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Volume 4, Number 4 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 February 22, 2012
This article discusses the Vital Records of an area. You can find them in local records as well as federal and state records. Many times you have to be creative to find these records, especially if there was a fire in the county in the early years. Hopefully, this will help you in your never ending journey to find your ancestors.
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James L. Douthat
No matter if you are a novice just starting out on your journey into your family history or if you have been working for years on the job, there are some vital records that no one should pass up in the quest. Vital records usually fall into two basic categories. First are the local records found in local courthouses, churches, schools and historical societies. Second are the records found in state and federal records. Not everyone will have access to all of the records from either source, but generally there are some, even in “burned counties”. Let’s look into each of these areas a little more in depth.
First, we are interested in the local records. All areas have some records, but not all will have all the records you want. You will find more records on deeds in the local area than any other record. If one does not have a deed to the property, then they do not own that property. In the case of burned counties, most counties will make every attempt to reconstitute those records by asking residents of the area to bring in old copies of their deeds and get them registered again. This might be the deed that your great-grandfather had for the property and if you can prove how it came to you, then it is legal. This is not the case with wills, birth, death, or marriage records. If these are lost then, they are usually lost forever unless they are recorded in a second location.
It happened in the south during the Civil War that many of the courthouses were burned and the records became scattered. Sometimes local citizens had the records for safe keeping and those records may or may not have been returned to the courthouse. In this case the local historical society may have access to the records in question. It is not uncommon for many of these local records to come up for sale at yard sales, flea markets and sometimes even on eBay. Keep in mind that the sale of county court records is illegal in almost all states. I have even seen them on “Antiques Roadshow” and the appraiser will not place a price on them as they are not saleable.
With regard to local church and school records, these are both very difficult to locate and access. The truth is that most churches and schools do not pay much attention to their records. The older church records from say the 15th -18th centuries are in much better shape than those in the 20th century. In many foreign counties, these records are the same as court records and they are maintained in better shape. The local historical society may have better access to these records than anywhere else in the area. In the 1840 census, the names of the teachers were often given for private schools and the number of students, but not the students’ names. One interesting fact is that some of these private schools had students paid for by the county and they are given as a number only. Public schools did not come along until late in the 19th century and sadly most of them do not keep their records. Our own county school board does not even have a listing of all of the schools that have existed in our county over the years much less the name of teachers and students.
Marriage records are an item most would like to have in their files. Some counties and states have different items on each record at different times of their history. Universally, there is the name of the groom and bride with the date. Some will add a name for the bondsman, minister, or justice of the peace. In utopia, there is the name of the parents and where they live. If these are lost to fire, then try to find it in the local newspaper, church registers, probate records, military pension files, Bible records, obituaries and even “Aunt Sally’s diary”. Just because there aren't any “official records”, it may still be available. This would apply to the records of births, deaths, wills and other needed records.
Second, let’s look into the State and Federal Records. The most obvious record on this level is the census. Many of the early census have been lost or not taken for the area since the area in question was not created at that time. For example, do not try to find a 1790 census for Bates County, Missouri. In addition, the census and the deed records will help you identify which “John Smith” you are searching for in a local county, if you know anything of where he might have lived.
Federal records and state militia records will help to identify soldiers from the various war time eras. The hardest to find are the militia records since these were not enrolled soldiers, but local men who volunteered for a short time to help fight in certain situations. These are the soldiers prior to the Civil War primarily. It is interesting that in 1800, the United States had fewer than 1000 soldiers in their entire army. Anytime during this early period that men were needed, the counties were called on to supply the men needed to fight whoever the foe might be at the time.
With most vital records, there are multiple sources for the information that is needed. It just means that the researcher has to be creative in finding the information. Happy Hunting!
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