Interested in using DPLA to do family research, but aren’t sure where to start? Consider the family Bible. There are two large family Bible collections in DPLA—over 2,100 (transcribed) from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, and another 90 from the South Carolina Digital Library. They’re filled with rich information about family connections and provide insight into how people of the American South lived and died during the—mainly—18th and 19th centuries.
Prior to October 1913 in North Carolina, and January 1915 in South Carolina, vital records (birth and death, specifically) were not documented at the state level. Some cities and counties kept official records before then, and in other cases births and deaths were documented—when at all—by churches or families. Private birth, death, and marriage events were most often recorded in family Bibles, which have become rich resources for genealogists in search of early vital records.
Family Bibles are Bibles passed down from one generation of relatives to the next. In some cases, such as the 1856 version held by the Hardison family, the Bible had pages dedicated to recording important events. In others, the inside covers or page margins were used to document births, deaths, and marriages. The earliest recorded date in a family Bible in DPLA is the birth of John Bullard in 1485.
Not only do family Bibles record the dates and names of those born, died, or married, but these valuable resources may identify where an event took place as well. Oftentimes, based on the way in which the event was recorded, the reader can sense the joy or heartache the recorder felt when they inscribed it in the Bible (for example, see the Jordan family Bible, page 8). You’ll even find poetry, schoolwork, correspondence, news clippings, and scribbles in family Bibles that provide insight into a family’s private life that might otherwise be lost (for examples, see the Abraham Darden, Gladney, and Henry Billings family Bibles).
Family Bibles—especially those from the southern US—may be of particular interest to African American genealogists whose ancestry trails often go cold prior to the Civil War. Before the 1860s, there is little documentary evidence that ancestors even existed beyond first names and estimated ages in bills of sale, wills, or property lists produced during slavery. Family Bibles are some of the only documents that contain the names of slaves, and in rare cases their ages, birthdates, and parentage.
A search on the subject term “Bible Records AND African Americans,” in the collection from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, returns a set of 142 North Carolina family Bibles that contain at least one documented slave name. In a few cases, the list can extend to ten or more (for example, Simmons Family Bible, page 4). This information enables African American genealogists to begin to trace their ancestry to a place and time in history.
Because African Americans are listed among the slaveholding family’s names, it can sometimes be difficult to discern which are family members and which are their slaves, so some care is required when working with these records. Generally, slaves are listed without last names (for example, see page 7 of the Horton Family Bible).
Whether you are a family researcher or are simply interested in American history, the family Bibles from North and South Carolina will be of great interest. They tell deeply personal stories and expose a rich history hidden in the private collections of American citizens that remind us that all history is truly local.
Featured image credit: Detail from page 2 of the Debnam Family Bible Records. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina via the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.
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