Communities of Kinship
Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier

Carolyn Earle Billingsley

An important new study of how familial connections impelled and influenced the peopling of the South


"Blood ties, as historically invisible and intricately twisted as strands of DNA, have always been the building blocks of society. In Communities of Kinship, Billingsley maps one strand of the social genome that created the American South, demonstrating why historians will never truly understand society until they genealogically study the individual families who are the genes within the common body."
—Elizabeth Shown Mills, Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research

"Billingsley's book accomplishes what previous studies of antebellum southern kinship stop short of doing by going beyond the borders of one community and state to examine how kinship and the process of migration shaped one another. Her focus on a single family and its thousands of descendants not only traces the role kinship played over an extended period of time and over an extended area, but also provides a valuable methodological bridge between genealogists and historians."
—Robert C. Kenzer, author of Kinship and Neighborhood in a Southern Community: Orange County, North Carolina, 1849-1881

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Trained as both a genealogist and a historian, Carolyn Earle Billingsley shows how the analytic category of kinship can add new dimensions to our understanding of the American South. In Communities of Kinship, she studies a southern family---that of Thomas Keesee Sr.---to show how the biological, legal, and fictive kinship ties between him and some seven thousand of his descendants and relatives helped to shape the growth of the interior South. Keesee, who was born in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, left there with his family when he was still a boy and subsequently lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas.

Drawing on Keesee family history, Billingsley reminds us that, contrary to the accepted notion of rugged individuals heeding the proverbial call of the open spaces, kindred groups accounted for most of the migration to the South’s interior and boundary lands. In addition, she discusses how, for antebellum southerners, the religious affiliation of one’s parents was the most powerful predictor of one’s own spiritual leanings, with marriage being the strongest motivation to change them. Billingsley also looks at the connections between kinship and economic and political power, offering examples of how Keesee family members facilitated and consolidated their influence and wealth through kin ties.

Piecing together a wide assortment of public and private records that pertain to the Keesee family and shed light on naming practices, residential propinquity, migration patterns, economic and political dealings, and religious interactions, Billingsley offers a model of innovation and subtle analysis for historians. This important new study makes a persuasive case that kinship, particularly in the study of the antebellum South, should be considered a discrete category of analysis complementary to, and potentially as powerful as, race, class, and gender.

Page count: 232 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $26.95

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Carolyn Earle Billingsley earned her doctorate in southern history at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She now lives in Alexander, Arkansas, where she works as an independent historian and professional genealogist.