Beginning Principles: Important Records

If you are a beginner, you might not have a good idea of all of the different types of records one can find for their ancestors. As you gain experience, take classes, read blogs and books, watch webinars, and so on, you will gain a greater knowledge of some of the details you can really find. However, let’s start with some of the basics.

  • Vital Records – These include birth, marriage, and death records. What a beginner might not know is that they are a construct of the 1900s for the most part, especially what we think of now as a “birth certificate” or a “death certificate.” Those were not required by states until the early 1900s. And even then, it took quite some time for various counties to become completely compliant with those laws. However, you may get lucky and find births and deaths registered even earlier depending on the time and place. I do a lot of Wood County, Ohio research. They have birth and death records back into the 1870s. Baptism records will be found if your ancestors were members of a church that conducted infant baptism AND recorded those baptisms. Marriage records, on the other hand, have been recorded for quite some time, this is one record type that you will find going back to the 1600s in the U.S. not only in civil records, but also in church records.
  • Census Records – These are quite possibly the best record for quickly putting together family groups, and sometimes, several generations. Federal census records began with the U.S. Constitution. The first federal census was conducted in 1790 and every 10 years thereafter. However, not all survive. What most beginners don’t know is that nearly the entire 1890 census was lost in a fire. Only a few scraps remain. Some states conducted state censuses usually on the years ending in ‘5’ and only for a time.
  • Newspapers – And in particular, obituaries, are one of the best records for getting started with your family history. Obituaries usually give a good biographical sketch of an ancestor, who he/she married, who their children were, who their parents were, etc. Other newspaper articles are helpful too. Items in the “gossip column” or “social news” section can pin family members down in a time and place. If something bad happened, an accident or intentional event, that usually made the front page.
  • Cemeteries – Tombstones and cemetery records are quite useful in tracking down ancestors. When I first started, Find A Grave was only about famous people. I did a lot of cemetery visiting across the U.S. Now, I don’t have to (though I still like to) since Find A Grave has expanded to try to catalog all burial in the world.

These are some of the “basics” when it comes to records for the beginning genealogist. I will discuss some of the more “advanced” records to be found next week.

2 thoughts on “Beginning Principles: Important Records

  1. Great list…I would add testamentary records as well, though I suppose those might be more advanced… I’m loving this series and will point new genealogists towards it 🙂

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