City Guide: Atlanta

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

In 1847, Atlanta, Ga., was “a dreary collection of cabins” with a single storefront. But within 25 years, bragged the Appletons journal in 1872, Atlanta became home to nearly 500 stores that sold $25 million in merchandise. Today the Atlanta area still booms, doing $270 billion of business a year. Your genealogical research will flourish, too, if you follow our pointers for tracing your Atlanta ancestors.

Rise of the Gate City
Creek natives roamed the shores of the Chattahoochee River long before European colonists built Fort Standing Peach Tree on the future site of Atlanta in 1813. The Creek ceded ownership in 1821, and land was immediately distributed by a state-run lottery. Settlements quickly sprang up, but Atlanta (originally named Terminus, then Marthasville) didn’t grow until a railway terminus was built and trains began to run in 1845.

Soon, four rail lines snaked through Atlanta. The 1850 population of about 2,500 quadrupled within 10 years, then quadrupled again in 20, despite the Union Army’s burning of the city in 1864. Settlers migrated from other parts of Georgia and the Southeast, along with a few upper-crust northerners and Europeans. After the Civil War, Atlanta rebuilt itself into a thriving state capital. Newly emancipated African-Americans arrived by the thousands in search of jobs and education.

Atlanta continued to grow and evolve over the coming century. Cotton mills were replaced by WWII manufacturing and later by the telecommunications industry. Air travel eventually trumped rail transportation. In 1950, nearly a million people lived in the metro area; today, it’s 5 million. Recent immigrant populations include those of Latin, Asian and Jewish ancestry.

Tips for tracing Atlantans
When starting your research, you’ll need to know that Atlanta became part of DeKalb County in 1822 after the land lottery. The city then became part of Fulton County in 1853. Today, parts of the city spill back into DeKalb County.

  • Vital records: The city of Atlanta began recording vital statistics in the late 1800s, well before the state mandated it in 1919. Order birth, death and marriage certificates through state or county offices.

    Privacy restrictions limit access to birth records to immediate family, but local certified genealogist Paul K. Graham reports some success in obtaining information on long-deceased ancestors. Death records are easier to come by: Any relative may request one. Additionally, some early 20th-century death certificate images are available at the Georgia Archives Virtual Vault The Georgia Death Certificate Index at the Atlanta History Center lists name, county and certificate number for deaths since 1919; similar data for 2.7 million people is available at . Archivist Sue VerHoef of the Atlanta History Center also recommends Garrett’s Necrology File

    Atlanta marriage records from 1829 (including images) are searchable at the Georgia Archives Virtual Vault Many pre-1900 records are now at the Georgia Archives; the Family History Library (FHL) has microfilmed some up to the early 1900s. Fill in the gaps with’s 167,000-name database of Georgia marriages to 1850 and a microfilmed collection of Fulton County African-American marriages (1866 to 1902) at the Atlanta History Center.

  • Land records: The 1821 land lottery results appear in printed indexes at Georgia repositories and the FHL. Post-lottery land transfers between individuals are recorded with the County Clerk of the Superior Court. Request copies from the county clerk if you know the correct reference book and page numbers; county offices don’t provide research services. You also can order microfilmed county land records through your local FamilySearch Center (a branch of the FHL; find the one nearest you at

  • Cemeteries: Atlanta has several major historic cemeteries with offices still in operation. Oakland Cemetery was the only city cemetery from 1850 through the 1880s. Details about burial records are at; also has headstone transcription data for 40,000 Oakland burials

    South-View Cemetery has served African-Americans and other minorities since 1886; about 70,000 people are buried there. E-mail its office with lookup requests (use the form at Graham also recommends looking for local veterans in the Marietta National Cemetery in nearby Cobb County (find a burial index at

  • Newspapers: Many Atlanta newspapers are digitized and searchable online. Southern Miscellany, Atlanta Intelligencer and Atlanta Daily Examiner all circulated before the Civil War. The Atlanta Constitution started its presses in 1868; circulation grew to 140,000 by 1890. The Atlanta Journal cropped up in 1883. (These huge dailies merged in 2001 to become the Journal-Constitution.) The African American Atlanta World circulated weekly beginning in 1917, and by 1932 became the syndicated Atlanta Daily World. Graham searches many of these papers for free at the Atlanta Historic Newspaper Archive; you also can read them on microfilm at the Atlanta History Center.

  • City directories: The first Atlanta directory appeared in 1859. The Civil War disrupted publication, but annual guides begin again in 1867. Search for city directories online at (1867 to 1922) and in person at the DeKalb History Center (1918 to 1991), or order microforms from the FHL (1859 to 1935). VerHoef says you can look up people by address, last name or business name beginning in the mid-1880s. Street names have changed over time, she warns, and street numbers changed in 1892 and 1926. A quick e-mail inquiry to the Atlanta History Center might help you track a street name or number change.

  • Local maps: The history center has an excellent collection of area maps, historical and modern. You also can find an 1850s subdivision map of Atlanta at Graham relies on the detailed Sanborn fire-insurance maps (1886 and later) that appear in high-resolution format at the Digital Library of Georgia

Find more research advice from our local experts at

Peachy repositories
Recent cuts at the Georgia Archives (formerly the Georgia Department of Archives and History) make this valuable facility less accessible to both local and distance researchers. If you’re unable to get there, the Atlanta History Center is an excellent alternative: It claims the best genealogical resources for the city of Atlanta and provides up to 30 minutes of free lookups through its website (see toolkit). VerHoef suggests using this service only for specific requests, including lookups in its massive as-yet-undigitized card catalog and surname files. You can hire expert researchers at the Atlanta History Center for more complex inquiries.

