Genealogical Record Types (National Institute)

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
National Institute for Genealogical StudiesNational Institute for Genealogical Studies.gif

The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

What Outside Sources To Contact...(cont.)[edit | edit source]

Public Archives[edit | edit source]

Maps, Atlases and Gazetteers[edit | edit source]

Maps should become an indispensable aid wherever your research takes you. You need not just modern maps of a country or region, but the appropriate historical version (which atlases often provide). They will give you the geographic feel for your ancestor’s location, especially if he was a rural dweller. You can trace the local features such as the most convenient market town, or the county seat, and perhaps even church and school sites where the family would have been active. Natural features like waterways, swamps and mountains usually dictated transportation routes from one point to another, and where roads, bridges and railway tracks would be built. All these had an effect on your ancestor’s movements.

Gazetteers are tools which help you find the location of a hamlet, village or town in a particular country or region. So many geographic places had name changes! Family tradition will often remember the name of his original residence as a tiny place which has a different name now, or which has disappeared or amalgamated. For most record searching purposes, you need to discover a town/township or county name of jurisdiction. A good gazetteer will cross-reference the historic names of any given place.

Directories[edit | edit source]

These are another important source of information. City and telephone directories help you in pinpointing the exact address for people, then you can go to census records for more information. If you follow through from year to year in the directories, you can discover an approximate date of death for someone and then verify in vital statistics and probate for more information.

County and regional directories are good for locating rural ancestors and then establishing the type of property or business they owned. If you know your ancestor was a doctor, lawyer, clergyman, military personnel or civil servant, then look through a professional directory. There are also specialized directories, like shipping, for example.

If you find a letter with just an address but no city, check through post office and street directories to see which city had streets with that particular name. College directories are also available. Directories are often called registers, catalogs, annuals, yearbooks or guides.

Passenger Lists[edit | edit source]

Although there are some early passengers lists, many gaps exist in these records. The federal governments made it mandatory for captains to make list of their passengers, but it is the date when a government acted on mandatory retention of the lists that affects genealogy. The methods of recording the passengers varied greatly. The information was not consistent because of the various laws under which the lists were made and because of local customs. Some of the lists may contain the ship’s name, the captain’s name, the date and name of port of embarkation, the date and name of the port of arrival, the passengers’ names, ages and occupations. But not all the lists are this complete.

It is interesting though, if you can locate your ancestor on one of these lists. Passenger lists are very difficult to search through because not a lot of indexes exist yet. If you know the port of entry, the name of the ship and the approximate date of arrival, you may be successful in finding your ancestor.

Passport Records[edit | edit source]

They have not always been just to travel outside the country. In early settlements, passports were sometimes issued to travel inside a different territorial boundary of the same country or into Indian territories. Passport records can be interesting in clarifying the character of the applicant.

Probate Records[edit | edit source]

Along with the last will and testament, probate records are terrific because they contain primary information regarding the relationship of those listed. Wills and testaments will also give insight into your ancestors’ holdings including real estate and personal property; another view into the life of your ancestors.

Court Records[edit | edit source]

These can be handy. In early times, court week was held once every three months, so court day was an event. Whole communities gathered to see what was happening. They observed and they gossiped. It was also not unusual to have a hundred people listed as witnesses to a proceeding. Everyone wanted justice to be served and were very willing to help achieve this end. Attending court proceedings was considered a civic duty and individuals could actually be fined if they did not attend.

Prosecution in early days was for what we would consider to be very minor offenses. Some examples include: being put in prison for debt or for stealing; horse stealing was one of the most serious crimes. Many special courts existed to handle certain matters. Admiralty courts were for people who lived on streams or rivers that emptied into the sea. There were specific courts for adoptions or name changes or for those who lost property during the wars. Vigilante groups, extra-legal societies and many mining districts set up their own informal systems of justice.

Court Records will also show authorized name changes, and legal adoptions can be traced. And if your ancestor owned a business, a business license could possibly be found in the court records.

Not all court records will give you the information you are looking for, but don’t ignore them, they may contain the one clue that you need.

Land Records[edit | edit source]

Land records can include grants from the Crown (in North America that could be French, Dutch, Spanish or English), deeds, mortgages, leases, quit claims, releases, judgments, subdivisions, powers of attorney and unprobated wills.

In the “old world” land ownership was a symbol of power and wealth, and was generally the prerogative of a small class of privileged citizens-thus the great attraction of the “new world” where a hard-working man of any status could acquire real property. The history of a piece of landed property will show how the ancestor acquired and disposed of it. Many bits of information to add to your family history would be the price he paid or received, whether his wife was named in a dower affidavit, whether this is the only source to find his will, and so on. Disputed titles often created a whole set of records about the claims.

Military and naval personnel and militiamen were usually eligible for a bounty reward in the form of a land grant. Such grants, as well as Crown grants, may lead to petitions or files with personal information.

Military Records[edit | edit source]

These records contain a wealth of information. If you have the slightest thought that one of your ancestors may have been in the military, then search these records. If an ancestor, his widow or a relative, ever applied for a military pension, even if he did not qualify, you should be able to find a file that may list his activity between the time he first entered the military until the time of the pension application.

They were kept for those who chose the military as their career, who died on active duty, or who lived in a military home after their retirement. If you know which military unit your ancestor served in, you may be able to find regimental or unit histories. Your ancestor may be mentioned or written about in those documents.

Summary[edit | edit source]

As you can see, a lot of information is available through public archives. The researcher just needs to visit and investigate a trail of paper. Virtually everyone having spent time in Canada or the United States is listed somewhere. It is up to you to be a detective, and through a logical sequence of research, locate your ancestors. You should initially inquire as to what is available and at what cost. This way, you will have a clearer understanding of what to expect as your research develops.

Remember that boundaries and names have changed over the years, so if you can not find what you are looking for, you may want to check the neighboring location, or sound out the name for spelling changes. It is always possible to go further back, sometimes you just need lots of patience and just some plain good luck. The following pages show addresses to which you can write for more information regarding what resources are available. Many have booklets advising the researcher what is available and at what address. You should contact the archives with your specific request for information before any visit, to ensure you will find what you want at the location indicated.

Two good books which are quite detailed in their information are: (Do not forget to look for the latest annual edition.)

  • In Search of your Canadian Roots by Angus Baxter
  • Genealogical Research Directory: National and International by Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty (published annually 1985-2007)

Look also for the provincial and area specific courses offered by the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. Not all provinces are completed, but provincial courses are being added. These courses include:

  • Research: Acadian Ancestors
  • Research: Alberta Ancestors
  • Research: British Columbia Ancestors
  • Research: French Canadian Ancestors
  • Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors
  • Research: Manitoba Ancestors
  • Research: New Brunswick Ancestors
  • Research: Newfoundland and Labrador Ancestors
  • Research: Ontario Ancestors
  • Research: Saskatchewan Ancestors


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.