Tennessee History and Research Overview

By Family Tree Editors Premium


Spaniards explored the fringes of Tennessee in the 1540s, but the French claimed the region in 1673, established trade with Indians, and built Fort Assumption at present-day Memphis in 1739. French lands east of the Mississippi became British in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Thus, while technically still Indian land, Tennessee became British on European maps and by the king’s proclamation was off-limits to settlement from the east-coast colonies.

Ignoring the ban, pioneers from North Carolina and Virginia settled along the Watauga River in the northeastern Tennessee highlands in the 1770s. In 1777, Tennessee came under the jurisdiction of Washington County, NC. North Carolinians established a settlement in 1779-1780 at a trading spot on the Cumberland River called French Lick, now Nashville. In 1783, that area became Davidson County, NC.

After several years of turbulence from Indian raids, lack of stable local government, and apparent lack of concern from national and state governments, Tennesseans wanted to govern themselves. In 1788, North Carolina ceded its claim to the area. Two years later, Congress established the Territory South of the River Ohio, commonly called the Southwest Territory, and Tennessee became the 16th state in 1796.

Via rivers and trails and through the Cumberland Gap, settlers flocked into Tennessee, especially from the Carolinas and Virginia. Considerable numbers came also from Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Indian land cessions and forced removal had opened all of Tennessee to white settlement by the 1830s.

Farmers and planters grew tobacco and cotton, often with slave labor, while the Mississippi, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers encouraged commerce. By 1860, Tennessee had over 1 million residents, of whom 25 percent were slaves, less than 1 percent were free blacks, and nearly 2 percent were foreign-born.

Tennessee seceded after hostilities began in 1861, sent soldiers to both sides during the Civil War, and saw numerous battles. The Union army occupied much of the state early in the war and virtually all of the state by 1863. In 1866, impoverished but without going through Reconstruction, Tennessee was the first former Confederate state readmitted to the Union. Until the 1940s, the state remained largely agricultural, dedicated to cotton and tobacco, but with growing industries for food, wood, textile, mineral and chemical products. By 1960, the urban population surpassed the rural with 52 percent of the state’s total.

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Tennessee History Research Overview


  • Tax lists and other contemporary records can help replace lost census schedules and identify early residents. Partial substitutes for the lost 1890 census are the 1891 enumerations of males over 21, available for most counties at the state archives and on microfilm elsewhere.
  • Tennessee is not a federal land state, but some North Carolina Revolutionary War veterans or their heirs received bounty land in the state.
  • Because Tennessee was considered an offshoot of North Carolina, people reporting they were born in North Carolina before 1796 might have been born in what is now Tennessee.
  • The Tennessee State Library and Archives participates in interlibrary loan of some materials. See for information.
  • Visit Tennessee State Library and Archive for extensive Tennessee bibliographies.


  • Federal census population schedules: 1810 (Rutherford and Grainger counties only), 1820 (26 counties), 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1850, 1860, 1880
  • Federal slave schedules: 1850, 1860 (schedules name slaveholders but rarely name slaves.)
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890


  • Bible Records of Families of East Tennessee And Their Connections From Other Areas, 3 vols., by Adele Weiss Sneed (Knoxville Chapter of the Daughters of the American Colonists and James White Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1959-60)
  • Check List of Tennessee Imprints, 1841-1850 from the Historical Records Survey (Tennessee Historical Records Survey, 1941)
  • Early Times in Middle Tennessee by John Carr (R.H. Horsley and Associates, 1958)
  • Genealogy Research Sources in Tennessee by Beverly W. Hathaway (Allstates Research Co., 1972)
  • Guide to County Records and Genealogical Resources in Tennessee by Richard Carlton Fulcher (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987)
  • Guide to Microfilmed Manuscript Holdings of the Tennessee State Library and Archives, 3rd edition (Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1983)
  • History of Tennessee, 4 vols., by Stanley John Folmsbee (Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1960)
  • A History of Tennessee And Tennesseans, 8 vols., by William T. Hale and Dixon L. Merritt (Lewis Publishing Co., 1913)
  • Inventory of the Church Archives of Tennessee: Nashville Baptist Association from the Historical Records Survey (Historical Records Survey, WPA, 1939)
  • List of Tennessee Imprints, 1793-1840, in Tennessee Libraries from the Historical Records Survey (Tennessee Historical Records Survey, 1941)
  • Notable Men of Tennessee: Personal and Genealogical With Portraits, 2 vols., by John Roy V. Allison (Southern Historical Association, 1905)
  • Sketches of Prominent Tennesseans by William S. Speer (A.B. Tavel, 1888)
  • Tennessee County Records Manual (Tennessee State Library and Archives, ca. 1968)
  • Tennessee Cousins: A History of Tennessee People by Worth Stickley Ray (1950; Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968)
  • Tennessee Genealogical Records: Records Of Early Settlers from State and County Archives by Edythe Rucker Whitley (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981)
  • Tennessee Genealogical Research by George K. Schweitzer (George K. Schweitzer, 1986)
  • Tennessee History: A Bibliography compiled and edited by Sam B. Smith and Luke H. Banker (University of Tennessee Press, 1974)
  • Tennessee Newspapers: A Cumulative List of Microfilmed Tennessee Newspapers in the Tennessee State Library (Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1978)
  • Tennessee Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at
  • Tennessee, the Volunteer State, 1760-1923, 4 vols., by John Trotwood Moore and Austin P. Foster (S.J. Clark Publishing Co., 1923)
  • Timeless Tennesseans by James A. Crutchfield (Strode Publishers, 1984)

If you’d love to learn more about Tennessee genealogy research, be sure to sign up for our webinar we’ll be hosting on Tuesday, September 26th!




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