancestor’s records is to find the law that affected them. Keep in mind that after the revolution, the colonies became states, so watch for changes in the laws at that time.
When working with colonial research, first learn about the colony’s formation and the law that governed the early years. Bowling Green State University provides an excellent resource that “pulls together various sources for laws of the original thirteen colonies.” 3
A general principle for using the law to gain more insight into an ancestor is to look at the situations of the family and consider how the law affected them. My ancestor, John Cary Royston, left behind more records than any of my other ancestors. He was involved in deeds, lawsuits, equity suits, marriage, divorce, and more. I’ve added the sources to his profile on the FamilySearch Family Tree. By examining the law pertaining to the various records, I can better understand his life.
For example, John’s wife, Polly Baker Cessna, filed for and was granted a divorce in 1814 based on his abandonment of herself and their three children. Viewing the Georgia laws passed in 1802, for a divorce to be granted by the state legislature, a petition had to be filed stating the cause. 4 The defendant was to appear in court, and if they failed to appear, the court would give the judgment by default. Polly’s petition follows.5
“Polly Royston vs John Royston; Petition for a divorce
No. 11 Greene Superior Court September Term 18: Polly Royston formerly Polly Cisney . . .on or about the day of Feburary eighteen hundred and three your petitioner and her present husband John Royston were married . . . John hath totally withdrawn from your petitioner his love, esteem, confidence & affection hath for the last six years without any kind of just reason or provocation withdrawn himself entirely from the bed & board of your petitioner, leaving her with three small children to support & educate without any kind of aid or assistance from him. . . .he will never again live with your petitioner or ever again perform the duties of a husband & hath removed himself to parts entirely unknown to your petitioner. . . at the time of her intermarriage with the said John she has good reason to believe from statements and reports that have since time come to her knowledge that the said John had an other wife living in the state of either North or South Carolina. . .”
If you’re wondering how to find the law for your state, try a Google search first with the state and the approximate year of interest. That will likely pull up a website such as the University of Georgia’s School of Law “Historical Georgia Digests and Codes.” Once you’ve found a good reference, add that to your locality guide for easy access. You’ll want to find the statue that was enacted close to the time of the event. For the 1814 divorce, I used Clayton’s Compilation of 1813. Often you can search with a term such as “tax” or, in this instance, “divorce” and find the actual statute.
Be sure to understand the meaning of the terms in the laws and the records as they relate to the time. The divorce petition includes the term “Vinculo matrimonii.” Vinculo matrimonii is a Latin term literally meaning “from the chains of matrimony,” and which has come to mean a complete divorce, as opposed to a legal separation. Polly was granted the divorce in 1815, separating her from John Cary Royston completely.
Polly didn’t leave any records after this divorce, but I can learn more about her situation by researching a woman’s rights during this era. Some questions I have: How did this affect Polly’s property rights? Was John required to provide any support for the children? What was the divorce law before this act? I haven’t determined Polly’s origins yet, but I have some clues. Continuing to examine the laws governing her life will give me more insight and might even lead to discovering her father.
If you have early southern colonial ancestors, consider a deep dive into the maps and the laws to give you further insights into your research.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
- “Lost Records Localities: Counties and Cities with Missing Records,” Library of Virginia (Ihttps://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/rn30_lostrecords.pdf : accessed 9 August 2022)
- S. Mintz, S & S. McNeil, 2018, “Historic Maps,” Digital History (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/maps/maps.cfm : accessed 9 August 2022).
- Maureen Barry, “U.S. Colonial Laws: Home,” BGSU University Libraries (https://libguides.bgsu.edu/ColonialLaws : accessed 11 August 2022).
- Clayton, Augustin Smith, “1813 Clayton’s Compilation” (1813), “Historical Georgia Digests and Codes, 8”, Digital Commons (https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/ga_code/8 : accessed 13 August 2022).
- Polly Royston vs John Royston, Divorce Petition, Greene County, Georgia, Superior Court, September Term 1814, No. 11; photocopy provided by Betty Royston Brooks (Royston, Georgia), 2016.