By Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG®
This lesson excerpt and downloadable checklist are part of the Master Course and Family History Workbook at Family History Daily’s Online Learning Center.
Have you ever wished you had a simple list of all of the most important family history records? Well, here it is.
The list contains nearly every major record type that can help you discover more about your ancestors, organized by category. Categories are listed in order of importance to developing genealogical proof. Each group includes a bulleted list of specific records one might find, as well as information you may discover within each record group.
You can use this list to gain new ideas for where to research your ancestors, and to keep track of records you have already searched.
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How do I find these records?
Unlike many of Family History Daily’s guides that link to specific sites and collections, this guide covers record types that may be found in many locations and under many names. Once you identify a record type you would like to find, search for a related collection on a genealogy site that covers the geographical areas you are researching.
We suggest looking for a collection at FamilySearch, which is always free, or on subscription sites you might already be using. For help finding a searchable online record catalog for these sites see this article.
If you cannot locate the record group for your location and time period on sites you use frequently, type the record type into Google with the location afterwards. Sometimes it also helps to add the word(s) genealogy, family history, database or collection – such as marriage banns London family history. Remember that record types may be listed under many names, so be flexible in your searches.
Family History Daily’s websites also offers articles on many of these record types and groups, with a large focus on free research, so be sure to use the search on our pages to see if you can find more help for the record you are interested in.
For even greater help finding these record collections, and sites that might contain them, consider registering for our online Family History Master Course, which offers lessons on locating many types of records as well as free research databases and much more.
Additional help for locating records for your ancestors may be found in 50 Free Genealogy Sites to Search Today and How to Use Your Ancestor’s Birth Year to Find the Best U.S. Records.
The Ultimate List of Genealogy Record Types
VITAL or BMD Records
The most valuable records for the genealogist are those fundamental to establishing family connections or links across generations. Records of birth, marriage and death yield the strongest evidence. Perhaps this is why they are called vital records. Always start here first and then branch out to other record groups as vital records grow scarce.
Birth records offer key information to the genealogist. Within, you will find the names of the child, his mother and his father. The child’s birth location and date of birth. Sometimes, they will include a reference to legitimacy and the number of previous births this mother has experienced.
The parents’ address as well as their places of birth may be included. When it comes to birth records, we cannot dismiss records of foundlings and those adopted into new families. Although adoption records may be inaccessible due to privacy laws, they should still be explored. They may hold the key to some of the most difficult of genealogical problems.
- Adoption records
- Civil birth records
- Foster records
- Orphan train records
- Orphanage records
Throughout history, a variety of records have been created surrounding the act of marriage. If the groom or bride was under the age of consent, parental permission may have been required, prompting consent forms. Parties may have applied for a marriage license before the ceremony, only to return after the ceremony with proof that the marriage occurred.
Within these records, a researcher will find the names of the groom and bride. Their age or date of birth and place. Some states required a listing of parent names. Witnesses and sponsors may be added. There may be a reference to previous marriages and the type of dissolution. Pre-nuptial and divorce records may also be available, offering explicit details pertaining to the end of the marriage. To learn more about divorce records, read this article.
- Civil divorce records
- Civil marriage records
- Consent forms
- Intention to marry forms
- Marital contracts
- Marriage license
- Prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements
Many records surrounded the event of death. From the death certificate to the laying of the grave marker, a variety of records were kept for a variety of purposes. Burial permits were taken out, which included the specific location and ownership of the plot.
Death certificates generally include the greatest amount of detail. These include the date and place of death, date and place of birth, spouse’s name, informant’s name, parents’ names and birthplaces. A reference to their usual occupation. Place of burial and undertaker were also included. There may be multiple causes of death. Perhaps, the decedent’s death was suspicious. A coroner’s report may also exist describing the autopsy’s findings and resulting investigation.
- Burial permits
- Cemetery deeds
- Cemetery records
- Civil death certificates
- Coroner or medical examiner reports (autopsy)
- Funeral home account books
- Funeral directors’ records
- Funerary cards (also called memorial cards or prayer cards)
- Grave opening orders
- Grave relocation records
- Gravestone inscriptions
- Graveyard or cemetery caretaker records
- Interment records
- Monument company records
- Online memorials
- Online obituaries
- Social Security Death Index
Much like our BMD vital records set, religious records can be just as powerful at connecting generations of ancestors. Yet, there is so much more to consider. Parish listings may include personal information about births that civil records do not include, such as the fact that a baptism was private. This may indicate that the child was sick and not expected to live. Marriages often include previous parish memberships, plus witnesses. They may include previous marriages and special dispensations.