Learn more about other fantastic Atlanta research repositories and tips for visiting at

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1821
  • Incorporated: Terminus, 1837; Marthasville, 1843; Atlanta, 1847
  • Nicknames: Gate City, Hotlanta, ATL
  • State: Georgia
  • County: Fulton (since 1853)
  • Other parent counties: DeKalb (1822 to 1853)
  • Area: 132.4 square miles
  • Motto: Resurgens (Latin for “Rising Again”)
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: Scots-Irish, African-American, Latino, Asian, Jewish
  • Primary historical industries: Transportation, manufacturing
  • Famous sons & daughters: Hank Aaron, President Jimmy Carter, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, Julia Roberts, Ted Turner

Tip: Atlanta’s building permits can show you when a house appeared at a certain address. You can find the microfilm at the Atlanta History Center. Get more tips at




  • Atlanta & Environs, 2 volumes, by Franklin M. Garrett (Lewis Historical Publishing Co.)
  • Georgia Research by Robert S. Davis Jr. and Ted O. Brooke (Georgia Genealogical Society)
  • Official History of Fulton County by Walter G. Cooper (Reprint Co.)
  • Pioneer History of Atlanta (Pioneer Citizens’ Society of Atlanta, available on

Archives & organizations

  • Atlanta Fulton Public Library, Georgia Local and Family History Department 1 Margaret Mitchell Square, Atlanta, GA 30033, (404) 730-1896,
  • Atlanta History Center 130 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, GA 30305, (404) 814-4000,
  • DeKalb County Clerk of Superior Court 556 N. McDonough St., Ground Floor, Decatur, GA 30030, (404) 371-2836
  • DeKalb County Probate Court Room 1100, Courthouse Annex, 556 N. McDonough St., Decatur, GA 30030, (404) 371-2601
  • Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness, Vital Records 99 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, Room 101, Atlanta, GA 30303, (404) 730-1260,
  • Fulton County Office of the Clerk of Superior Court 136 Pryor St. SW, Atlanta, GA 30303, (404) 613-5295
  • Georgia Archives 5800 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, GA 30260, (678) 364-3700,
  • Georgia Department of Community Health, Vital Records 2600 Skyland Drive NE, Atlanta, GA 30319,
  • National Archives and Records Administration, Southeast Region 5780 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, GA 30260, (770) 968-2100,

1732: Georgia becomes one of the 13 Colonies
1788: Georgia becomes a state
1821: Earliest permanent settlers arrive
1847: Atlanta incorporates as a city
1861: Atlanta is a major Southern transportation hub at the outset of the Civil War
1864: Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops burn Atlanta
1886: Local drugstore sells Coca-Cola as a “headache and hangover tonic”
1906: Atlanta Race Riot breaks out Sept. 22
1917: Atlanta burns again, leaving 10,000 homeless
1939: The movie Gone With the Wind opens in Atlanta
1964: Martin Luther King Jr. wins the Nobel Peace Prize

Records at a Glance

Birth records

  • Begin: 1896
  • Privacy restrictions: Must be close relative with legal interest.
  • Research tips: Old records requested by a relative are sometimes honored. Request from county or state offices; apply in person or through VitalChek (800-255-2414,


  • Begin: federal in 1820
  • Research tips: Search for Atlanta ancestors in DeKalb County in the 1830 to 1850 US censuses, and in Fulton from 1860 on. Remember to look under Terminus or Marthasville before Atlanta’s incorporation in 1847.

City directories

  • Begin: 1859, 1867 to present
  • Research tips: Search many Atlanta city directories for free at

Death records

  • Begin: 1887
  • Privacy restrictions: Any relative may request.
  • Research tips: Request from county or state offices; apply in person or through VitalChek (800-255-2414,


  • Begin: 1821
  • Research tips: Begin with published results of 1821 land lottery. Subsequent land transfers filed at County Clerk of Superior Court.

Marriage records

  • Begin: 1842
  • Privacy restrictions: none
  • Research tips: Request from county probate court. Georgia marriage records from 1829 (including images) are searchable at

Top Five Historic Sites

1. Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum
800 Cherokee Ave. SE, Atlanta, GA 30315, (404) 658-7625,
See a panoramic presentation of the Battle of Atlanta through a cyclorama (one of the world’s largest paintings), authentic military artifacts and a video presentation.

2. Atlanta History Center
130 W. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, GA 30305, (404) 814-4000,
Explore museum exhibits, historic homes and gardens—including the (off-site) apartment in which Margaret Mitchell wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone with the Wind—and an excellent genealogical research library.

3. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site
450 Auburn Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA 30312, (404) 331-6922,
The site includes the home where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and spent his early childhood, as well as the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a visitor center, library and archives, and the King Center (Freedom Hall), where the civil rights leader is buried.

4. Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History
2829 Cherokee St., Kennesaw, GA 30144, (770) 427-2117,
This Smithsonian-affiliated museum showcases the daily lives of Civil War soldiers, the railroading industry in the South, and a re-creation of the Civil War’s Great Locomotive Chase.

5. Stone Mountain
US Highway 78 East, Exit 8, Stone Mountain, GA 30087, (770) 413-5086,

See the Confederate Memorial, the largest relief carving in the world. View exhibits and a film relating to the Civil War and local economic history.

You’ll find more help researching Georgia ancestors in these resources:


From the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine