Step-by-Step California Research, 1850-1905
A suggested approach to genealogy research in California online family history records.
Table of Contents
See also How to Use "Record Hints"[edit | edit source]
In this period of California, census records are the most valuable record because statewide civil registration does not begin until 1905. Collecting vital records and cemetery/obituary records will then provide clues for searches in even earlier census records. Then, there are a variety of records that take a bit more work, but can produce good results. Collecting all the available information may make it possible to piece together a puzzle, even if no one record completely describes your family!
Step 1. Find out everything you can from living relatives and their family records:[edit | edit source]
What should you ask?[edit | edit source]
In order to extend your research on your ancestors, you are looking for names, dates, and places. Everything you learn that tells you about when and where a relative lived is a clue to a new record search. Be sure to ask questions that lead to that information, including about their occupations, military service, or associations with others, such as fraternal organizations. See also:
- Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews What to Ask the Relatives
- Genealogy: 150 questions to ask family members about their lives
- Creating Oral Histories
What documents should you look for and ask to copy?[edit | edit source]
Family Members Born After 1940[edit | edit source]
Because the most recent census available was taken in 1940, family documents and the knowledge of living family members play a vital role in identifying these people. Once you have learned names, places of residence, and clues to estimate approximate birth date, the next important step is to send for birth, marriage, and death records for them. Skip to Step 3: Find birth, marriage, and death certificates for your ancestors and their children.
Step 2: Search the 1900, 1880, 1870, 1860, and 1850 census records online.[edit | edit source]
Using the clues to lead to census record searches.[edit | edit source]
Your grandmother, Juanita Cooper, tells you that she was born 24 June 1892 in Texas, but that her parents were from Monterey, California, and all of her siblings were born there. Her parents were Bob and Terry Johnson. You know quite a bit about Juanita's later life, You would like to identify your great-grandparents and hopefully their parents. Since Juanita was born just eight years before the 1900 census, we would start by looking for her in the 1900 census. At the age of eight, she ought to be living with them.
You learn from the 1900 census that "Bob" Johnson's full name was Robert F. Johnson, and that he was born in May 1860 in California. You should now be able to find him in the 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses of California. Here is what you will find:
We established that Robert F. Johnson was the son of William S. and Louisa Johnson. We identified seven of their children and note that William was born in England, Louisa in California.
Census Records[edit | edit source]
A census is a count and description of the population of a country, state, county, or city for a given date. A census took a "snapshot" of a family on a certain day. For each person living in a household you might find (depending on the year) their name, age, birthplace, relationship to head of household, place of birth for father and mother, citizenship status, year of immigration, mother of how many children and number of children living, native language, and whether they were a veteran of the military.
To learn more about census records, including search strategies, see United States Census Records for Beginners.
Look at the samples of census records below to become familiar with the types of information found in each.
United States census records[edit | edit source]
What types of useful information can I find in them?[edit | edit source]
- The 1790--1840 censuses are more limited, naming only the head of household and headcounts. Beginning in 1850, the census records began asking for more information.
- Notice in the following chart additional information helpful for genealogists added each year.
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
Name, age, and gender of each family member; Occupation; Birthplace; If married that year
|1870||Adds: Whether father and mother are of foreign birth|
|1880||Adds: Marital status; Relationship to head of household; Place of birth for father and mother|
|1900||Adds: Number of years in current marriage; Month and year of birth; Mother of how many children Number of children living; Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized; Year of immigration to U.S.; How many years lived in U.S|
1900 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
- The 1900 census is particularly helpful because it states month and year of birth, how many children a woman has born, the year of immigration to the U.S., among other things.
1880 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
1870 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
1860 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
1850 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
United States Indian Census Rolls[edit | edit source]
- This database contains an index to the Indian census rolls from 1885-1940 for those living on Indian Reservations in the United States. *Information contained in this database includes: name (Indian and/or English), gender, age, birth date, relationship to head of family, marital status, tribe name, agency and reservation name
- Other information about an individual, such as degree of Indian blood, as recorded in the later census years, may be available on the original record.
