If your ancestors have been living in the USA for several generations, they will have provided many different sources or documents about them, over their lifetimes. Whether they lived in a big city or a farm by a very small village, there are a variety of records that can be searched for more details about your ancestors. Use these to confirm the details you find – a good goal is to confirm details with 2-3 different sources.
Many people begin with looking through Census records, as the first official Census was in 1790, taking a snapshot of the USA every 10 years afterwards. However, some census years requested only the following minimal information: the householder’s name, the number of people residing at the home/farm (whether or free or slave), race, and number of males of age to bear arms (16 and over). While these records can be useful if you already know exactly where your ancestor lived, it can be challenging to be certain that you have the correct person or family. And, there are no details of names and ages of their children, for example, or that a widowed mother lives with them.
More than Census records, you will find additional records which may be more detailed and useful, providing you with quality sources of information. Remember that a Primary Source (a document filled out at time of an event with or by the individuals involved) is likely to be most accurate; accuracy diminishes with time after the event, and with additional people involved in the document. Look for all the details possible to be gleaned out of any document you find; they will provide you with many clues to help you trace more information.
Aside from Birth, Marriage, and Death registrations, the following 10 top Source records are very useful:
1. Church records: baptism, birth, marriage, death, burial; often includes putative father of illegitimate baby
2. Cemetery records, and headstone details: many found online now, or being transcribed by volunteers
3. Military records, military units records and histories, including draft registrations for WWI and WWII; remember that for WWI, men born between 11 Sept 1872 – 12 Sept 1900 registered; for WWII, the birthdates are 27 Apr 1877 to 16 Feb 1897
4. Pension records, including pensions from various wars (of which there were many!), other military pensions, plus pensions from specific companies. Sometimes widows wrote letters about their deceased husband’s pension, and these may be recorded as well. Don’t forget to ask about all documents relating to the pensioner.
5. Land records: usually held at the local county court, these records will list details of the holders, sometimes showing that there were relatives nearby as well; women may have held land as well, so search carefully
6. Obituaries and Memorials, in local newspapers or in the newspaper of a town where the individual lived in the past; funeral cards printed for the funeral service are also useful in this regard – if you can find them.
7. Wills, and probate details: check for several years either side of a death for these documents
8. State and Federal Censuses: remember that some states took censuses for various purposes, every few years, and these may help you fill in the gaps about your ancestors
9. Family Histories published: also County Histories, City Histories: many of these histories were published in the late 1800s and into the 1900s, and although may contain errors, they also contain much interesting detail and may provide you with more clues to follow. Look for a centennial year of a state or town where your ancestors lived, to see if any histories were written, and housed in a local museum.
10. And – don’t forget to search Directories of all sorts: City, Fraternal, Society, Tax Voter Lists; think of what kinds of societies or groups your ancestor might have belonged to (Masonic Lodges, political parties, associations), or what kind of document might list their name and address (or more)!
There are many more records that could be searched for additional information to add colour and depth to your ancestors’ lives. These 10 types of records are the ones that beginners in genealogy research sometimes forget tofind in libraries and archives of all sorts. As you go further back in time, you will find the above sources very helpful in confirming your ancestors’ details. Enjoy your searches!