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Genealogical Research in Tennessee

Genealogy Research Tennessee

Because of its long and colorful history, there are many historical and genealogical records and resources available for tracing your family history in Tennessee. Because of the abundance of information 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 Tennessee. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Volunteer 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 Tennessee ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Tennessee

The Yuchi and Creek Indians were living in the area that is now East Tennessee when the first Europeans arrived in the early 1500’s. They would be joined by the Cherokee about 200 years later, a powerful tribe that would eventually dominate the area until they were forced out by the federal government in the 1830’s. The western part of the state was inhabited by the Chicksaw, while the Shawnee occupied the Cumberland Valley area until being driven out by the Chickasaw and Cherokee.

European traders and explorers traversed the area for over two hundred years before any permanent settlements were established, searching the area for furs, pelts, and anything else they could find. The most famous of these early explorers was Daniel Boone, who lived in the area that is now Washington County. At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, many from Virginia and North Carolina crossed the Allegheny Mountains into the region, and by 1770 small white settlements began to develop in the area between the Cumberland and Unaka Mountains known as the Cumberland Basin.

A second area of development was in the northeast along the Nolichucky, Holston, and Watauga Rivers. The settlements in this area would merge to create the Watauga Association in 1771. In the Cumberland basin area, a gentleman by the name of James Robertson would, in 1779, establish a town called Nashborough which would one day be known as Nashville.

The Revolutionary War did not reach Tennessee, but many of the frontiersmen fought in Virginia and the Carolinas. The Revolution was hardly over when Tennesseans began to seek statehood for themselves. The area remained part of North Carolina until 1790 when North Carolina ceded the area to the United States. At that time Tennessee became known as the Southwest territory. A capitol was establishes at Knoxville, and steps were taken to secure statehood which was granted on June 1, 1796.

In the period between statehood and the Civil War, towns like Knoxville, Nashville, and other early settlements became flourishing frontier towns. The state was divided over slavery, most slaveholders living in the western part of the state where cotton was grown. In this part of the state blacks made up nearly one quarter of the population, while in the east, only around on tenth of the populace was black. Emancipation was considered at the constitutional convention in 1834, but it was decided to keep slavery in place.

West Tennessee was purchased from the Chickasaw, and it was here that the cotton industry took off. Memphis was established in 1821, and soon became the states principal marketing center for cotton. Tobacco flourished in the counties of the Highland Rim, and Tennessee soon became the nation’s third largest producer of tobacco behind Kentucky and Virginia. Most Tennesseans were in favor of secession when the Civil War approached, by those in the east remained staunchly loyal to the Union, and many fled to Kentucky to join the union army.

Tennessee was a major battleground during the war; some of the bloodiest battles of the encounter took place at Chattanooga in the Battle of Chickamauga, while the final defeat of Confederate General John B. Hood’s forces at Nashville and Franklin were the last clashes on Tennessee soil. Tennessee was readmitted to the union following the Civil war, and was actually the only former Confederate state not to be ruled by a military government. Economic recovery was faster than in other areas of the South, and by the 1890’s paper, flour, and cotton mills were flourishing, as Memphis became the nation’s leading producer of cottonseed oil.

  • Important Dates in Tennessee History
    • 1663 – Part of French territory
    • 1763 – Area ceded by France to Great Britain
    • 1771 – Watagua Valley Association formed
    • 1776 – Becomes Washington County, Tennessee
    • 1779 – Nashville founded
    • 1780 – Battle of King’s Mountain
    • 1784 – Ceded from North Carolina to the United States
    • 1789 – Placed under the jurisdiction of North Carolina
    • 1790 – Area ceded back to the United States
    • 1796 – Statehood
    • 1861 – Secedes from Union
    • 1866 – Readmitted to Union

Famous Battles Fought in Tennessee

Although the Revolutionary War Battle of King’s Mountain was fought in North Carolina, many Tennessee volunteers and patriots fought in the clash. There were close to 40 clashes between Union and Confederate troops during the Civil war, the Tennessee GenWeb Project has a listing and related facts for all Civil War Battles fought on Tennessee soil.

The 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 Tennessee Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Tennessee 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 Tennessee.

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.

Tennessee 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.

Tennessee 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 Tennessee Genealogical Resources

Tennessee 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 Tennessee genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Tennessee Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Tennessee 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 Tennessee Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Tennessee 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.

  • Tennessee 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 Tennessee 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.

Tennessee 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 Tennessee is the Tennessee Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available historical directory related to Tennessee.

Tennessee 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 Tennessee vital records

Tennessee 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. Tennessee 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 Tennessee District Courts.

Copies of official divorce records after July 1951 can be ordered from the Tennessee 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.

Tennessee 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.

Tennessee 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.

Tennessee 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 Tennessee Cemetery records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – huge database of Tennessee cemetery record transcriptions
    • 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.

Tennessee Obituaries

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

Tennessee 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.

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

Tennessee 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 Tennessee through east coast ports such as New, and then traveled by railway to Tennessee. Earlier immigrants landed at New Orleans and then traveled by steamboats upriver to Tennessee. 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 Tennessee City

Tennessee Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Tennessee 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 Tennessee where traditional records may not reveal them.


  • Tennessee Women, Past and Present, Wilma Dykeman (Committee for the Humanities, 1977)
  • Tennessee Families: A Bibliography of Books About Tennessee Families, Donald M. Hehir (Heritage Books, 1996)
  • Distinctive Women of Tennessee, James A. Hoobler (Tennessee Historical Association)
  • Shaping of a State: The Legacy of Tennessee Women, Thura Mack (Cuningson Women’s Center, 1995)
  • Quilts of Appalachia: The Mountain Woman and Her Quilt, Martha Marshall (Tri- City, 1972)

Selected Resources for Tennessee Women’s History

Archives of Appalachia, Sherrod Library
East Tennessee State University
Johnson City, TN 37614-0002

Tennessee Collection
Andrew L. Todd Library
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132

Tennessee Women’s Network
403 Seventh Avenue North
Nashville, TN 37243-0312

Common Tennessee Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Tennessee 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.

Agnes, Anderson, Anthony, Armstrong, Askew, Austin, Baggett, Barks, Barrett, Bess, Black, Blum, Bouldin, Bratcher, Brown, Byars, Campbell, Cantrell, Childers, Choate, Cinda, Collier, Cooley, Cooper, Corey, Crawford, Cunningham, Davidson, Deamie, Deberry, Derryberry, Doak, Dorothy, Dresser, Duckett, Durham, Dykes, Elizabeth, Ernest, Estridge, Fay, Ferguson, Forsyth, Friend, Gann, Garner, Garrad, Gray, Green, Hale, Haney, Hawkins, Herendon, Hewitt, Hill, Johnson, Jr, Kimball, King, Lamance, Lancaster, Lankford, Lemmon, Lewis, Lorena, Marcum, Margaret, Marshall, Marx, Mary, Mcguffee, Miller, Morrison, Morton, Neal, Newberry, Nickerson, Norris, Owen, Patty, Pearl, Pelham, Perkins, Pike, Porter, Potter, Pritchard, Randall, Robbins, Russel, Russell, Ryan, Sarah, Seitz, Smartt, Smith, Sr, Stone, Sumner, Tate, Tennpenny, Thorley, Tripp, Turner, Ursala, Vaughn, Wallis, Walters, Watkins, Watson, Webb, Whipple, White, Whitman, Whitmire, Witt

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