Am I Related to a Blues Legend?

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

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

Statewide birth and death registration in Arkansas began in early 1914. Because William Bush’s parents seem to have resided in that state through at least 1920, you may be able to learn the names of his grandparents from their death records. An index to Arkansas deaths occurring between 1914 and 1950 is available at FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. You can also search and order death certificates from 1935 to 1961 via the Arkansas Department of Health. These records can be ordered for a fee from the department’s Vital Records Section.

Two of the best ways to link family members can be through wills and obituaries. Nelson Bunch or one of his known family members could have left a will naming William Bunch or any of his family members as heir or heirs (and vice versa). Along the same lines, an article written upon someone’s death could list extended family members as surviving relatives. There are some digitized probate records for Tennessee and Arkansas available to browse through online.

Online newspaper collections tend to be geared toward the largest cities in each state. If you cannot find local newspapers in Tennessee (which were most likely to print articles about the Bunch families), the Tennessee State Library and Archives holds microfilmed copies of almost all newspapers from the state. A list of these newspapers and instructions for how to access them are available on its website.

As for Arkansas, microfilmed newspapers are available at the Arkansas History Commission, which does offer a photocopy service. Because of his fame, there should also have been articles about William Bunch upon his death in 1941 (or in early 1942). Perhaps one or more of these articles mentioned his relatives, so checking St. Louis-based newspapers could also be useful.

Dig Deeper Still

Often relatives will buy and sell land together or exchange it among one another, and sometimes the relationship among the parties will be mentioned in the deeds. The aforementioned census records for William Bunch’s family and those for Nelson Bunch’s family indicated that both fathers only rented farmland rather than owning it. This could mean that tracing family relationships through deeds will not be possible.

However, if the person linking the two Bunch families lived before the Civil War, land records could be very helpful in tracing slave ancestors in both families. Microfilmed land records for both Haywood and Lauderdale counties in Tennessee and Woodruff County in Arkansas are available to rent from the Family History Library. You can order the films online and have them sent to your local Family History Center.

If you can establish which family William Bunch fits into but cannot find the common link to your Bunch family, consider DNA testing. You could have your father take a DNA test and look for descendants from William Bunch’s family who have been tested (or may agree to be tested). Reputable companies offering DNA analysis include 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and AncestryDNA. Comparing the results should indicate whether he is related to the person submitting the DNA. Some programs can even estimate the closeness of the relationship.

Comparing the photograph you posted of Nelson Bunch to the only known image of William Bunch certainly seems to show a family resemblance. The closeness of their birthplaces also supports the theory that they have common relatives. Further researching both men’s ancestry through the resources we have suggested could very well lead you to a link between the two Bunch families.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation Kyle Hurst, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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