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How to Find and Use Genealogical Documents

Brought to you in association with The Ellis Island Foundation.

You might have always wondered about your grandparents — what were their names? Had they ever come to America? You can ask your family these questions, but they might not know the answers. We will explain how to use public documents to gather more information about your ancestors.

Facts about your family are just sitting on shelves and in file cabinets and desk drawers, waiting for you to find them. As a genealogist, one of your jobs will be figuring out how to get at those facts.

There are hundreds of places where information about your family may be found, because from the moment your ancestors set foot in America, someone was writing down their names. Did they arrive on a ship, by bus, or by plane? There's probably a record of it somewhere. Did they get married, divorced, have children, die? Forms had to be filled out, and those forms are on file in some office. Did they apply for American citizenship, a passport, social security? Did they ever vote? Somewhere in the United States, there are records of all of that. And the information on these records can help you find out a great deal about the people in your past.

The most important documents for genealogists are:

  • Vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates)
  • Religious records
  • Cemetery records
  • Census forms
  • Citizenship papers
  • Passenger ship lists
  • Military records
  • Other records like school records, deeds, and wills

You'll want to track down these records because they often have information that no one remembers. A copy of your grandmother's birth certificate, for example, might tell you about her parents — your great-grandparents — that grandma herself has forgotten. A copy of a long-gone ancestor's marriage license may hold clues to relatives even further back.

You will find these documents by writing to, or visiting, records centers, libraries, archives, government offices, and courthouses. In some cases, you will be able to look at the documents yourself; in other cases, you will have to pay a small fee and let other people look for you.

This process is called a "document search." You'll be surprised at how many different kinds of documents there are, and how many places you may have to search to find the ones you're looking for. Some of the records may be photocopied or on microfilm. Other places may have the original paper, signed by your ancestor, and it may be 100 or more years old.

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