Am I Related to a Blues Legend?

Tracing Your Roots: Clues, coincidences and a striking family resemblance leave a reader wondering.

Posted:
 
roots_sept14_large
Peetie Wheatstraw, aka William Bunch (Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

(The Root) --

"I have been doing genealogical research on my family, and I'm wondering if I'm related to William Bunch (aka Peetie Wheatstraw), the blues musician. I've seen a picture of him, and the resemblance to my grandfather Nelson Bunch is remarkable. When I've asked family about it, they all say that my grandfather had lots of cousins scattered across Haywood County, Tenn., where our family is from, and in Cotton Plant, Ark., where William Bunch was supposedly born.

"I've found the name 'William Bunch' listed in the census records and have seen a William Bunch that is roughly the same age my grandfather would have been at the time, but I'm just having a hard time connecting his Bunch family to mine. I feel fairly certain there's a connection, if for no other reason than the physical resemblance." --Carol Bunch Davis

First, if you haven't already done this, compile what you and your family members know about your grandfather Nelson Bunch, his parents and so on. To see if Nelson Bunch and William Bunch (Peetie Wheatstraw) are indeed related, you'll need to research each of their families until you find a common ancestor.

Consider reaching out to James Bunch, who is listed online as the contact person for the Peetie Wheatstraw Foundation in Tennessee, to see if he would be willing to help. Since both men had the surname "Bunch," you will most likely find the link between them through each man's paternal (father's) line. Researching fathers and their brothers would be the best way to look for connections between the two families.

From the biographies written about William Bunch, it appears that he was born in Ripley, Lauderdale County, Tenn., on Dec. 21, 1902, but raised in Cotton Plant, Woodruff County, Ark., until the late 1920s. Around 1929 he moved to St. Louis, Mo., and began recording there a year later. He was influential to the blues of the 1930s, and multiple sources say that Bunch, who billed himself as "The Devil's Son-in-Law," inspired blues icon Robert Johnson. Sadly, Bunch died from injuries due to a car accident on his birthday, Dec. 21, 1941.

Work Your Way From the Branch to the Root

Since you have made your family tree available online, it is clear that you know Nelson Bunch's birth date and place, as well as information about his father and grandfather. You have already used the U.S. federal census and Tennessee death records available through Ancestry.com. The birth and death registration for Tennessee began in 1908, so you will need to look for alternative sources to track back from William Bush's 1902 birth to earlier family members. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has posted a great guide to available birth and death records in that state, as well as guides to other items, like African-American records.

The first task will be to identify William Bunch's parents. Was his father closely related to Nelson Bunch's father? William Bunch and Nelson Bunch were born within a year of each other in neighboring counties in Tennessee, so it could be that their fathers were brothers, cousins or some other relation to each other.

Searching census records leads to the working theory that William Bunch's parents were probably the James and Mary Bunch living in Lauderdale County, Tenn., in 1900 and 1910 and in Freeman, Woodruff County, Ark., in 1920. In addition to showing names, ages, birthplaces and residences, census records can provide extra clues. For example, James and Mary Bunch had been married seven years as of 1900 and 17 years as of 1910, which meant they wed circa 1893.