Carolina Conversations: with State Library of North Carolina Genealogy Reference Librarian Kay Tillotson

by Corbie Hill | Images courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Kay Tillotson’s ancestors have been in North Carolina “since the dirt.”

They were common, ordinary people, she says, but she’s proud of them anyway. What records she can find reveal that they were born, got married, bought a little land, started families and died. They served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Second World War (but not the Civil War). They may not have been rich or famous, but they survived. And for that, she’s proud.

“I know that I am a little bit of everything. North Carolina was so ethnically diverse,” Tillotson says. “We had the Highland Scots, we had the Lowland Scots, we had the Scotch-Irish, we had the Germans very early, we had the Swiss that came into New Bern.” And, she adds, there was a sizable free African-American population since 1790.

As the State Library of North Carolina’s genealogical research librarian, Tillotson helps others discover their family histories. Genealogy is an increasingly popular hobby, she notes, and people even travel to North Carolina to trace their roots. So for our “Generations” issue, we spoke with Tillotson about the research, the process and the rewards of finding out exactly who you are descended from.

OutreachNC: You started at the State Library in 2001. How have your research tools changed since then?

Kay Tillotson: When I first started, many researchers were actually coming here and reading microfilm of old census information to gather information. Now our library subscribes to databases. We have a tremendous digital resource online that’s available and free to the public.

Our digital staff has been tremendous. In addition to putting up lots of state statutes and things of this sort, they have so many sites of our digital collection that very particularly are of interest to genealogists. They have a whole family records section. They have taken family Bibles that people have brought to our library. They digitize them and put them online. My favorite place to do genealogy is at home in my jammies in the middle of the night. I can get into our digital collection. I can see Bible records. I can see cemetery records. A Bible, before there were birth and death records, was a tremendous source of births, deaths and marriages and that type of information.

ONC: What can you get from an oral history and why do oral histories appeal to you?

KT: The first thing that everybody should do when you’re starting your genealogy is find the oldest member of your family, make a date, go visit with them, take some lemonade and some cookies or some donuts, sit with them and listen to everything they have to say. Ask them about their mother, their grandmother, what their memories of those people [are]. Unfortunately, time and death and disease rob those memories from our older family members, and once they’re gone they’re lost forever.

You take all those hints and clues that you have gotten and you find an original public document that backs it up that you can cite. Great-grandmother told me this, and look – here is his Civil War record; Here is the War of 1812 chunk of his service records. Sometimes you disprove them. As you mature, people like me, you find time passes quickly, so things you think were ten years ago may be 25 years ago. But at least it’s a hint and a clue. It gives us a place to begin.

Plus, it’s a great gift to the older person. I always tell people to please take a recording device and actually record the person’s voice. Record Grandmother’s voice as she says it and pass it to your grandchildren. They can actually hear the stories told in her voice.

ONC: How about African-American families whose ancestors were enslaved or indigenous North Carolinians whose ancestors had to hide or pass for another ethnicity to get by? What tools are there for people whose histories were interrupted and who want to find out their heritage?

KT: You mention two groups whose genealogies are a bit [more] difficult than [those of] people of European descent. For ancestors that were enslaved African-Americans we have the US Census. The US Census is a tremendous basic genealogy tool. Every ten years it puts a person in a time and a place. When you put them in a place you can start looking for local records.

[The Census] recorded, for example, how many slaves a person had. From 1790 through 1840, they were just categories. It was males that fell below the age of 14, enslaved males of the age of 14-25, things like this. Those numbers gave values for tax purposes. In 1850 and 1860, each one of those census years kept special slave schedules. Unfortunately, they did not name the slaves, but under the slaveholder, every slave was enumerated by their age and their gender. If you could find your recently freed ancestor on the 1870 Census, that’s a good place to always start.

Nothing is perfect, but if we use something like freedmen’s bank records, we find that about 90 percent of recently freed African-Americans stayed for awhile close to their former slaveholder. We encourage genealogists as they look back to find their ancestors in the 1870 [census] – if not, on the 1880. Then we encourage them to look at the neighborhood: look at the people around them who have a great deal of real estate … Then look back on the 1860 [and] see if he owned slaves, people like your ancestor in 1870. For example, a female who’s 35 — remember in 1860, she would have been 25 years old and female. See who owned in that area a female of 25. That might be a potential slaveholder of your ancestor.

Some slaves indeed took the name of their slave master. There was no rule, you did not have to do that. I’m talking social history of the day and time. We’ve got to remember most enslaved people only experienced what they had been allowed by their master, virtually. Their environment was very limited.

Slave records are private records. We, in the public sector as a state library, do not necessarily have access to those records. However, many descendants of these people are finding very carefully kept records. The descendants of these former slaveholders are turning those over to public institutions. That’s a place you can begin to look.

Of course, when a person dies and they have things of wealth, in their will they are going to name each one of those slaves and tell who is going to inherit that slave. Very often in wills or estate records, we can find those slaves listed by name.

ONC: And for indigenous North Carolinians?

KT: That’s one of the most difficult of genealogies to do, when you’re trying to prove your Native American ancestry. The state of North Carolina now recognizes eight American Indian tribes. The federal government only recognizes one of them, and that’s the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. The federal government is the one that kept careful records, so we’ve got nice inventories, especially after 1835 and the Trail of Tears era of those Cherokee Native Americans.

