Tennessee Genealogy

by Melissa Barker

Many genealogists have connected to the State of Tennessee. Records from the Volunteer State vary from region to region and county to county, but are rich in genealogical and historical detail. To tap into that valuable information, you’ll need an understanding of Tennessee’s history and the various repositories that have documented its residents. Read on for how to find your Tennessee ancestors.

Pennsylvania Genealogy Research Guide Contents

Tennessee Genealogy Fast Facts



"State of Franklin" (annexed from Washington District of North Carolina), 1784; "Southwest Territory," 1790




Tax records from various sources, 1778–1832


1810 (Rutherford Co. only), 1820 (eastern counties only), 1830




1908 (no statewide records for 1913)




Tennessee Office of Vital Records
Central Services Building
First Floor
421 Fifth Ave. N
Nashville, TN 37247
(615) 741-1763

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State History


Several indigenous tribes lived in what is now Tennessee prior to European or US settlement, notably the Cherokee in the southeast and the Chickasaw in the west. Other tribes included the Shawnee and Yuchi. American Indian influence remains in many Tennessee place names: Etowah, Sewanee, Chattanooga, Hiwassee, Chickamauga, Nickajack, Tellico and Tullahoma, to name a few. The state’s name, too, comes from “Tanasse,” the name of a Cherokee village.

Tennessee was part of North Carolina beginning in 1663, with that colony’s claim extending all the way to the Mississippi River. France also claimed some land east of the Mississippi, but conceded it to Great Britain following the French and Indian War. The Proclamation of 1763 forbade European settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, but some migrants came from neighboring colonies through the Cumberland Gap regardless. Settlers along the Watauga River in what would become East Tennessee asserted semi-independence in 1772 as the “Watauga Association.” It wasn’t until 1790 that North Carolina ceded its claims to “the Southwest Territory,” which became a territory in its own right (formally “the Territory of the United States, South of the River Ohio”). Tennessee entered the Union as the 16th state in 1796, and holds the distinction of the first state to be admitted from territorial status and not a colony, part of an existing state, or an independent republic.


Tennessee has historically been divided into three geographic “Grand Divisions,” represented by three stars on the state flag: West, Middle and East. The divisions, as we’ll see, are cultural and political, in addition to geographical. The eastern part of the state attracted farmers who produced diverse crops, while Middle Tennessee was better suited for cotton production. The young state earned its nickname “the Volunteer State” during the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, in which thousands of Tennesseans enlisted. Resident Andrew Jackson led troops at the famous Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and Tennesseans Sam Houston and David “Davy” Crockett were active during the Texas Revolution. Decades of intermittent conflict between white settlers and indigenous peoples led to the latter being forcibly removed from the Southeast, culminating in the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Through the Trail of Tears that followed, thousands of native peoples—among them, Tennessee’s Choctaw and Cherokee—were marched from their lands east of the Mississippi to modern Oklahoma. Tennessee today has no federally- or state-recognized tribes within its borders.

Regional differences within the state flared in the lead up to the Civil War. Tennessee, a slave state, voted to secede from the Union. But many in East Tennessee (which had less economic reliance on slavery) held antisecessionist sympathies and served the Union.

Many Tennessean cities, including Knoxville and Nashville, sustained major damage during the war, and some 400 battles including the Battle of Shiloh were fought in the state. After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Andrew Johnson (a former senator and governor from Tennessee) assumed the presidency. Tennessee was the first Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union.

Today, Tennessee is known for its scenic views, rustic charm, and contributions to the music industry.

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Tennessee History Timeline


A party led by Spaniard Hernando de Soto rests near modern Sevier County
King Charles II grants a charter for “the Province of Carolina,” which extends to the Mississippi


King George III forbids European settlement west of the Appalachians; settlers travel to Tennessee anyway
Settlers sign the Watauga Association, an early attempt at self-government in Tennessee
North Carolina cedes its western claims; the U.S. forms Southwest Territory


Tennessee becomes the 16th state
Most remaining Cherokee are forced to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears
Tennessee secedes to join the Confederate States of America


A party led by Spaniard Hernando de Soto rests near modern Sevier County
King Charles II grants a charter for “the Province of Carolina,” which extends to the Mississippi

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Historic Map

Tennessee. By Thomas G. Bradford. Published By Weeks, Jordan & Co. New York. 1838. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

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Tennessee Genealogy Records Online

Vital Records


Birth and death registration was not required by the state until 1908. However, the four largest cities in Tennessee (Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Memphis) kept local records starting in the 1870s or 1880s, as did some individual counties. The state legislature allowed its vital-registration law to lapse at the end of 1912, and didn’t pass a new one until 1914. For this reason, 1913 is frequently referred to as a “dead year” for birth and death registrations in Tennessee.