- The Indian Census schedules are census rolls usually submitted each year by agents or superintendents in charge of Indian reservations. There is not a census for every reservation or group of Indians for every year. Only persons who maintained a formal affiliation with a tribe under federal supervision are listed on these census rolls.
Census Links to Start Your Own Research in Census Records[edit | edit source]
Now you will want to find your family members in every possible census, using these convenient links:
- 1905 state census
- Indian census rolls from 1885-1940 - for those living on Indian Reservations in the United States
- Note: The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire.
- You will want to find and keep notes on census records from every census during each ancestor's lifetime.
- Using the census records, you will be able to estimate approximate birth dates and marriage dates. These records will lead you to additional census searches because you will find the names of other members of the family you will need to find. You may also find clues to other states and countries your family lived in before coming to California.
In steps 3 and 4, we will use what we learned from the census records to help search for birth, marriage, and death records. But first, we will try to gather more clues from several collections of death, obituary, and cemetery records that may give other places their birth and marriage records might be located.
Step 3: Try to find additional details about your ancestors in death certificates, Social Security, obituary and cemetery records online.[edit | edit source]
We can look for many death-related records for Robert F. Johnson, his parents, and his siblings. In particular, we are looking for the maiden name of Robert's mother, a more specific town or origin in England for his father, and more complete birth dates for all of the family members. You will see at the end of this section a FindAGrave record for William S. Johnson which gives us his full name, William Smith Johnson; his full birthdate, 1 August 1822; and his birth place, Manchester, England.
Death Certificates[edit | edit source]
Even though this article focuses on finding records prior to 1905, remember that many of the people you are studying in the late 1800's died after 1905, when death certificates began being filed statewide. For example, here is an index entry for Luisa C. Johnson, the mother in the family we found in the 1860-1880 census records. This is only an index entry of her full death certificate. The certificate on the right is not Luisa's, but it demonstrates what information you can obtain by sending for the actual certificate. Most notably, you would probably find the names and birthplaces of her parents.
Death Indexes[edit | edit source]
- California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994. Images.
- California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994 Index and images
- California, Death and Burial Records from Select Counties, 1873-1987, ($). Images.
- California, Death Index, 1905-1939 Index and images
- California, Death Index, 1940-1997
- California, Death Index, 1905-1939 ($)
- California, Death Index, 1940-1997 ($)
Ordering Full Certificates[edit | edit source]
- Click here for information on how to order death records. This will require an application, a fee, and proof of your identification. Ask for an informational copy. Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.
U.S. Social Security Death Index[edit | edit source]
The U.S. Social Security program began in 1935 but most deaths recorded in the index happened after 1962. The Social Security Death index includes those who had a Social Security number and/or applied for benefits. The index entries give the person's full birth date, last known residence, and residence at the time they first enrolled. Women are listed under their married name at the time of their death. You can search these records online at United States Social Security Death Index. Also at Ancestry.com, ($), index.
The Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off, by providing information filed in the application or claims process, including valuable details such as birth date, birth place, and parents’ names. The deceased would have to be at least 75 years old today for their parents' names to be published in the index. You will not find everybody who is listed in the SSDI, as criteria for inclusion differs.
If you find your ancestor in the SSDI index, you can order a copy of their original Social Security application (SS-5). If you can prove the individual has died (by sending an obituary or copy of their cemetery headstone), the application will also give the deceased's parents' names, if listed, the date and place of birth, currenr residence and employer.
Obituaries[edit | edit source]
- Frequently, a death is announced in the newspaper with an obituary.
- These obituaries may supply missing birth or death dates and name the parents of the deceased.
- Obituaries may also name family members, their spouses, their current residences, and whether they died before the person or are still surviving, especially in obituaries written in the last half of the 20th Century.
- Try these California links:
- Online California Death Records and Indexes: A Genealogy Guide for Finding Obituaries, Cemetery Burials and Death Records by county.
