Home – U.S. Research
Researching your ancestors in the United States is fun and exciting. There are all kinds of records you can find—it just depends on where and when your ancestors lived.
Some counties have amazingly complete records, while others hardly have any at all (it usually depends on whether the courthouse burned, and how often it burned).
So, keep your fingers crossed and hope you come from a “great record” county. But, if not, don’t get discouraged. With some time, effort and luck you’ll hopefully find the info you need for those elusive ancestors.
Here are a few quick links:
- U.S. Records — The Different Types of U.S. Records and Where To Find Them
- U.S. State Research Guides at Ancestry.com
- U.S. Research at the FamilySearch Wiki
Following is a quick little overview on U.S. Research that should prove helpful:
Step 1: Search The Census
Census records: Available from 1790 through 1930, censuses were taken every 10 years. They’re an excellent source for locating where your ancestor lived — and after 1840 they also list age and place of birth, occupation, personal wealth, education, spouse, children, hired hands, and even immigration information.
You can view the main U.S. census records on the Internet. Many other state census records and indexes are also available.
Here’s why you need the census:
- For years 1790-1840, it lists names of heads of household in every state.
- For years 1850-1930, it lists the name of every person in a household. (Note: fire destroyed the 1890 census.)
- From 1880 forward, it shows the relationship of each family member to the head of household.
- A census tells you precisely where a person lived, which opens the door to many more discoveries.
- A census gives you the name of the county in which your immigrant ancestor’s vital events occurred.
Step 2: Find or Write for Death Records
Death records: Now you’re ready to take the next step in piecing together your family history: obtaining death records for your ancestors. North Carolina has outstanding death records, and they’re available online. Death records are an essential tool, because they include the following:
- Exact place of death—which leads you to other records about your ancestor’s death (and life).
- Name of the father and the maiden name of the mother.
- Exact date of birth and death.
- Possibly, the spouse, cemetery where your ancestor was interred, Social Security #, information about the informant (who may be a relative).
Treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestors as equals — get death records for them, too. Probably 20% of birth and death certificates have mistakes. So, it’s important to get many different kinds of records to compare for accuracy.
How To Write For Death Records:
- Determine the state in which your ancestor died.
- Find the address for the state’s vital statistics office.
- If the date is too early for state records, find the county office.
- Write to the state or county vital statistics office and provide any known information about the deceased (name, approximate date of birth, parents’ names, spouse, etc.).
Step 3: Follow Up On Death Record Clues
From the information on the death records you’ve found, you’re ready to search for the types of records listed below. Remember, each document you find about one ancestor may lead you to another ancestor you didn’t know about before.
Use your death record clues to obtain any of these records you can:
Birth records: Does the death record give a date and place of birth? If so, write for a copy of the birth certificate. For births prior to statewide registration (about 1900-1920), records may still be available from a county courthouse near the place of birth. (New England records from before about 1900 will be in the local Town Hall.)
Funeral records: In your request for funeral records, be sure to ask about the cemetery where the person was buried and whether or not they can provide an address or phone number for the cemetery office. (To get an address for the funeral home, use the Internet or call or visit any funeral director in your area and ask if you can use their directory of funeral homes, The Yellow Book.)
Cemetery records: A cemetery office may have information such as the inscription on your ancestor’s tombstone. If a cemetery does not have an office, a local funeral director may be able to tell you who the record keeper for the cemetery is.
Obituaries: Write a letter requesting a copy of the person’s obituary from the local newspaper, which most county libraries keep on microfilm.
Social Security Records: Since about 1967, death certificates list the deceased’s Social Security number. With or without the number, you can request a copy of the person’s original application (SS-5) for a Social Security card, which provides the following information:
- Person’s father
- Maiden name of person’s mother
- Date of birth
- Address at time of application
- Employer at time of application
Request a copy of the original application by writing to the Social Security Administration. Here’s a sample of the letter to write.
Step 4: Search for State and County Records
As noted above, the majority of these records are microfilmed and available through our local Family History Centers.
State and county documents to search:
- State censuses
- State military records
- County histories
- Special genealogy collections
- Birth, death, or marriage records
- Tax lists and voter registrations
- Court records (vital records, land records, etc.)
- Coroner’s records
- Probate records (wills, estate papers, etc.)
Places to search at the state and county level:
- State archives
- County courthouses
- Funeral homes
- Land offices
- Genealogical societies
Search the Family History Library Catalog and also the Internet to see which of these resources and records are readily available.