If the three most important words in genealogy are document, document, document, then it stands to reason that the most frequently asked question is: "Where do you find the proof?"
A few cranks think it would be wonderful if one central records repository existed, especially if the data were indexed by surname and cross-referenced with every conceivable spelling. But that would kill the thrill of the hunt.
That's why this little guide below is merely intended to narrow the realm of possibilities as to where to look for evidence. Naturally the actual physical location of documents varies by time frame, state and category, and since there are as many exceptions as there are rules, you'll have plenty of opportunities to curse the moment you embarked on this addictive hobby.
County records include marriage license applications, divorce and adoption records, wills, probate proceedings, guardianship records, birth and death records from late 1800s to about 1905, land transactions, voting records, tax lists, civil lawsuits, zoning matters and some citizenship records.
Documents may be kept in courthouses, health departments or other county offices. Records are often purged, and old county records generally get shipped off to state archives.
State records include births and deaths after about 1905 and occupational licenses. If your ancestor worked in an occupation requiring state licensure or certification such as law, medicine or cosmetology, records might be available from the applicable office in the state capital. Get birth and death records from the state's vital statistics office. (For addresses, see Everton's Handy Book or log on to www.vitalrec.com.) Some state census records exist.
Federal Records include passport, military, land grant, homestead, naturalization, Social Security and Census records. Most major libraries and Mormon Family History Centers (FHC) either have on hand, or can get, copies of Census returns and other records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Naturalization Records before 1906 may be recorded in any county, federal or state court. After 1906, copies should be on file in the county courthouse and with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Get copies from INS.
Social Security records may be obtained from the Social Security Administration (SSA) if you have enough information. The quickest way to do a records check is to access the Social Security Death Index at ssdi.genealogy.rootsweb.com (note there is no www). Libraries and FHCs often have the same information on CDs. The death must have been reported to the SSA. (Most online records start in 1962.)
Military and Pension Records from before WWI are available from NARA. Original WWI draft cards are at NARA's Southeast Regional Archives in Atlanta. The rest are kept in St. Louis. Confederate soldiers did not get federal pensions. Some individual states did award pensions. Those records are in the state's archives.
If your ancestor worked for a private company or was a government employee, retirement records may be available. Railroad records are one example. Log on to www.rrb.gov for details.
Boundaries changed often in the 1700s and 1800s. State, county and township lines were routinely reconfigured. You must determine the correct county and state because records stayed where they were filed.
In an ideal world, you could squander hours and days chasing down records. More likely, though, you'll do some requests by mail. To achieve the best and quickest results, write the topic of your request on the envelop because each state has its own way of conducting business. Make your request succinct. Prices range from 50 cents a page for copies of wills to $37 for a complete Civil War pension file.
Copyright © 2002 Donna Murray Allen. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.