Marriage registration was first required in 1838, but many counties elected to do so earlier. Marriages are recorded by the county court clerk, with copies sent to the state; you’ll need to know the county in which the couple applied for a marriage license. Likewise, divorce records are filed in individual counties. Early divorces had to be approved by the Tennessee General Assembly; see a name index to the General Assembly’s records at the Tennessee State Library and
Archives. Divorces were filed in the circuit court of the county unless it occurred after 1834 and involved a property dispute (in which case it would be filed in the chancery court).

The state department of health’s vital records o¯ce <> holds birth records less than 100 years old and death, marriage and divorce records less than 50 years old. Only the named person or direct family members can access vital records still held by the department of health. Once outside of those privacy restrictions, records are transferred to the Tennessee State Archives and Library. The archives has a guide to the vital records in its care, including links to any indexes. And the Shelby County Register of Deeds website has links to statewide vital records.

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Census Records

Tennessee was first recorded in the federal census as a territory in 1790, then every 10 years thereafter. However, records of early enumerations for large swaths of the state haven’t survived; all of the 1790 and 1800 counts are lost, as are records for most Tennessee counties in the 1810 and 1820 censuses. And, as for most of the United States, records of the 1890 census have been destroyed. Records of extant federal censuses can be widely found on websites such as FamilySearch, and MyHeritage.

You may also find Tennesseans in’s collection of “special” censuses taken alongside federal enumerations: slave schedules (1850–1860), mortality schedules (1850–1860, 1880), and “defective, dependent and delinquent” censuses (1880) <>. Tennessee did not take any of its own state or territorial censuses.

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Land Records

Tennessee is considered a “state land” state: Land there was surveyed and dispersed in various types of land grants by the state or colonial government. Early land grants were issued to Revolutionary War veterans, and Tennessee’s system of land allotment echoed that of North Carolina. The State Library and Archives has a detailed guide to early land records.

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Tax Lists

Tennessee tax lists can be a great way to find your ancestors and document the land they owned, especially as substitutes for early censuses that are missing. Early tax lists generally include white males over the age of 21 and indicate whether they owned land, held slaves, or paid a poll tax. Extant lists vary by county, and the State Library and Archives has an inventory of records.

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Military Records

Tennesseans have played prominent roles in US military conflicts even before statehood. Service and pension records from the Revolution to just before World War I are generally held by the National Archives, some of which have been digitized on FamilySearch. TNGenWeb has an index of Revolutionary War pension records, and the State Library and Archives holds copies or indexes of records from several conflicts. You can find War of 1812 records at Fold3 and mentions of Tennesseans who fought on either side of the Civil War at the Soldiers and Sailors Database.

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State Publications and Resources

Early titles include the Knoxville Gazette (1791). The State Library and Archives has an extensive collection of microfilmed newspapers and a directory of titles, some of which have been scanned and made searchable through the Tennessee Newspaper Digitization Project at the Library of Congress’ free Chronicling America site. Other digitized titles are hosted at subscription sites, GenealogyBank and NewspaperArchive.

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Tennessee Genealogy Resources


Cyndi’s List: Tennessee
Early American Sources: Tennessee Archives
FamilySearch Research Wiki: Tennessee
Tennessee Archives Directory
Tennessee Encyclopedia
Tennessee Virtual Archive


The Journal of East Tennessee History
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture edited by Carroll Van West (Rutledge Hill Press)
Tennessee Genealogical Magazine Ansearchin’ News
Tennessee Genealogical Research by George K. Schweitzer (Genealogical Sources Unlimited)
Tennessee Historical Quarterly
Tennessee Ancestors
The Tennessee Magazine


East Tennessee Historical Society
McClung Historical Collection
McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture
National Archives at Atlanta
Tennessee Genealogical Society
Tennessee Historical Society
Tennessee State Library and Archives
Tennessee State Museum

Tennessee See All