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Genealogical Research in North Carolina

Genealogy Research North Carolina

As it is one of the oldest American states, there are many genealogical records and resources available for tracing your family history in North Carolina. Because there are so many records held at many different locations, tracking down the records for your ancestor can be an ominous task. Don’t worry though, we know just where they are, and we’ll show you which records you’ll need, while helping you to understand:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These records can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to online websites, indexes and databases, as well as brick-and-mortar repositories and other institutions that will help with your research in North Carolina. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Old North State” to illustrate what type of records may have been generated during specific time periods. That information will assist you in pinpointing times and locations on which to focus the search for your North Carolina ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of North Carolina

Living in North Carolina at the time the first Europeans arrived were the Native American tribes of the Siouan, Algonkian, and Iroquoian-language families. The Cherokees were the largest of the Iroquoian speaking tribes, although the Chowanoc, Hatteras, Meherrin, Roanoke, and other Algonkian speaking tribes had probably lived in the area the longest.

Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian explorer working for the French government discovered the coast of North Carolina in 1524. The Spanish unsuccessfully attempted to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in 1526, and Hernando de Soto explored the area for gold 1540, but to no avail. The Spanish influence on the area was minimal, but when the English arrived under the leadership of Sir Walter Raleigh sixty years later, the effect would be irreversible.

Explorers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh arrived on the Outer Banks in 1584 and sent back reports so encouraging that Raleigh decided to sponsor the founding of a colony on Roanoke Island. In three attempts over the next three years the English failed to establish a permanent settlement, but during that time the first child born of English parents in the New World, Virginia Dare, was born. Finally the English focused on a more realistic area, and the colony of Jamestown in Virginia was established. North Carolina would remain devoid of whites until 1653 when settlers arrived in Albemarle Sound from Virginia.

In 1663 Charles II granted the area to eight of his benefactors who divided Carolina as it was then called, into three counties, a separate governor appointed for each. Relations between the settlers who had come from Virginia and the new government that had been imposed on them were frayed, especially by attempts to heavily tax them. This antagonism led to one of the first acts of rebellion against the British in America, the Culpepper’s Rebellion of 1677. The rebellion gained the settlers better representation in government, but things again went awry when the government attempted to reinforce the positions of the Anglican Church in the region. Laws were passed against the Quakers which sparked another uprising, Cary’s Rebellion in 1711. The Tuscarora Indians saw an opportunity during the confusion and launched their rebellion against the white settlers; however they were defeated in 1713.

Political impotence in the north caused the southern part of the colony to split off in 1719, and ten years later when all of the original proprietors but one relinquished their rights to the area, North Carolina became a Royal Colony. Thousands of settlers flocked to the new colony, and by 1775 North Carolina had one of the largest populations in the New World, approximately 350,000. Germans and Scots-Irish arrived from Pennsylvania, while more Scottish and English settlers continued to come from Europe. Those who settled in the back country practiced self-sufficient farming, but the east coast settlers established tobacco and rice plantations which they staffed with slave labor.

North Carolina joined the battle for American independence in 1776, and though support for the British was manifested among Scottish immigrants, the colony remained loyal to the cause. Little action took place in North Carolina until the latter stages of the war, and North Carolina finally ratified the US Constitution in November of 1789. Prosperity was slow to come to the new state however, and it wasn’t until social reforms in the state constitution in 1853 provided state aid to railroads and other public works.

As in other southern states, the white majority in North Carolina opposed emancipation, and ceded from the Union in 1861. More troops were provided for the Confederate cause from North Carolina than any other state, but support for the war was mixed. The state became a haven for deserters from the Richmond front due to opposition to the conscription policies of the Confederacy, and Union settlements flourished in the mountain areas. Most North Carolinians stood with the Confederate cause to the end however, which led to bitter political and social struggles during the Reconstruction Era.

Republican abolitionists fought for the rights of freedmen, while the slaveholding elite retaliated with intimidation and violence under the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Attempts by governor Holden to establish order were ineffective, and he was impeached in 1870 when Conservatives captured the General Assembly. The reconstruction Era came to an end in 1876 when a Conservative governor was elected, but racial troubles would continue well into the 20th century.

  • Important Dates in North Carolina History
    • 1653 – Settlers arrive at Albemarle Sound from Virginia
    • 1663 – Charles II grants area to eight of his benefactors
    • 1677 – Culpepper’s Rebellion
    • 1711 – Cary’s Rebellion and Tuscarora War
    • 1712 – North and South Carolina divided into separate provinces
    • 1729 – North Carolina becomes a Royal Colony
    • 1789 – Ratifies US Constitution
    • 1861 – Cedes from Union
    • 1868 – Readmitted to Union

Famous Battles Fought in North Carolina

There were quite a few skirmishes in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War, including a couple of major battles. A full listing of these battles and their accounts can be found at the Revolutionary War Battlefields in North Carolina webpage.

There were also quite a few battles fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, including two decisive engagements, one major conflict, and at least a dozen other principal engagements. You can read accounts of these battles at the Battles in North Carolina webpage.

These battle accounts that exist can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

Common North Carolina Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching North Carolina ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of North Carolina.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

North Carolina Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

North Carolina Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – county records, census, manuscripts, historical newspapers, maps, photographs, Native American index, surname list, military name index

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas State University – manuscript collections, literary papers, diaries and journals, photographs, broadsides, maps, audio visual items, oral histories, and printed material.

