Genealogy Checklist: 13 Types of Records to Include in Your Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides a handy tool to help with your family history research: a checklist of 13 types of genealogy records that you can use for each ancestor you search for, to make sure your research is thorough.

After conducting online searches through your favorite genealogy websites, you may feel like you’ve hit a brick wall. This is understandable—it’s easy to become overwhelmed with multiple databases and lose sight of what sources might help you answer your research question.

Before you decide you’re facing that brick wall, consult this checklist of frequently-used family history sources. A checklist of sources can help you plan out your research and keep track of where you have searched. Print this out for each individual you search for, and refer to it as you research your family history.

illustration of a magnifying glass

Illustration: magnifying glass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

1) Census Records

One of the first places we often look for our family is in the U.S. Federal Census. The census should be your go-to source for trying to place your ancestor in time. The census was taken every 10 years starting in 1790. (However, the 1890 census was largely destroyed.) Because of privacy concerns, the latest census you can access is 1940.

As you think about your ancestor in the census, don’t forget that other census schedules exist aside from the familiar population schedules. Depending on the year, you may also want to consult the Mortality, Agriculture, Slave, Veterans and Defective, Dependent and Delinquent schedules.

Also take a note if the state your ancestor lived in conducted a state or territorial census. Not every state participated in such a census and in some cases a state may have only conducted one when it was still a territory, but a state census can often yield additional information not compiled in the federal census.

2) Church or Synagogue Records

What religion was your ancestor? This is important, especially considering that in some cases a religious record might take the place of a civil registration. What records should you look for? The answer is: it depends. It depends on where your ancestor lived, what religion they practiced, and what still exists.

Records that might exist include those that document baptisms, christenings, marriages, and deaths. Other religious records include: cemetery records, school records, censuses, meeting notes, membership lists, pew deeds, adoption records, excommunications, church periodical articles, directories, and church auxiliary records. Exhaust religious databases found online like the selection found at JewishGen. To find church records, consult the individual meeting house and then archives associated with that religious community, including academic institutions and seminaries. Also, consider conducting a place search in the Family History Library Catalog.

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3) Court Records

Even if you think your ancestor would have no interaction with the local court, don’t overlook searching at least the civil case index for their name. Our ancestors were involved in all sorts of legal matters, and it’s a myth to believe that only our modern society is “sue happy.” Some items to look for include minutes, orders/decrees, judgments, case files, indexes, criminal proceedings, naturalizations, and divorce petitions. Learn more about what court records exist by reading the book The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood. Note that you can also find court case files and courtroom transcripts in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives.

4) Death Records

Death results in a lot of paperwork. Sure, there’s the death certificate—but that’s just the beginning. There can be paperwork from the hospital, funeral home and cemetery. What other paperwork can be found? Death certificates, newspapers (including articles, legal notices, funeral notices, death notices and obituaries), funeral home records, pension records, church records, cemetery records, court records (to include a will or probate or in the case of an accident there might be a lawsuit), Coroner’s Inquest, city directories, and the Social Security Death Index. Notices from membership directories and publications may also offer clues.

5) Home Sources

Every genealogy project should begin with home sources. These are the heirlooms and “stuff” inherited and passed down through the generations. Sometimes just talking about your interest in genealogy will alert family members that you would be a grateful recipient of items that they have inherited. What are some possible home sources? Correspondence, newspaper clippings, photos, scrapbooks, diaries and journals, family Bibles, naturalization paperwork, funeral home cards, and work- and school-related papers. As you try to find home sources, don’t forget to use social media to connect with long-lost cousins who have also inherited heirlooms.

6) Land Records

Did your ancestor own land or a home? You’ll want to search for a grantee/grantor index, deeds, mortgages, patents and grants. These records can be found anywhere from the Family History Library, a local courthouse or a county recorder’s office, to the National Archives. Make sure to plan out what you are looking for and search online for what entity has that record.

7) Major Life Events

Let’s face it, a birth or marriage can result in all kinds of documentation. Everything from home sources (think baby books and photo albums filled with greeting cards and descriptions of the big day), to official government records (vital record certificates) and church records. Don’t forget newspaper articles about the actual event (birth or marriage) as well as articles about the engagement, elopement or milestone anniversaries. Marriage records that could exist include: banns, bonds, licenses/applications, and certificates.

8) Military Service Records

Did your ancestor serve in the military? If they were a soldier at any point, think about searching for military service records, pensions, bounty land grants, awards, draft registrations, unit histories, battle histories and maps. Been told that all of your ancestor’s military records burned? Make sure to check for a Final Pay Voucher and ask your recent vets about the DD214 which lists information about their service including awards earned.

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9) Historical Newspapers

Many of the life events we have mentioned were reported in newspaper articles. But don’t forget that your ancestor could be mentioned in all parts of the newspaper, including legal notices, advertisements, society pages, crime reports, and other general articles. Not sure what types of articles exist? On the GenealogyBank Blog we focus on a variety of newspaper articles and how they can assist your genealogical research.

10) Occupational Records

Even if your ancestor was “just a farmer,” an occupation can leave behind a paper trail. Consider items like paycheck stubs, occupational periodicals, union records, membership cards and records to professional groups. Mentions of occupations can also be found in the city directory.