- California, San Joaquin, County Public Library Obituary Index, 1850-1991 Index cards.
- California, Napa and Butte Counties, Obituaries, 1866-1992 — index and images
- Web: California, Berkeley Public Library Obituary Index, 1894-1979, ($)
- San Diego Union-Tribune (California) Obituaries, 1993-1994, ($)
- California Obituaries
- United States, GenealogyBank Obituaries, 1980-2014 — index and images
Cemeteries[edit | edit source]
- Cemetery records may only give the names and dates stated on the tombstone, but as in the case of FindAGrave, sometimes pictures of the deceased and their tombstone, children's or parents' names and links to their graves, and marriage information have been added. Always verify information added by others.
- Frequently family members are buried in the same cemetery often in neighboring plots.
- Try these California links:
- NOTE: Each database covers different cemeteries, although some may overlap. Don't be discouraged if you do not locate your individual in the first database. Check each collection.
- California, Mortuary and Cemetery Records, 1801-1932 Index and images ($)
- California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1895-1985 Index and images ($)
- California Cemetery Transcriptions, 1850-1960 Images only.
- California Cemetery Records at Findagrave.com
- California Cemetery Records at Interment.net
- BillionGraves Index
- BillionGraves California Cemeteries
- USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project
- California Cemetery Records
- Californian Cemetery Records at D'Addezio
Step 4: Search for county birth and marriage records online.[edit | edit source]
States, counties, or even towns in some states recorded births, marriages, and deaths. You have probably seen these types of certificates and have your own. In addition to the child's name, birth date, and place of birth, a birth certificate may give the birthplaces of the parents, their ages, and occupations. A death certificate may give the person's birth date and place, parents' names and birthplaces, and spouse's name.
Vital records registration of births and marriages at the state level started in 1905. Prior to that the individual counties kept the records. The starting dates of those records vary from county to county, depending on when the county was formed. Here are a variety of collected county records:
- California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994. Images.
- California, Births and Christenings, 1812-1988 Index only
- California, Select Births and Christenings, 1812-1988 ($)
- California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994 Index and images
- California, County Birth and Death Records, 1849-1994, ($). Images.
- California, Birth Records from Select Counties, 1872-1987, ($). Images.
- Western States Marriages
- Web: Western States Marriage Index, 1809-2011 Index ($)
- California Marriages, 1850-1877 Index ($)
- California, Marriages, 1850-1945 Index only
- California, Select Marriages, 1850-1945 Index ($)
- California, County Marriages, 1850-1952 Index only
- California, Marriage Records from Select Counties, 1850-1941, ($). Images.
- California, Marriage Index, 1949-1959, ($).
- California, Marriage Index, 1960-1985
Samples of index entries[edit | edit source]
Records of close relatives should be looked for to help verify information that may not be on your direct-line ancestor's records. In the second record below, for example, the bride or groom might be only the brother or sister of your direct line ancestor, but the record still states the parents names. The parents then are the direct line.
Records at the County Courthouse[edit | edit source]
From the date of the formation of a county until the establishment of state civil registration, birth and marriage records were kept by the County Clerk. They may have been microfilmed, or you can write for them. It is appropriate to write asking for either a single record or for a list of all the marriages for a given surname. This Letter Writing Guide will help you with phrasing a letter. This online directory by Genealogy Inc. will give you the address of the County Clerk. Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the "Courthouse and Government Records" to find the address and phone number.
If you are at the main Family History Library, check first to see if microfilms of the county vital records are available. In the search field of the FamilySearch Catalog, enter the state and county. Then click on the "Vital Records" subject. The cost of renting the microfilms at a Family History Center probably makes it less expensive to just write to the County Clerk.
Step 5: Search military records: World War I and II draft cards and Civil War pension records online.[edit | edit source]
- There are many different types of military records, some covered in online collections, some microfilmed, and some requiring you to order them from government repositories with a fee. For more information, read the U.S. Military Records Class Handout. Information in military records can vary from a simple lists of name, age, and residence, to more detailed records including name, residence, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace, physical description, number of dependents, pensions received, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans, and other information.
