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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 3/30/2005

Where Do I Find It?

The key to locating many genealogical records is location. The location where an event took place, the location where any events were recorded, and the current location of those records are all key factors in proving that an event took place. This week we discuss some ways to determine where records of vital events might have created.

Marriage Records
Civil records of marriages are usually a local responsibility, either at the county, town, or city level. The laws governing marriage are typically determined by the state. Consequently records within a specific state are relatively uniform, although there can be differences from one county or town to another. As a marriage is usually a contract between two individuals, records of marriages typically begin before records of births and deaths. A record of a marriage puts a man and a woman in the same place at the same time. The record may also provide additional information about the couple including their age, residence, and religious affiliation. Later materials may be even more detailed.

Locating where a marriage took place can be difficult in some situations. There are several things to think about when trying to find where your ancestors got married:

  • Did they get married in the county in which they lived?
  • Did they marry in an adjacent state that might have had marriage laws that were more lax?
  • Where was their first child born?
  • Did they marry where the bride was from or where her parents were living?
  • Did they take the train and ride to an adjacent county (or a county a few counties over)?
  • Were they married by an itinerant minister who left no records?
  • Might they have gone to a nearby county to find the “right” church?
  • Did they elope in a county where no one would know them?
  • Were they ever "officially" married?

Marriage records may come in many forms and will vary from one time period and one locality to another. Some records created at the time of the marriage may include:

  • Marriage contracts
  • Marriage bonds
  • Marriage licenses
  • Banns
  • Church records
  • Announcements in newspapers

Keep in mind how your ancestors likely met. They may have been neighbors or they may have attended the same church. They might have been members of the same ethnic group or had parents of the same social class. A couple often met because they had something in common. Determining that commonality is the difficulty.

Other records besides marriage records may provide information about the marriage even if the records are not technically marriage records and even if they were created years after the marriage took place. These secondary sources of marriage information should be compared with other known information to determine if the information is consistent or not.

Other records that may document a marriage include:

  • Pension papers
  • Inheritance papers
  • Death certificate
  • Court papers

A question to ask: Did anything in my ancestor's life require them to prove their marriage? If so, are there records of that proof?

Birth Records
The civil recording of births in the United States typically began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the early days of recording these events many were not recorded, and slowly the proportion of events recorded increased over time. Birth records are recorded in the jurisdiction where the birth took place, not necessarily where the mother was living (especially if the bride returned “home” to have the baby). And a birth in specific location proves only that the mother was in that location on that date.

Some questions to ask when trying to locate a birth record:

  • Did the family move frequently?
  • Are you certain of where the family lived?
  • Did the family live near the county line?
  • Would the family have cared if the birth were recorded?
  • Might there be a church record of the birth?
  • Is there a pension record that might prove the age?
  • Is there a guardianship or other estate record that might provide information on the person's age?

Again, if you cannot find the record, might your ancestor have had to prove his birth at some later point in his life? If so this record might assist you in locating birth information. If a delayed certificate of birth was filed, it probably was filed where the event took place but might have been filed where the individual resided at the time the record was filed.

Death Records
Determining where your ancestor died is usually the first step in locating a record of his death. When the record is not in the obvious location, consider:

  • Did the ancestor die while en route to a new location?
  • Did the ancestor die in an adjacent county?
  • Did the ancestor die at a hospital, state home, or veterans' facility a distance from his actual home?
  • Did the ancestor move in with a child and die in that location?

Other records besides the civil record of death may provide death information. These records could include:

  • Pension records
  • Newspapers
  • County histories
  • Estate or probate records
  • Cemetery records or tombstone inscriptions
  • Land sales of property after the death may list the ancestor as “deceased.”

Wrapping It Up
There are many sources that might provide the information you need. Ideally a primary source will be located, one that was created relatively close to the time of the event by someone who logically had firsthand knowledge of the event.

When primary sources cannot be located, secondary sources must be used. These secondary sources may be in records or documents filed hundreds of thousands of miles from where the event took place. For example, if you are looking for the birth of Johann Schmidt, ask yourself where that date or location could be written. It could appear on:

  • Johann's death record
  • Johann's obituary
  • Johann's children's death records
  • Johann's children's biographies
  • Johann's manifest listing when he came back from a 1912 return trip to Europe
  • etc.

Expand your circle and you may end up snaring the information for which you are looking.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Michael will be presenting at the following seminars over the next few months. Links to additional information can be found at

  • April 2, 2005
    Hands on Computer Genealogy Workshop in St. Charles, Missouri
  • April 15, 16, 2005
    Four lectures at the Iowa State Genealogy Spring Conference
  • May 18-20, 2005
    Three days of hands-on Genealogy Computer workshops in Dearborn, Michigan
  • May 27-29, 2005
    Presenting three lectures at the Ontario Canada Genealogical Society Annual Conference

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Copyright 2005,

Michael's other genealogy articles