Congregational histories will help you learn about the formation of the church. Pew rental lists will help you see the parish community. Meeting notes and vestry minutes include news and disputes within the parish, and can tell great stories of parishioners.
- Building records
- Congregation histories
- Dismissions (leave church for new congregation)
- Lists of communicants
- Marriage banns
- Meeting notes
- Parish registers of births, baptisms and christenings
- Parish registers of confirmations
- Parish registers of families
- Parish registers of marriages
- Parish registers of deaths, burials or interments
- Parish registers of tithe payments
- Paupers’ fund reports
- Pew rental listings
- Session minutes
- Sunday school records (registers, events, photos)
- Vestry minutes
HOME & FAMILY Records
Genealogical research should always begin at home, and the homes of loved ones. With a bit of creative thinking, you may find extraordinary artifacts. For example, address books may tell you exactly where and when relatives lived at a particular address. Perhaps a calendar of birthdays, too.
Treasured articles such as engraved jewelry may include names and dates. Scrapbooks may highlight your ancestor’s favorite hobby, or include tickets and clippings from every football game they ever played in. Needle-crafted samplers often give birth and marriage dates for young women who can be the hardest ancestor to research. Family photos can be investigated to identify new cousins. If you get stumped, don’t through the old photos away. Instead, read this helpful article.
- Artifacts and ephemera (official documents, engraved jewelry, school rings, tickets)
- Diaries and journals
- Family bibles
- Handcrafted samplers and quilts
- Interviews, oral and written
- Letters and postcards
- Medical records
- Personal address books
- Photo albums
- Recipe cards or books
- Report cards
- Reunion memorabilia
- Social media family groups (online community)
- Wedding albums and memorabilia
Not only did death spur the creation of records pertaining to the event itself, it also led to records pertaining to an ancestor’s real estate and moveable property, also known as chattel. These records can become strong evidence when trying to prove links from parent to child and sibling to sibling.
Wills and petitions include the names of all heirs who have a vested interest. Inventories of chattel will include names of relations, and acquaintances who received and or purchased items once owned by your ancestor. Slaves will sometimes be identified by name and value. When children are left parent-less, guardians will be charged with their care and an accounting of their inheritance. To learn more about this record source, read Probate Records Could Be the Key to Unlocking Your Family’s Hidden Past.
- Administrative accounts
- Court orders
- Dower records
- Guardian accounts
- Guardian appointments
- Inventories (chattel lists, slave lists)
- Probate records
- Wills (also Last Will & Testament)
Just as we spend our days scrolling through phone apps to keep up on all the news that’s fit to print, our ancestors poured over the newspaper. They looked for advertisements, gossip, legal notices and events of national importance.
Perhaps one of the most important sections genealogists can research is the society page. There is almost no end to the information you can find in newspaper research. You may find articles about your ancestor’s tragic accident. Or their trip to visit a daughter in Iowa. There may be news of the breakup of your ancestor’s company or perhaps their marriage. Legal notices may request that all heirs to your ancestor’s estate be present at a hearing. Or maybe they held their breath as they combed through the military draft listing in the hopes that their number had not been called to active duty. Newspapers gave a voice to society that can still be heard. Free newspapers for the U.S. can be found here.
- Articles of interest
- Birth announcements
- Burial events
- Company dissolutions
- Court records
- Death notices
- Engagement announcements
- Gossip columns
- Insolvency lists
- Jury selections
- Land transfers
- Legal notices
- Marriage licenses
- Memorial announcements
- Military draft lists
- Missing heir advertisements
- Missing immigrant advertisements
- Natural disaster news
- Passenger ship advertisements
- Passenger ship arrivals
- Probate notices
- Public announcements
- Public thank you notices
- Runaway slave advertisements
- Social events and gatherings
- Society columns
- Unclaimed letters or mail lists
- Wedding and anniversary announcements
IMMIGRATION & TRAVEL Records
Immigration and travel records can be the solution to your “Where did they come from?” problem. They hold the key every time. You simply have to mine the record. Passenger lists, in particular, include date and place of departure and arrival. They include traveling partners. Birthplaces, marital status, and parents’ names can sometimes be found. Occupation and final destination are included. Passports usually include a photo.
- Alien registration cards
- Incoming passenger lists (U.S. Customs)
- List of aliens (U.S. Customs)
- List of citizens (U.S. Customs)
- Outgoing passenger lists (from previous residence)
- Passport applications
Naturalization in the United States was a process. Therefore, more than one document was submitted. To begin, aliens declared their intention to renounce their previous citizenship. Second papers included testimony with witness signatures. These witnesses were usually friends or coworkers of the applicant.