I am not a clever person, but my ancestors were less than clever. For example, in North Carolina, for many, many years, every Indian was Cherokee. You and I know perfectly well that’s not true, but they actually were mislabeled. In Eastern North Carolina, our Lumbee Tribe is our largest tribe number-wise, but there aren’t records of who was and who wasn’t a member of that tribe, so the federal government does not recognize them. The state did not keep records of those people by name, so consequently it makes it very difficult.

Of course, the Department of Administration, State of North Carolina does have an American Indian Affairs office, but to have a list of Haliwa-Saponi [tribal members] and things like that, we do not necessarily. Any lists that there are are held by those individual tribes, not by the state, because the state did not create them. They aren’t necessarily public records that we have access to.

ONC: How do you preserve not only your grandparents’ and your parents’ records and their stories, but how do you preserve your own?

KT: Everybody has their own way of doing this. I think you should record it. Among our library’s collection we have a huge collection of things, but we accept donated family histories. In that we have over 6,731 family books that have been given to our library where people have researched their ancestry. They are here and they are here for people to come in and use.

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When conducting genealogical research make sure to check out the North Carolina Government and Heritage Library and the State Archives of North Carolina. You can visit them in Raleigh, NC or online. Both repositories are part of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

North Carolina Government and Heritage Library

The North Carolina Government and Heritage Library (GHL) celebrates the study, understanding, and appreciation of North Carolina’s rich cultural heritage. The GHL offers access to an extensive collection of published materials, including family histories; published abstracts; county, state, and federal records; and census data as well as county records housed in the State Archives of North Carolina. By offering in-person and remote research assistance, workshops, online tutorials and instruction and other genealogy-related events, the GHL helps thousands of people conduct their family research each year. This fall the GHL will be offering a free online beginning genealogy course and in person genealogy presentations in the Triangle area. Please go to their website or social media accounts for more information.

The GHL is part of the State Library of North Carolina, the principal library of state government since 1812, the State Library builds the capacity of all libraries in NC, and develops and supports access to traditional and online collections such as genealogy, NC culture and heritage and resources for the blind and physically handicapped.

State Archives of North Carolina

The State Archives of North Carolina collects, preserves, and makes available for public use historical and evidential materials relating to North Carolina. Its holdings consist of official records of state, county, and local governmental units, and copies of federal and foreign government materials. In addition to these official records are private collections, organization records, maps, pamphlets, sound recordings, photographs, motion picture film, and a small reference library. In all, the Archives houses over 50,000 linear feet of permanently valuable materials containing millions of individual items. The State Archives is part of the Division of Archives and Records, Office of Archives and History and the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

NC Digital Collections –

The North Carolina Digital Collections contain over 90,000 historic and recent photographs, state government publications, manuscripts, and other resources on topics related to North Carolina. The Collections are free and full-text searchable, and bring together content from the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library of North Carolina.

Within the North Carolina Digital Collections is the NC Family Records Collection. The Family Records Collection is comprised of North Carolina family history materials from the holdings of the State Archives of North Carolina and State Library of North Carolina. The searchable online collection currently contains:

• Nearly 1,500 Bible records (lists of birth, marriage, and death information written in North Carolina family Bibles) from the 2000+ copies of various donated family Bibles held by the State Archives of North Carolina

• Indexed marriage and death announcements from five North Carolina newspapers (Raleigh Register, North Carolina State Gazette, Daily Sentinel, Raleigh Observer, and News & Observer) from 1799 to 1893

• Photographs of headstones and general views of the Raleigh Hebrew Cemetery and the Hebrew section of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh

• Copies of genealogical research donated to the Government and Heritage Library.

Besides the Family Records Collection the NC Digital Collections has has over 30 different collections (see them all on the Site Map). Several of these are especially likely to be helpful for genealogical research, including:

• 1901 Confederate Pension Applications

• Alien Registration and Naturalization

• War of 1812 Pay Vouchers

There are also many more historical collections in which the names of ancestors may appear:

• North Carolina Newspapers

• Civil War

• Women, Marriage, and the Law

• Selections from Print Collections

• State Publications

For more information

North Carolina Government and Heritage Library

Phone: (919) 807-7450 


Social media:

State Archives of North Carolina

Phone: (919) 807-7310


Social media:

Location: 109 E. Jones St. | Raleigh, N.C. 27601

About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) is the state agency with a vision to be the leader in using the state’s natural and cultural resources to build the social, cultural, educational and economic future of North Carolina. NCDNCR’s mission is to improve the quality of life in our state by creating opportunities to experience excellence in the arts, history, libraries and nature in North Carolina by stimulating learning, inspiring creativity, preserving the state’s history, conserving the state’s natural heritage, encouraging recreation and cultural tourism, and promoting economic development.

NCDNCR includes 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, two science museums, three aquariums and Jennette’s Pier, 39 state parks and recreation areas, the N.C. Zoo, the nation’s first state-supported Symphony Orchestra, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, State Preservation Office and the Office of State Archaeology, along with the Division of Land and Water Stewardship. For more information, please call (919) 807-7300 or visit