An Overlooked Source for Southern Genealogy: Plantation Records

Southern genealogy research has its share of difficulties. But there is a rich resource that is often overlooked, and it can help you no matter if your ancestor was enslaved, a wealthy plantation owner, or a member of the community: Southern plantation records

Overlooked Southern Resource: Southern Plantation Records


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 7

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 11 minutes.

You can also watch the interview with Ari Wilkins:

Ari Wilkins is a Library Associate at the Dallas Public Library and an expert on Southern plantation records. 

What Are Southern Plantation Records?

These records were the family papers of plantation owners in the South. Some of the collections span 200-300 years. Within these papers could be slave registers, diaries, business papers, photographs, drawings (basically, anything that a family might keep). 

Families donated their papers to 9-10 Southern libraries. These papers were microfilmed in the 1980s. 

How Can They Be Used for Southern Genealogy?

As Ari mentioned, the records of a plantation could contain slave registers, which would be invaluable for slave research. Being personal papers, they are also going to give information about the family that owned the plantation

But the value doesn't stop there. Even if your ancestor was a member of the community, he or she might be mentioned in the papers of the plantation in the area. (As Ari says, these records can be "gossip-y"!) 

They are also excellent for building context, even if your ancestor isn't mentioned by name. If a natural disaster hit the area, for example, these records can give insight into what happened in the community.

Researching in a burned county? You'll definitely want to dive into these records. (Being family papers, they weren't kept at the courthouse!)

How Do You Know Where to Look?

These records were deposited at several libraries (mainly university libraries) in the South. They have been microfilmed. Some have been digitized and are available at some libraries with a subscription to ProQuest. (This isn't something that individuals subscribe to.)

There is a guide called Index to Records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames, and Collections by Jean L. Cooper. This index is broken down by the locations of the plantations (as well as locations mentioned in the finding guides), surnames, etc. 

One research strategy would be to look for the locations where you ancestors lived and see which set of plantation records include that area. 

It doesn't appear that Cooper's book is still in print. However, you could look for it in, then enter your zip code and see which libraries near you have a copy. There is also an earlier version that has some of the same information.

Once you identify a set of plantation papers that you want to use, you'l need to see where you can find that set of microfilm or find a library with a subscription to the relevant collection on ProQuest. (I suggest starting with a nearby college or university library or a large public library with a strong research collection. Not only are they more likely to subscribe to the ProQuest database, but they might have more success tracking down microfilm that can go on inter-library loan.)

Overlooked Source for Southern Genealogy : Plantation Records

9 thoughts on “An Overlooked Source for Southern Genealogy: Plantation Records

  1. Hi Amy. I’m concerned about so many blogs these days that offer videos and audios. Don’t get me wrong—they are great. However, I have a serious hearing problem, so I prefer to have transcripts that I can read. A podcast does me no good. You do a fantastic job with your blog and I’ve downloaded so many things you’ve written, followed your tips, and visited sites you recommend. I follow 52 Ancestors. But unless a podcast or a video offers a transcript or closed captions, I’m out of luck. I realize your You Tube videos have CC, but my internet provider drastically restricts bandwidth usage, so podcast transcripts are much preferred over videos. Please consider this.

    Thanks for “listening.”
    p.s. Here’s an example of a service that offers podcasts with transcripts:*N3PM4Z__Nhy8W5vhvW06ngFRG0/*W2XCYx07SFJ0fW1ZB71W7JjYCf0/5/f18dQhb0S1Wc7Bf-yvV1xZNY1MNfhhW4VgmfK3yY1QzN7wjYmkCh6VNW9gvnwL8DkFByW5hC3bx7Ck6MVW4r5ZjN7Z9m5rV80Bsj4qG3D_W8bP6Fw16-t1kVt78hX4_wY1MW3vXn8J8Sk2YWW2F0NJ97BK4WHW9jDj3j6wzrV-N2scd8mRh9F1W5F7dpM55rCWQW1kysw61-7fsCW1qr1f949KpKkVVX8RV5bzcMnW5nhVn27LrNVXW6DfNw31vBcDWW19zllf1fbD73W2vD0ld2sRkn7VdxZvv70TTXRW8tQxpP3cJBy1W7HbGFD3TMvD0N4DxxpLKNndrW8Z-CFT8cS_r3W8fNd1W3Q65s8W1vVRBG4tYdlbW5-2TRg8JRzpPV3r4N51q9k33W1L4sHT1g6zTdW379hsy3839VjW8vTjXH8m3JmQW5FF0lL6z0LFZW81J_6V3T4sd2N3T-r9YmGg_bN1_gpR-nyH8fN1CVXthxR1CSW8g7h-r5wyY6MW4R12cK4ZqC7fN4dk1NLnCc5YN62gcLQHpLrJW32090T52ZLv8W5Wdz5B61xC8nW4YdDZS5Q76sXW47wLWq40Mc23W4PvSTp7h1tTtW6CSHg-5MDCtpW3hhhrq7TQCM_W6KxPc97ZNGXMW7pN6dN9jg8lsW5cQwHw4QGdBDN7zmQFXKYxPzM8BPpB83YLQW7R5Y9_2RCLD4V9QmwQ7-FRy8W2hXVBt8Cr0lkW7PsMSn6sKJvWW3QbpCt8yxG3DW5dW0h08pfH91W9k4XrS4bpGdRW8Sj78Z7r4TDKVgkB3g4WnYV5f4vkHWv02

    I know, it’s a long link, but please check it out. I also like the synopsis Tonya gives for each podcast.

    • Thanks for the comment, Kay. I appreciate your situation. (Having a Deaf son, I’m sensitive to missing out on content that is audio-only). I’m looking into transcripts for the podcast episodes.

      That being said, I remain dedicated to providing blog posts that stand alone, even without the audio or video. This is essentially the blog post that I would have written without the podcast or the video of the interview. The same is true for all of the posts that go with my podcast.

      • Thank you so much for the transcripts/blog posts. I too have a hearing problem, not as severe as some, and with aging eyesight problem it is hard to follow the closed captions also. But I can read this written word just fine! Thanks. I’ve read many of your posts and finally decided today to subscribe.

  2. Thank you and Ari so much for this episode!

    I have predominantly New England ancestors, *but* one line in North Carolina. I’m curious about how they lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when my distant grandmother was born there (before she came to Massachusetts), so I will be sure to see if my library can get these books on inter-library loan and if my family is in them.

    I’ve found wills and deeds for the family, but it will be nice to also check out this resource. So thank you and Ari again!

  3. Amy, most of my ancestors are from the south. As soon as I saw your video I looked for a copy of the Cooper book to buy. I found a Paperback one on ebay for $710. I almost fell out of my chair. I live in a small town so I’m relatively certain that my local library won’t have it. I could probably get it on an inter-library loan but when I’ve done that in the past it has usually taken several months to get the book and then I’m only allowed to keep it one week or less.

    Is this book so rare that a paperback would be worth $710?

  4. Searching for the Cooper book I discovered the ebook is available on GooglePlayBooks for $3.99 plus tax. I bought it as regular price listed it at $39
    Just so you guys know!

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