You’re free to choose your friends, goes the old saying, but you can’t pick your family. But what if you could, at least genealogically speaking? Besides desiring colorful and interesting ancestors —a noble here on the family tree, a horse thief there—you’d probably want to pick a pedigree that’s relatively easy and richly rewarding to research. You’d certainly want to avoid having ancestors from places whose records have been destroyed, aren’t readily accessible or never got created in the first place. Unless you’re particularly enamored of scrolling through and squinting at microfilm, these days you’d wish for ancestors whose records are searchable online. (“Why, oh why,” you might find yourself thinking, “couldn’t Great-great-grandpa have been born in a place represented on Family Tree Magazine’s annual list of 101 Best Web Sites?”)
In the spirit of saving the best for last, we begin by counting down the 10 worst places for your ancestors to have lived. All is not lost, though—even in the dark depths of our list, we found bright spots to share.
Researching your Oklahoma ancestors is not always OK. Blame its peculiar past, from Indian Territory to overnight settlements after the land rush of 1889, requiring
research in a mix of territorial, state and Indian records. That’s complicated by the loss of Oklahoma’s 1870, 1880 and 1890 federal censuses, although a special 1890 enumeration of seven counties survives and is indexed online. Even the 1900 census separates the former Indian and Oklahoma territories.
Saddled with the burdens of relatively late settlement and sprawling size—with lots of wide-open space between its cities and its genealogical repositories—Montana has a confusing early history of changing governance. From 1860 to 1880, some residents may be listed in Washington, Nebraska or Wyoming. Although Montana became a territory in 1864, births and deaths weren’t recorded until 1895 and statewide registration didn’t begin until 1907. Even then, widespread compliance didn’t happen for deaths until about 1915 and births until after that. State marriage and divorce records didn’t start until 1943, but some 10,400 early county marriage records can be found in the Western States Marriage Records Index. Land records (Montana was a public-land state, so patents are online) and the Montana Historical Society can help fill in the blanks on your Montana ancestors, but other Web resources are as sparse as this giant state’s population. Microfilmed records at the FHL are slimmer for Montana than for most states, too.
With a history residents would characterize as “colorful” and frustrated genealogists might describe as “messy,” Louisiana is one of the rare states where researchers could face a language barrier: Some early records, reflecting that history, are in French and Spanish. Louisiana is also the only state to have “parishes” instead of counties, and many parish courthouses have lost records to fires or floods over the years. Records that survive are based on French Napoleonic practices, presenting researchers with such unfamiliar terms as “conveyances” (deed transfers) and “successions” (probate). You’ll also have to become familiar with notary records, such as those collected in the New Orleans Notarial Archives; happily, you now can access these online: Click here to browse the record volumes by the notary’s name and year. Except for New Orleans, birth and death records didn’t begin until 1914. Though records for scattered pre-1805 local censuses exist, Louisiana lacks any state censuses you could use to fill in the blanks.
Although the Cornhusker State’s archives holds many records, even more are scattered among Nebraska’s whopping total of 93 counties. Many counties began keeping marriage records upon formation, but few bothered with births or deaths until statewide registration began in 1904 (1909 for marriages). Complicating vital-records research still further, only immediate kin can access birth or marriage records more recent than 50 years. As for deaths, cemeteries aren’t much help in Nebraska because the state has so many scattered and untranscribed tiny graveyards. A wealth of state and territorial censuses is the bright spot here, plus some church records that can help with vital-records gaps, federal land patents and railroad land records (although fire destroyed most Union Pacific records). Web and microfilm researchers will go away wishing their Nebraska ancestors had spent a little more time on records and a little less on cornhusking.
Don’t blame the 49th state for its paucity of genealogical records: Alaska is not only new, it’s also vast and vastly different from the “lower 48.” Alaska’s genealogical troubles started soon after the United States bought it from Russia, when the 1870 census skipped the territory except for Sitka. Extant federal census coverage doesn’t begin until 1900—and don’t look by county, as Alaska doesn’t have ’em. Official vital records didn’t begin until 1913, though you can try church records before that date. Cemetery records are literally few and far between, given the state’s sprawling geography. And the Last Frontier State is still catching up with most of the lower 48 when it comes to genealogy Web sites. Land records, gold-rush papers and the National Archives in Anchorage are your best hope for tracing early Alaska kin.
Vital records are typically the Achilles’ heel of our “worst” states, and that’s certainly the case with Wyoming: Although the Equality State started recording births in 1909, these records are closed for 100 years except to immediate family—
meaning only a year’s worth are accessible to researchers. Death records, which also began in 1909, are closed for 50 years. Marriage and divorce records didn’t start until 1941; their 50-year privacy window effectively makes only 1941 to 1959 available for research. Thank goodness, then, for the Western States Marriage Records Index, which lets you search some 23,000 early Wyoming county records. When you search, however, be aware of Wyoming’s rapidly evolving county boundaries, which shifted from just five counties in 1868 to 23 by 1923. Like Montana, its neighbor to the north, Wyoming can be found in federal land records. Also like Montana, though, Wyoming’s online and microfilm resources are scanter than most states’.
Had enough wallowing in genealogical woes and bemoaning the hard hand history has dealt some places? Let’s turn our attention to the 10 best states for researching your ancestors. Here’s hoping your family tree leads you to …
If your Minnesotans lived in the northern mining country, the Iron Range Research Center has plenty of ways to help you dig for them. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is also notable for remarkably few leaks in its records, including comprehensive territorial, state and federal censuses; BLM public-lands files; and vital records (county births and deaths starting in 1870, statewide births beginning in 1900, deaths in 1908, marriages not until 1958). Probate records date to territorial days. Military records include bonus payments to veterans and their survivors from the Spanish-American War through Vietnam.
Family Tree Magazine State Research Guides can help you discover your roots in the top 10, bottom 10 and any state in between. You can get the whole collection (plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico) on a convenient, fully searchable CD or a library-quality hardbound book; or download individual guides from Family Tree Shop.