Arts & Entertainment
Print storySubscribe to the Times


Records are your bridge to the past

Published June 19, 2003

Documentation is as important to genealogy as location is to real estate. It's the defining factor.

You should strive to find at least three records pertaining to major milestones in a person's life, such as birth, marriage and death, to ensure accuracy and to prove the links between the generations.

Birth, baptismal and death certificates, wills and probate records, marriage license applications and Social Security applications, for example, may be used to verify a child-parent relationship.

Wills and probate records, land transactions, pension records, marriage license applications and certificates, funeral home records and death certificates can confirm marriages.

Although it's more difficult to locate pre-1800 records, they do exist.

Wills and probate records, land transactions, military pensions, tax lists and church records are potential resources. The more evidence you have, the more accurate your family history will be.

Unfortunately, few universal rules apply when it comes to determining which entity has the documents you seek because each state and county does its own thing. One county may keep birth, death and marriage records dating to the late 1890s while another might ship them off to the state archives after 35 years. Some states keep separate municipal archives. Only the federal government seems to have drawn neat boundary lines.

The guide below is a thumbnail sketch of records that typically are available and where you are likely to find them. There are many exceptions, so be sure to check other repositories. Log on to or see Everton's Handy Book for information pertaining to specific states.

County records include marriage license applications, divorce and adoption records, wills, probate proceedings, guardianship records, birth and death records from late 1800s to about 1905, land transactions, voter rolls, tax lists, civil lawsuits, zoning matters and occasionally citizenship records. Check the courthouse, health department and other agencies.

State records include births and deaths after about 1905 and occupational licenses/certifications like law, medicine or cosmetology. Except for land transactions and tax lists, old county and municipal records are usually found at the state's archives. Military pensions and bounty-land warrants awarded to Confederate veterans may be found at the pertinent state archives. Some states conducted population and agricultural censuses, which are also kept at the state archives.

Federal records include passport, military, land grant, homestead, naturalization, Social Security and census records. Most major libraries and Mormon Family History Centers have on hand or can get copies of census returns and other records from the National Archives and Rec ords Administration, or NARA.

NARA's office in Washington, D.C., also has pre-WWI military and pension records. Confederate soldiers did not get federal pen sions. Original WWI draft registration cards are at NARA's Southeast Regional Archives in Atlanta. All military and pension records from WWI to now are in St. Louis (

Naturalization records originating after 1906 should be on file with the Immigration Bureau. Earlier records may be in a county courthouse, state archives or public library (

Social Security records for all years may be obtained from the Social Security Administration, or SSA. You can conduct a quick check for post-1962 records by logging on to the Social Security Death Index at and clicking on "search." The death must have been reported to the SSA.

In addition to official government records, retirement records may be available from a private company or the government. Railroad records are one example. See for details.

Requesting records by mail? Achieve the best and quickest results by writing the purpose of your request - say, marriage license records - on the outside of the envelop because records may come under the auspices of different departments in each state and county. Make your request succinct. Duplication costs range from 50 cents a page for wills to $37 for a complete Civil War pension file. Many agencies now charge a research fee.

- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at Or visit her Web site:

[Last modified June 18, 2003, 09:48:01]

Floridian headlines

  • Blues in the key of love
  • Into the fire

  • Genealogy
  • Records are your bridge to the past
  • leaderboard ad here


    Back to Top

    © 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
    490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111