How Do I Track Deep South Roots?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader seeks help doing pre-Civil War research in Mississippi and Tennessee.

African-American family in the 19th century (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
African-American family in the 19th century (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

If you cannot find a record of Alford/Alfred in any of the Clarksdale cemeteries, you may also want to find local African-American churches to see if they have any parish registers from 1900 to 1910.

Finding the Parents

As with most genealogical research, to find Alford/Alfred’s parents, it is best to start with the most recent documents and keep working backward. The 1900 U.S. Federal Census lists him under the name Alfred. It also gives his birthplace as Tennessee, shows that he was born in May 1854 and lists other kin in the household whom you have mentioned. However, when searching the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, we did not find a record that matches this description. Keep in mind that the accuracy of census records can vary greatly, depending on who was giving the information to the census-taker or how the information was recorded. Given this, in searching for earlier records of Alford/Alfred be sure to use a range of ages and variation in places of birth for each census year.

We did find a possible record for him in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. This record shows a 16-year-old boy named Alfred Anderson who was born in Tennessee circa 1854. He was living with Moses and Nancy Anderson, presumably his parents, in Nashville, Davidson County, Tenn. You will want to investigate this couple more to determine whether or not they were the parents of Alfred. One way to do this is to find a record of them in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census to determine whether or not their son named Alfred was still living with them.

In our search of the 1880 census, we found that there was a Moses and Nannie Anderson, who were both born in Tennessee but living in Indianapolis, Marion County, Ill. Their son, Alfred, was no longer living with them. It was not uncommon for many African-American families to move to Northern cities during the Jim Crow era in the South. Indianapolis was a popular destination for many families looking to start a new life in the North. You will want to continue to research this couple to see if they had any additional children, possible siblings of Alford/Alfred, and find death records or obituaries, which might prove a connection to the Alford/Alfred Anderson who moved to Coahoma County, Miss.

King and Anderson Plantation

You mentioned that Alford/Alfred Anderson might have a connection to the King and Anderson Plantation. This large, 17,000-acre plantation was located just outside of Clarksdale, and its operations began in the 1830s and continued into the mid- to late-20th century. Given his surname and proximity to the plantation, it is possible that he worked there. The records of the King and Anderson are not available online, so we searched to see if there are physical copies available for research. We used the website ArchiveGrid, a search engine for physical archival collections. In our search, we found that some of records and ledger books dating from 1882 to the 1970s for the King and Anderson are currently held at the University of Mississippi Libraries in Oxford, Miss. The library has posted a finding aid online, which gives you some more detailed information about the collection and how to access the records.

We also found the list of slaves for the King and Anderson Plantation in the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules. In that year, they enumerated 80 slaves, including 5- and 6-year-olds, which was the approximate age of Alford/Alfred in 1860.

Preparing for Your Research Trip

If you do decide to travel to Coahoma County or the University of Mississippi Archives in Oxford, a little preparation before your trip can greatly aid your research. As mentioned, you will want to contact any libraries, churches and cemeteries before your visit, to make sure the records you would like to search are available for research. You will also want to obtain information on any requirements or associated fees for accessing the records or making copies. The more preparation you do before your trip, the more time you can spend on researching the records. Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Founding Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, 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,, 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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