This article will be an overview to the various commonly used records for genealogical research. The order in which they are presented in this article is a general listing of the order I generally use to research a family when starting from the beginning.
This record group was discussed in this blog previously in Lesson 2: Gathering Records for Your Genealogy. Don’t overlook starting with this type of records and information. The family papers provide a foundation and clues to use to assure that you are researching the correct line. They will generally provide some information about names, geographic locations, interesting stories about individuals that may provide the necessary clue to connect you to other documentation. Most people can find some information about family members in their family files or by talking to relatives.
County Histories, Family Histories and Biographies
These sources are much like the Family Papers. They will provide clues as to where family members lived, who they married, names of their children, their occupations, religious affiliations, other memberships, military service, political affiliation and much more. Not everyone will be lucky enough to find a biographical sketch, family history or a county history about their family.
These records provide documentation about three facts for individuals:
Vital records are records kept by government agencies to document life events. In the U.S. the state is usually the government body that maintains the records and most states did not start keeping vital records until the early 1900s. So before ordering a vital record for your ancestor make sure you check the particular state for the dates which their records cover.
Governments collect information about their residents mainly for tax purposes, however, this record group is one of the most helpful for genealogists researching families between 1850 and 1930 in the U.S. The U.S. government collects census information every 10 years and has since 1790 – 2010, however, due to privacy issues only makes publicly available those census records prior to and including 1930. Census records prior to 1850 do not name each household member by name. They are still useful though and should not be overlooked for ancestors that lived in this time period.
Sometimes the individual states also collected census information. Examples of states that collected information include: Kansas, Iowa, Florida, Minnesota and others. You will need to investigate this further for your particular geographic interest.
Watch this blog for more on Census Records!! This is a very important source of information and will have a more detailed article in the future.
Land Records – Patents and Deeds
What is the difference between a patent or a deed documenting the ownership of land. Patents were issued to individuals when the land was transferred from a government (federal or state) to an individual. Examples include: military bounties, cash entries, land grants from governmental acts, etc. Deeds are legal instruments that document the transfer of ownership from one private party to a second party. The parties can be people or businesses. Deeds are usually filed in local government repositories such as courthouses whereas patents are usually filed at the state or federal level.
Obituaries and Death Notices
Local newspapers often document the death of citizens in their area. These can be a short death notice in the classified section or in the Brevities / Public Records section or they can be an obituary located anywhere in the newspaper.
Some cemeteries have records available that tell who is buried in the cemetery. Other cemetery records may be part of the church records if the cemetery is located on the church grounds. Other cemeteries are family plots or rural cemeteries that are no longer maintained and records are difficult to find for these cemeteries.
These are one of the most helpful types of records if you can find them for your ancestor. If your relative left a will it may give you an understanding about who and what was important to that person. There are two types of estate settlements: Testate – for those who left a will and Intestate for those who did not leave a will. If the person died with property one of these methods is used to distribute their property at the time of death and to care for minor children. These records are generally filed in the location where they owned property or where their minor children resided at the time of their death. Often the estates were settled where they resided at the time of their death and are filed with the county government in the court that had jurisdiction during the time period when your relative died and their estate was settled.
Estate files usually contain the following types of information, time and place of death, will, codicils, inventory of estate, list of beneficiaries, sale records, deeds, guardianship information, accounting reports and information about the final distribution of property after payment of debts.
Social Security and Railroad Retirement Board Records
These are good sources of information about your ancestor during their adult life. The person had to complete an application form to obtain a number within these systems. For Social Security the form is called an SS-5 Application Form. It includes name, birth date and place, name of employer, address at time of application and their signature. Social Security also maintains a death index which is available online. It is known as the SSDI or Social Security Death Index. A simple Google search on either of these terms will produce links to sites with access to the SSDI and is very helpful in determining approximate date of death and place of death so additional research can be conducted about the person.
The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) is similar to Social Security and maintains similar record types. They may have more information than SSA if your ancestor worked for the railroad. For more information Google Railroad Retirement Board or RRB.
Many of you will have ancestors that served in the military. Records are often available for their military service or when they applied for a pension due them for military service. The most useful genealogical information generally comes from the military pension applications and files. Not only the person who served can have a record, but their eligible survivors may also have filed for a pension on behalf of their service. The type of information found include proof of military service, affidavits about eligibility by associates, proof of marriage or birth of children, payment records and date / place of death.
Many of religious groups keep records about their members. Some of the common records include: birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage and death records as well as membership rolls, attendance records, tithing records, minutes from the governing groups in the church. Sometimes you can find copies of church bulletins in genealogy societies, church newsletters, denominational newspapers, membership directories with photos. These are only a few of the examples of the types of records that may be available from churches that can help with documenting your ancestor. Some of these records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and are available on microfilm through your local Family History Center. Some microfilmed church records are available from State Historical Societies and Archives or they may be available from the church regional headquarters.
Mortuary / Funeral Home Records
Some mortuaries and funeral homes are willing to help genealogists by making copies of their records available to genealogy societies in their region and also to individuals who write for a photocopy of their ancestor’s record. Remember that the Funeral Home does not have to share their records with you as they are not public record. These records generally document the name, date of death, date and place of burial, who paid for the final arrangements, and other miscellaneous information that helps you know more about your ancestor. They may record religious affiliation, spouse’s name, etc.
Immigration and Naturalization Records / Passport Applications / Passenger Lists
If your ancestor was born in a foreign country or traveled to a foreign country these records may be available for your ancestor. These records can be helpful to establish where in a particular country they came from before coming to the United States. The amount of information found in these records depends on the time of immigration, the particular record type, the particular log and other factors.
Watch for future articles about each of these record types and how to find them.