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.
• Effective Use of City Directories
• Family Tree Magazine Vital Records Chart
• The Family Tree Sourcebook by the editors of Family Tree Magazine (Family Tree Books)
• FamilySearch Wiki
• Federation of Genealogical Societies <www.fgs.org>
• FindLaw: District Courts• The Family Tree Sourcebook by the editors of Family Tree Magazine (Family Tree Books)• Federation of Genealogical Societies <www.fgs.org>• Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources: Click the Red Book link.• State and Local Government on the Net: A Directory of Official State, County and City Government Websites• State Census Records by Ann S. Lainhart (Genealogical Publishing Co.)• USGenWeb• WorldCat
Records at a Glance
• 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.
• Most states had mandated marriage record-keeping by the early- to mid-1900s. Excepting privacy restrictions, these records are available from the state vital records office.
• Look for indexes and transcriptions at genealogical societies and libraries.
• Besides the distribution of deceased individuals’ estates, probate courts often handled marriages and guardianship cases.• Search for microfilmed records through the FamilySearch catalog, or see if the records are digitized at FamilySearch.org.
Five Sources for Historic Sites
Living history centers recreate the setting of a particular place and time, giving you a taste of what life was like. Click on Home, then Living History, then Museum Links to find living history attractions by region.History museums display artifacts and photos from your ancestors’ day, and often have libraries of genealogical materials. Click on the state for a list of attractions by county.3. Museums USASearch for museums by city and state or by ZIP code in this online directory. Under Museum Type, click on History, then enter the state and city. Browse related museum types, too, such as Cemetery, Culture and Military.Museums listed here partner with the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, to exhibit Smithsonian collections. Under Affiliate Network, click on Affiliate Directory. Click on Museum Type for a categorized list, then scroll to the History/Culture and Living History categories.Especially in small communities, the chamber of commerce or visitor center can recommend historic sites. Search this directory by state, then alphabetically by city. If you don’t see a listing for the city you need, look for a county or regional organization.
1769 San Diego established with El Presidio Reál de San Diego and Mission San Diego de Alcalá
1841 John Neely Bryan chooses names his settlement in the Republic of Texas Dallas
1865 Yavapai County Board of Supervisors officially recognizes a town at Phoenix
1718 Presidio San Antonio de Béxar and Mission San Antonio de Valero are the beginnings of San Antonio
1755 Thomas Pratt moves to what’s now Charlotte, NC
1777 San Jose, Calif., founded as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe
1835 Pioneers settle what’s now Austin Texas
1791 Cowford settlement established at what’s now Jacksonville, Fla.
1812 Ohio legislature establishes Columbus as the state capital
1819 A group of investors founds Memphis
1820 Indiana General Assembly selects the site of a new state capital called Indianapolis
1853 Plats are filed for the village of Seattle
• Charleston, SC
• Fort Wayne, Ind.
• Kansas City, Mo.
• Los Angeles
• Louisville, Ky.
• Minneapolis-St. Paul
• Nashville, Tenn.
• New Haven, Conn.
• New Orleans
• New York
• Newark, NJ
• Portland, Ore.
• Providence, RI
• Richmond, Va.
• Salt Lake City
• San Francisco
• St. Louis
• Washington, DC
• Wilmington, Del.