Over the past two years, our popular city genealogy guides have helped you research relatives in more than 30 US cities. We fielded requests to publish guides for readers’ ancestral hometowns big and small across America, but we couldn’t cover every locale. So we’re wrapping up our City Guides series with instructions for DIY-ing a guide to research in your own ancestral hometown.
This reusable resource will help you uncover genealogical resources for any American city from Abilene to Zanesville. First, we’ll show you how to find your way around the records of a city or town. As you work through the advice, fill in the following template (also downloadable as a PDF here
) to create your guide. Got more than one city to search in? Feel free to copy the blank pages.
Heritage and history
Before you make a beeline for records, define what you’re looking for and learn some history. Otherwise you might look for relatives in the wrong places and times, or miss events and cultural realities that shaped your ancestor’s life. Follow these steps to summarize the city’s development, and fill out the City Guide template as you go:
1. Note your family data. This will keep you focused on the right people, eras and neighborhoods. List every relative who lived in a place, along with dates of residence and street address(es). You can update this list later as you learn these details. Find ancestral addresses in federal censuses starting in 1880, draft registrations, vital records, city directories, Social Security applications (SS-5s), military paperwork, old letters or parcels, insurance maps and other documents.
2. Summarize local history. What were the dominant industries of the time? Who were the major ethnic, religious or cultural groups? Migration and settlement patterns hint at ancestors’ previous (or next) home. Compare your family’s experience with the rest of the community to see how they fit in. Historical, genealogical and public libraries can recommend local histories, your go-to sources for local historical context. Also search for titles at WorldCat (keyword-search the town or county and state) and the Library of Congress; order books through interlibrary loan.
Look for digitized local histories on FamilySearch.org (click Search, then Books), Internet Archive, Google Books, and on data sites such as HeritageQuest Online (use at local libraries) and Ancestry.com.
3. Historical population figures, which tell you how the city was (or wasn’t) growing during your ancestor’s residence, are in the city’s entry at Wikipedia. Figures are based on federal census data. If the period when your relatives lived there isn’t shown, the town was likely enumerated under a different name or not at all.
4. Get into local government. Find out when and how the town and county came to be, and when borders were changed. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries
can help you determine boundary changes and identify any parent counties that previously had jurisdiction over your ancestral hometown.
To guide your search for records, identify the town-county government structure from the municipal website. Counties historically kept most vital, property and estate records; most state governments eventually assumed vital record-keeping. In New England, however, towns have kept most records. Other anomalies include large cities that have become independent of neighboring counties, and consolidated city-counties that maintain records traditionally kept by counties. Villages, boroughs and townships may keep certain records, such as those of cemeteries. Unincorporated towns likely don’t keep their own records; instead, look to neighboring towns or the county.
Refer to state chapters in The Family Tree Sourcebook
by the editors of Family Tree Magazine
(Family Tree Books) for the general division of records between state and county offices.
Records and repositories
Finding records and repositories is your next task. In some cases, you’ll find the records first, then locate the repository. In other cases, you’ll identify a repository and then look through its holdings. List these repositories with contact information in the City Guide template. Follow these tips as you fill out details on the records you’ll need and repositories that hold them:
County or city archives, courthouses and health departments may house original vital records, court records and deeds. Family Tree Sourcebook
county listings detail which office keeps what records and how far back they go.
Public libraries often have city directories, newspapers, obituaries and maps. They also may have church and cemetery records, yearbooks and surname files with news clippings and donated materials related to particular last names. Search for libraries
and look for a genealogy or local history page on the library website (call if you don’t see one).
Genealogical and historical societies are sources of records and research guidance. Search online for municipal and county societies. Most groups are volunteer-run and may not have online catalogs; call or write with specific questions about collections (including surname files).
Facilities outside the city or county may archive old records. Vital records, newspapers, city directories and tax records may be in a state or regional library, archive or historical society. Private regional archives may hold church, employment, school records and more. Search for state libraries and use the resources in the Toolkit to help you find state historical societies and regional and private repositories.
Genealogy websites may hold digitized local records and indexes. You’ve likely already searched by a relative’s name; now search or browse for data collections specific to the locale. On FamilySearch.org, click Search, then scroll down and browse by location. On Ancestry.com, roll over the Search button and choose Card Catalog. Search with keywords such as the name of the city, county or state.
Use similar processes to search other data sites. Though data may be less easily searchable, don’t neglect free sites such as Chronicling America, USGenWeb, USGenWeb Archives, RootsWeb and Genealogy Trails. Remember that indexes and transcriptions can contain errors, so try to track down original records.
Microfilm collections let you access records from afar. FamilySearch has microfilmed vital records, deeds, estate papers, tax lists, church records and more. Search for these in the FamilySearch catalog: From the home page, click Search, then Catalog, then search by Place Name. You can often filter down to a town level, then search by record category. If a record you want is available on microfilm, click on the microfilm number to order a rental copy to a FamilySearch Center near you. Use the Chronicling America newspaper directory to locate old newspapers on microfilm. Check past issues of Family Tree Magazine for help finding employment, church and tax records.
Use these resources to help you find the information, publications and organizations that’ll aid your genealogy research in your ancestral hometown.
• The Family Tree Sourcebook by the editors of Family Tree Magazine (Family Tree Books)
• State Census Records by Ann S. Lainhart (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
Records at a Glance
Birth and Death Records
• Statewide official vital records begin in the late 1800s or early 1900s for most states, but as early as the mid-1800s for New England.
• Excepting privacy restrictions, records after statewide vital recordkeeping began are available from the state vital records office.
• A city or county may have kept earlier records. Check with the local health department or archive.
• If privacy restrictions are in place, see if you can obtain an uncertified copy for research purposes only.
• Deeds recording land sales and purchases were recorded at courthouses.
• Search for microfilmed records through FamilySearch.org: Click Search, then Catalog, and search by the place name. Look for a land and property heading. You can borrow microfilm for a fee through a FamilySearch Center near you.
• You can request copies of deeds if you know the name of the grantor (seller) or grantee (buyer), along with the date of the sale and a deed number.
• Records generally exist from the incorporation of a county or town. Check with the county probate court or town clerk.