      University Archives
      Farrell Library
      Manhattan, KS 66506
      Tel: (913) 532-7456

Additional North Carolina Genealogical Resources

North Carolina Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on North Carolina genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of North Carolina Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

North Carolina Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the North Carolina Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

North Carolina Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

  • North Carolina newspapers and periodicals that you can search online or on-site.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – African American publications, Civilian Conservation Corps, Labour Populist publications, Socialist publications, Territorial period newspapers, History of Kansas newspapers from1916

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas Heritage Center – most of the newspapers published in Dodge City from 1876 to the present and newspapers from several other Kansas towns.

      PO Box 1207
      Dodge City KS 67801-1207
      Tel: 620-227-1616
      Fax: 620-227-1701

    • – free searchable database of Kansas newspaper archives, 1841-1981
    • Library of Congress Digital Newspaper Directory – free searchable database of historical U.S. newspapers dating from 1690-present
    • The Online Books Page – links to historical books and periodicals available for viewing online, dating from mid-16th century
    • – largest online database of historical newspapers in the world.

Historical North Carolina Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

North Carolina City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in North Carolina is the North Carolina Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available historical directory related to North Carolina.

North Carolina Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find North Carolina vital records

North Carolina began recording official records of births and deaths in 1911. Marriage licenses were required starting in 1867, but not filed at state level until 1913.

  • Copies of vital records after those dates must be requested from the:
    • Kansas Office of Vital Statistics

      Charles B. Curtis State Office Building
      1000 SW Jackson Street
      Suite 120
      Topeka, KS 66612-1221
      Tel: 785-296-1400.

    • Kansas Genealogical Society – various historical vital records

      KGS, PO Box 103
      Dodge City, KS 67801-0103
      Tel: (620) 225 - 1951

    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – extensive collection of vital records dating from pre-territorial times

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriages prior to May 1913 were recorded in the district county courts where the marriage took place. North Carolina marriage licenses did not include the names of the parents unless the bride or groom was underage. Records can be found at:

Divorce records from 1861 until July 1951 were recorded in the North Carolina District Courts.

Copies of official divorce records after July 1951 can be ordered from the North Carolina Office of Vital Statistics.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

North Carolina Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records.

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

North Carolina Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

North Carolina Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for North Carolina Cemetery records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

North Carolina Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our North Carolina Newspaper Obituaries Listings from hundreds of North Carolina newspapers online for free.

North Carolina Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors.

Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

North Carolina probate records have been recorded by the probate division clerks of the North Carolina District Courts and include dockets, wills, oaths, inventories, letters, bonds, appraisements, accounts, court orders, claims, and final settlements.

North Carolina Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

Most overseas immigrants came to North Carolina through east coast ports such as New, and then traveled by railway to North Carolina. Earlier immigrants landed at New Orleans and then traveled by steamboats upriver to North Carolina. The U.S. National Archives has passenger lists or indexes of American ports for 1820 to 1940, as well as immigration and naturalization records for the entire United States. These records can also be accessed at the National Archives Regional Branch in North Carolina City

North Carolina Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female North Carolina Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in North Carolina where traditional records may not reveal them.


  • North Carolina Quilts, Ruth Robeson (University of North Carolina Press, 1988)
  • North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, Lucy L. Anderson (The United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1926)
  • By Her Own Bootstraps: A Saga of Women in North Carolina, Albert Coates (The Author, 1975)
  • Women of Guilford County North Carolina: A Study of Women’s Contributions, 1740-1979, Paula S. Jordan (Women of Guilford, 1979)

Selected Resources for North Carolina Women’s History

Afro-American Women’s Collection
Thomas F. Holgate Library
900 East Washington St.
Greensboro, NC 27420

Triangle Multicultural Women’s History Project
605 Germaine St.
Apex, NC 27502

Women’s Studies Reference Archivist
William R. Perkins Library
Duke University
Box 90185
Durham, NC 27708-0185

Common North Carolina Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in North Carolina and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Acord, Albertson, Allen, Austin, Barringer, Bass, Beatenbo, Belangia, Belcher, Billings, Black, Blackwelder, Blackwell, Bolton, Bradford, Britt, Brown, Bryan, Busby, Carlton, Carrothers, Carruthers, Carter, Cauble, Cecil, Channel, Childress, Christy, Clay, Cook, Cooke, Corker, Crowley, Davies, Deanie, Dorton, Douglas, Draper, Driggers, Duncan, Elizabeth, Epperson, Erwin, Eudy, Fink, Fisher, Ford, Forrest, Fortner, Foster, Frances, Freeman, French, Garmon, Goodman, Grant, Green, Griffin, Harden, Hare, Harkey, Hasting, Haywood, Heintz, Helms, Henshaw, Herche, Hill, Hinson, Holleman, Hopkins, Howell, Hudson, Hughes, Jones, Joyner, Kelow, Kerr, Kindley, Kiser, Kluttz, Knowles, Knox, Lamb, Locklear, Long, Lungstrum, Mary, Mc Crauy, McDaniel, Meggs, Miller, Milly, Mitchell, Moose, Motley, Mullis, Mumford, Mumms, Munford, Muth, Myers, Nance, Nichols, Pace, Parmely, Pate, Pearis, Peters, Petrea, Pfaul, Polson, Pressley, Riggs, Robinson, Robison, Roddy, Rosanah, Rowell, Royall, Rucker, Rusk, Ruth, Safrit, Scott, Seamone, Sehorn, Sellers, Shelby, Shrewsbury, Sizemore, Smith, Snyder, Speer, Spradling, Stamper, Starnes, Steen, Stegall, Stephens, Stewart, Stuart, Sutton, Teator, Thompson, Townsend, Turner, Turpin, Tyler, Walker, Walraven, Walton, Washington, Watkins, Watter, Weigand, Whiteker, Williamson, Wilson, Windham, Woman, Woolridge, Wright, Young, Yount

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