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Family Records: 5 Useful Sources for Documenting Your Family History

Whether you're starting from scratch or sorting through existing research, your family record should include these 5 sources.



November 21, 2020

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If you’re developing a genealogy or family history, you’ll need family records. Depending on how much your family has spread out, this may be something that gets put together for the first time during this project!

With so many potential paths to take with a family history, it can be hard to know where to start. Whether you’re taking on the daunting project of completing it on your own or enlisting the help of a qualified genealogist, your family records should include these 5 useful sources for documenting your family history.

1. Vital records

These are some of the most important documents for completing your genealogy and starting your family history. Vital records are government documentation of some of life’s most important events. They include birth, death, marriage, and adoption certificates.

In the US, individual states manage these documents. The Center for Disease Control created a database with information on how to reach the part of each state’s government responsible for handling such documents. You can order copies of these documents from such organizations for a nominal fee.

2. Probate records or wills

A probate record is a document created by a court following an individual’s death. The document outlines the court’s decisions about things like dividing an estate between inheritors and creditors and who takes care of dependents. Additionally, this process takes place regardless of if there’s a will or not. Probate records potentially contain a wealth of information, including dates of deaths, relatives' names, and records of military service or land ownership.

Since probate ruling is a part of state government, you can access these documents via local county courthouses. However, the office with jurisdiction over these records may vary. FamilySearch has links to resources about each state’s probate records for free on their website.

3. Newspaper notices

After vital records and probate records, newspaper notices are another excellent resource for determining specific dates in a person’s life. Often, you can find an ancestor's name listed in birth and marriage announcements and obituaries. Additionally, if you’re lucky, a relative may be famous enough to have their name in the paper for other accomplishments!

One place to start your newspaper search is with Chronicling America. This database was created through a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. It contains digitized versions of newspapers published between 1789 and 1963, searchable by state. There’s also the Google News Archive, which contains copies of old newspapers searchable by publication name and year.  

4. Census records

Anyone can look at census records through the National Archive’s website. All you need to start is your relative’s name and their state of residence. With only this information, you can learn about your ancestor’s state or country of birth, their parent’s country of birth, and the year they immigrated to the US!

However, there is one catch with census records: they only become available 72 years after each Census Day. Therefore, at the time of publication, the most recently available census is from 1940 and was published on April 2, 2012. Records from the 1950 census will be available in April of 2022. The 1960 census will become available in 2032, and so on.

5. City Directories (also known as telephone directories)

City directories were created to help businesses contact individuals in a particular area. The entries are organized alphabetically and include both names and addresses. If you have an ancestor that wasn’t registered to vote or didn’t own property, a city directory is one of the few places you can find their address.

There are two ways you can access these directories. You can first try contacting a public library in the city, town, or county where you believe your ancestor lived. Second, you can try using FamilySearch’s database of United States City and Business Directories, which contains documents from 1749-1990. While you do need an account to access this, signing up is free! Additionally, they provide a useful guide for how to search their database.

These 5 kinds of documents are an essential part of any family record.

Regardless of whether you’re finding these sources alone or enlisting the help of a professional, you should understand the significance of the documents involved in building your family records. As you fill out your family history with these items, consider how you might gather up these documents in your own life for use by one of your future ancestors.

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