Within naturalization records, researchers can find information about an ancestor’s immigration including ship name, date and place. Your ancestor’s birthplace and date were included. The applicant’s spouse and children were identified within second papers, plus their date of marriage and children’s birth dates.
- Certificates of Naturalization (plus stubs)
- Declaration of Intention (first papers)
- Petition with testimony and residency (second papers)
Every time land exchanged hands, records were created. These records not only identified the shape, size, and place of the land, they also identified future, present, and past owners. They might reference previous transactions. When connected to estates, land records may include relationships between fathers and sons, or siblings. They may also offer hints as to an owner’s date of death or when a seller reached the age of consent.
Military bounty warrants can lead your research towards military records. Sheriffs’ sales should lead your research towards probate records. Land records can prove the migration of a family from one area of the country to another. Read more about land records here.
- Bureau of Land Management land patents
- Deeds or conveyances
- Deeds of trust
- Federal bounty land warrants
- Federal land grants
- General Land Office patents
- Homestead grants
- Land surveys
- Military bounty land warrants
- Sheriffs’ sales
- State land grants
Although military pension records are still an all-time favorite of the genealogist, records pertaining to prisoners of war, court marshals and artifacts may one day take the lead. Military history is one of the most popular pastimes in the U.S. Thus, you can whet your appetite for military history simply by reading one of the millions of published histories available. The daily activities of your veteran can be found among the pages, even if they aren’t identified by name. When linked to their service folder, a story unfolds unlike any other.
Military records can seem a bit daunting, when you are attempting to pinpoint your specific ancestor, but when you do, you can often trace their life across years. Records tell you their date and place of birth. The place they enlisted, plus information about their regiment including their commanding officer. Honors and dishonors, along with their place of burial can be found.
- Artifacts (accessories, clothing, medals, flags, weaponry)
- Burial records
- Court martials
- Discharge records
- Draft cards
- Headstone applications
- Interment records
- Military academy records
- Military history books
- Pension applications
- Pension payment cards
- Pension records
- Prisoners of war records
- Register of enlistments
- Selective Service
- Service folder of records
- State militia records
- Veteran compensation applications
- Veteran benefits records
- War bounty land warrants
Many genealogists love census records, especially because they connect family groups. However, simple census records tell only one part of the story. When connected with census maps, we can see where our ancestors lived, and who they lived near. With agricultural schedules, we learn the value of their land and animals. Census schedules changed over the decades, focusing on data specific to the time such as men of military age, Native Americans and slaves. Some states tallied their own censuses between the decades, which closes the decade gap of records, making it easier to track families.
Within census records, we identify heads of household, their occupation and residence. Their race, gender and age are included. By 1880, relationships to the heads of household are offered. As time goes on, we identify distinct family groups, with ages and occupations. In 1900, we learn the number of living and deceased children born to mothers. Citizenship questions were also posed. Learn more about the U.S. census by reading 9 Surprising Things About the U.S. Census Every Genealogist Should Know. Overcome the challenges of the earlier censuses here and be sure to check out state censuses.
- Agricultural schedules
- Census maps
- Census substitutes
- Industrial schedules
- Manufacturing schedules
- Military censuses
- Mortality schedules
- Native Americans’ censuses
- Sheriffs’ censuses
- Slave schedules
- Slave statistics registers
- State censuses
To gain a copy of this list as a downloadable PDF checklist just enter your email below. You will also start receiving our free weekly newsletter, packed full of tips, tricks and guides.
One of the juiciest record groups available may be court records. Filled with the trials and tribulations of society, you may find intricate details of someone’s crimes and indiscretions. Very often, these records are attached to little known ancestors, whose life comes alive the more you read. Within court records, you will find the date and place of their crime, along with others who were involved. You will learn their fate, per the justice system, as well as their activities while in jail. Court records can span across years, and should be correlated with newspaper research to identify public opinion of the case. Discover more about court records in this article.
- Bastardy cases
- Case files
- Criminal records
- Docket books
- Judgment docket books
- Minute books
- Name changes
- Order books
- Penitentiary records
- Prison records
One of the most unavoidable record groups has to be taxes. Everyone paid them at one point or another. Tax records can help you to pinpoint an exact location for your ancestor. They can help you to visualize economic growth over decades of time. They can help you identify when an ancestor died. Taxes intersect with probate and land records, and should be reviewed in conjunction with one another.
