Many genealogists and historians view the South as one monolithic cultural, social, and political institution. Social and political life in general was perceived as so unique that it was impossible to relate any logic to events and circumstances that prevailed elsewhere in America. Historical events such as slavery, succession from the Union, Civil War, and Reconstruction have set the South apart from the rest of the country until recent times.
The settlement of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi began with European outposts in the colonial wars of empire. Each developed under variable conditions. They rarely share a common past other than being geographically located in the South. The history of the Old South, from Virginia to Texas, cannot be told in any one state’s story. It can best be understood in the experiences of the many migratory “frontier” southern families. Lack of a tradition of early vital records and religious faiths leaving few surviving parish or congregational registers among a widespread people can complicate matters.
Record keeping was inconsistent. Region-wide consistency begins in 1830 when the first relatively complete and credible federal census records were generated. Policies concerning Indian removal were in full force. Most of the members of the last Native American tribes in these states were removed to western Arkansas, today’s Oklahoma, shortly afterwards, creating a large volume of federal and other records of the Indians, and the whites among them, that can contain extensive family information. The various Indian Wars ultimately contributed to the thousands of genealogically valuable military bounty, pension, and other military records of southerners.
With the exception of Georgia, the other states were federal territories. Personal information appears on the settlers of those states in such well-known works as The American State Papers and The Territorial Papers of the United States. Colonial and early federal records have also been published for individual states. Bureau of Land Management indexes for the land grants of these federal land states have been made widely available but are incomplete for pre-1820 credit grants and for the homestead applications that were never completed.
The Civil War/Reconstruction Era created especially valuable records such as indexes to service records, pensions, etc. These records are available on a number of online websites such as Ancestry, Fold 3, Family Search, through the various state archives, and the National Archives. Most of the material from the Reconstruction still lacks useful indexes and publication, but extensive personal data on thousands of former slaves and other persons found in what survives of the registers of the Freedman’s Bank have been abstracted and digitized by the Family History library and are available online via Ancestry, Family search, and Heritage Quest.