Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman, Kyle Hurst
Peetie Wheatstraw, aka William Bunch (Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)
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.


Unlike births and deaths, there are records of marriages in Tennessee dating back to about 1780. Typically, these records will not name parents of the groom or bride. Still, to learn more about the Bunch family members in Tennessee, you can search the statewide marriage index created by the Tennessee State Library and Archives and made available online by FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.

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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