- Land tax digests
- Real estate property tax records
- State tax lists
In order to truly be the ultimate record list, we must include DNA data. These require that at least one DNA test be taken, but target-testing several participants may increase the effectiveness of this digital-age record group. DNA testing companies offer a wide range of tools to connect your results with those of your matches. Some are within the testing company, while others require an upload of the raw data. When DNA results are aligned to genealogical records, users can break through brick walls and identify previously unknown family groups. One great benefit of DNA research may be the cousins you find along the way.
- Auto-clustering tools
- Autosomal DNA tools
- Chromosome browser tools
- Chromosome mapping
- cMs data
- DNA ethnicity estimate graphs
- DNA matches
- DNA methods (Leeds, McGuire)
- DNA painter tools
- DNA testing
- mtDNA tools
- Sequencing tools
- Shared cM tools (Shared cM Project)
- Surname projects
- Y-DNA tools
School records can add just the right flavor to your family history writing. Imagine locating class photos from years gone by, taken in front of the schoolhouse itself. Group shots show the people your ancestor experienced life with, in period-style dress. Reunion events often resurrect these photos. Published histories bring them back to life, too.
Contacting the school directly may assist your research. Schools often keep yearbooks and historical publications in their libraries. Old report cards may shed light on your ancestor’s talents and aspirations. Researching yearbooks will introduce you to the clubs and athletic activities of your ancestor. Candid shots will reveal his or her friends. The graduation year will help you identify their birth year. It is possible their future spouse attended the same school. A tiny bit of sleuthing may be required to solve that mystery.
- Class reunion histories
- College directories
- School histories
- School photos
- School records
Your ancestor’s employment drove many decisions he or she made. Education, migration, societal placement, and economic status were outcomes of their employment choice. On the flip side, all of these factors also influenced your ancestor’s employment. Chances are your ancestor would not become a miner unless a mine was within easy travel distance. Yet, he might leave the country to find greater opportunity, and wind up a miner in a new country simply because he already possessed the skill-set.
Before you begin your search, you may wish to read Do You Know Your Ancestors’ Occupations? 9 Sources That Will Tell You. Records can be abundant, depending on the industry. Railroad employment records are a perfect example of wonderful records, if your ancestor’s service falls within the record group’s range of record-keeping years. Access may be limited by privacy laws. If you are lucky enough to find them, they will include details such as years of service, job title, hours worked, pensions, salary, home address, and injuries on the job.
- Accounting books
- Apprentice records
- City directories
- Doctors’ journals or diaries
- Employment licenses
- Freedman’s Bank records
- Labor union records
- Licenses for trades and professions
- Life insurance records
- Mining accident records
- Mining employment records
- Organizations and societies (labor, trade)
- Personnel records (U.S. Government Civilian Personnel)
- Plantation records (include slave purchases and sales)
- Professional directories
- Professional licenses
- Railroad accident records
- Railroad employment records
- Telephone directories
- WPA records
Always keep in mind the idea that your ancestor lived within society. Events took place around them daily, just as they do for us. They lived within the hierarchy that was their society. They overcame natural disasters. In response to devastating fires, for example, insurance maps were drawn especially within cities, to insure homes against the threat of future fires. These maps included every home and business, with names and addresses. What you will find of greatest value among these records are the historical events that impacted your ancestor.
- Almshouse records
- Disaster records (natural and travel)
- Dog license applications
- Ethnic organizations and societies
- Insurance maps
- Online surname communities
- Voter registrations
Many genealogists start here with their research, which may seem a bit like building a house on shaky ground. Nevertheless, it is quite prudent to locate existing published research before embarking on your own. This approach will lead you to existing records plus additional breadcrumbs that may have been hidden from view. Another reason to give these records their fair shake is that many genealogies were published closer to the time your ancestor lived. If unsourced, these records should be considered hypotheses that require investigation and tests of analysis.
Within these records you will find the work of those who came before you. They may have the lineage completely written or they may simply have written about one couple. You may find ephemera left behind such as pedigree charts, newspaper clippings, case studies, family reunion photos. Who knows? Or you may be lucky enough to locate a well-documented lineage that immediately solves your biggest brick wall.
- Biographical directories or histories
- Document abstracts
- Document transcriptions
- Genealogical journals
- Genealogical society newsletters
- Genealogical society surname files
- Lineage organizations and societies
- Pedigree databases (DAR)
- Published case studies
- Published family histories
- Published genealogies
And don’t forget, you can get a downloadable (and printable) checklist of these records by entering your email below. You will also start getting the free Family History Daily newsletter.
Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, Fourth Edition (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2017).
Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors, The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, Third Edition (North Provo, Utah: The Generations Network, Inc., 2006).
Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG® practices in Maryland. She is the owner of Be Rooted Genealogy, where she specializes in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ireland, and Scotland research.