11) Published Sources

There are many different types of published sources that can assist you throughout your family history research. In some cases, like that of unsourced family history books, they may be just a place to gather initial clues. In other cases, however, they can provide you with definitive information to confirm your ancestor’s place in time, such as city directories.

Make sure to consult biographical works on your ancestor or their associates, county and local histories, and periodical indexes like PERSI, Google Scholar and JSTOR.

12) School Days

What schools did your ancestor attend? Even if they only attended for a few years, records may be available. Consider what may be available from attending an Elementary, Secondary, High, or Vocational/Trade school, as well as a College or University. Papers may in some cases be found in the home, but also could be found in an archive or the Family History Library. Look for yearbooks and alumni directories, school newspapers, articles about school awards and events in local newspapers, award certificates, report cards, and school census records.

13) Tax Records

We all know the saying “nothing is certain but death and taxes,” and that is as true for us now as it was for our ancestors. Why search tax records? They can not only establish a place in time for your ancestors, but they help you better understand their lives.

Some ideas about tax records that could exist are: poll, personal property, real estate, income, federal, inheritance, and school taxes. Don’t forget that the newspaper also printed lists of those who were negligent in paying their taxes.

Is the above list of 13 genealogical sources totally comprehensive? No, of course not, but it provides a handy reference for your family history research. As you plan your genealogy searches, also consider what libraries, archives, and museums exist where your ancestor lived. They may have catalogs that will provide you with additional sources that you may not have known existed.

You can either print or create a PDF version of this Blog post by simply clicking on the green “Print/PDF” button below. The PDF version makes it easy to save this post on your desktop or portable device for quick reference—all the links will be live.

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Genealogy Resource Partners: Newspapers & the Census

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows that combining research in old newspapers with records from the U.S. Census is a good strategy, leading to genealogy discoveries about your ancestors you might otherwise have missed.

All of us who love genealogy know we must check and double-check our data as we create or fill in our family trees. Our double-checking can be accomplished in any number of ways. One of the ways I really enjoy is discovering how complementary and helpful newspaper articles and obituaries from the databases of GenealogyBank are to each other. This is especially true when we take this a step further: when we compare and contrast newspaper articles with return information from the U.S. Census. When paired together, you will find that newspapers and the Census are great genealogy resource partners.

Here’s an example of that complementary partnership. I was working on my maternal grandmother, Mae Anne Vicha, and tracing where she lived, etc. It wasn’t long before I came across information about her in an Ohio newspaper’s Society Pages. The column was titled “Social News of the Week” and featured as one of the tidbits the fact that the “B.C.B. Club” (a literary and social club) would be entertained next, on June 21st, at the home of Miss Mae Vicha, 3800 Warren Ave. I then checked the United States Census for 1910 and sure enough, there was my grandmother, now married, but living with her Mother, brother and sisters all at 3800 Warren Ave.

article about Mae Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 June 1906

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 June 1906, page 29

Another interesting example I encountered of how newspaper articles and Census records can work together in tandem, leading you to great family history discoveries, occurred during some early genealogy research I was conducting on my Vicha ancestors. I was working through the Census returns on Teresa Vicha when I came upon the 1920 return. Not only did I find Teresa married to John Sluka, but I also found one of their daughters, Carolyn, living with them. Carolyn had married, taken the surname of Bidlingmaier, and had two children. Plus there was another treat: I found yet a second daughter, Teresa, also married and having taken the surname of Rehor. As I worked to corroborate this information about the Vicha family, the first item I found in the newspapers offered multiple benefits—just like the Census.

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This historical article is from an 1896 Ohio newspaper. While I was enjoying reading “In the athletic events the fat tailors’ race and the lean tailors’ race were the most amusing,” I found that John Sluka won one of the races (for the lean tailors, and he won a suit of clothes). Imagine my surprise when elsewhere in the same article it stated that my great grandfather, J. K. Vicha, was “the orator of the day” and was the national representative of the United Garment Workers and past president of the Central Labor Union of Cleveland.

Tailor's Picnic, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 September 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 September 1896, page 5

As I continued to work this branch of my family tree I came upon a 1907 article, again in the Plain Dealer. It was a sad story about an attempted suicide because the “Mother of Murdered Policeman Is Weary of Existence.”

article about Barbara Sluka, Plain Dealer newspaper article 22 September 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 22 September 1907, page 5

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I knew from my earlier ancestry research that my first cousin (twice removed), Albert Sluka, had been a special policeman who was stabbed to death outside a dance hall. But his mother was Teresa, not Barbara as reported in this article!

photo of Albert Sluka from his tombstone in Woodland Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

Photo: picture of Albert Sluka from his tombstone in Woodland Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: from the author’s collection.

This was indeed an interesting, but perplexing, old news article that required some additional and very enjoyable genealogy detective work. I’m glad to say I was able to straighten out the story. Barbara was actually the grandmother, not the mother, of Albert. Plus she did recover from her attempted suicide and lived for an additional 12 years. Perhaps it was Barbara’s thick Bohemian accent combined with her advanced age that caused the newspaper reporter to get the details just a bit mixed up.

Do you work with Census records and newspapers in tandem? If so, what have you found that has helped you the most in using these resources to research your genealogy?

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