World War 1 Draft Registration[edit | edit source]
- One of the most helpful military records is the draft registration of 1917-1918. During three separate registrations, men born between 1873-1897 were required to register in the draft for World War I. Cards may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, physical description, next of kin (usually the wife or mother), and number of dependents. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at U.S. WW I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.
|*Here is an example of a typical draft card.|
World War II Draft Registration[edit | edit source]
|Likewise, the World War II draft may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, and other family members as contacts. WWII draft registration, called the Fourth Registration, or Old Man’s Registration, was held on April 27, 1942. The purpose of this registration was to collect information on industrial capacity and skills of men who were born between April 27, 1877 and February 16, 1897 (ages 45 to 64). This draft registration was not intended to be used for military service but to provide a complete inventory of manpower resources in the United States that could be utilized for national service during World War II. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at
Civil War Pensions[edit | edit source]
- Pensions were given to Union Civil War soldiers who sustained war-related disabilities from the Federal Government.
- There are several Civil War pension indexes online:
- United States Civil War and Later Pension Index, 1861-1917 at FamilySearch
- General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, Civil War at Ancestry - $
- Civil War Pensions Index at Fold3 - $
- United States Civil War Widows and Other Dependents Pension Files, 1861-1934 This collection indexes approved pension case files of widows and other dependents of soldiers submitted between 1861 and 1934 and sailors between 1910 and 1934. The pension files are being uploaded and attached to this index as they become available. If the pension images are not available, they must be obtained from the National Archives. The wife's maiden name is used in the index along with her married name.
This collection consists of two card indexes to widows who had applied for a pension renewal. The first covers service between 1812-1860 and the second covers service in the Civil War and later. This is helpful in locating a woman in census and death records under her new surname.
Pension Records for Other Wars[edit | edit source]
- This record might help by naming a wife or widow of a Revolutionary War veteran who settled in California: U.S., Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800-1900 Index
- This record gives name, rank, regiment, company commander, regimental commander, height, weight, color of eyes, hair, complexion, age, occupation, county or state of birth, date and place of enlistment, miscellaneous remarks. Additional records include Indian Scouts, 1878-1914: U.S., Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914 Index and images.
- These records might help by naming a wife or widow of a veteran who settled in California:
- U.S., Old War Pension Index, 1815-1926 Index Only.
- U.S., Index to Indian Wars Pension Files, 1892-1926 Index only.
- U.S., Mexican War Pension Index, 1887-1926 Index only.
- For a more complete list of available online military records and indexes, see United States Online Military Records.
Military Indexes Unique to California[edit | edit source]
- Records of California men in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1867($)
- California, World War I Death Announcements, 1918-1921 Index and images ($)
- California, World War I Soldier Citations, 1918-1921 Index and images ($)
- California, WWI Soldier Service Cards and Photos, 1917-1918 Index and images ($)
- California, WWI Soldier Photographs, 1917-1918 Index and images ($)
- California, San Francisco, World War I Enemy Alien Registration Affidavits, 1918 Index and images.
|If Your Family Immigrated|
Step 6: If your ancestor was an immigrant, search immigration and naturalization records online.[edit | edit source]
The census records may show that your ancestor was born in another country. It will be necessary to try to find the town or city they were born in to continue research in that country. The next goal is to search immigration records (usually passenger lists) and naturalization (citizenship) records. Immigration refers to people coming into a country, such as the United States, and emigration refers to people leaving a country to go to another. Usually these records are passenger lists of the ships they sailed on. A typical record will show name, age, and country of origin, but records after 1892 often list the actual town of last residence and later, the town of birth. The later passenger lists can also list the next of kin still living in the old country and their residence, and the names of relatives and the place they are traveling to.
Census clues to Immigration records[edit | edit source]
Census records can provide important clues about nationality and immigration. This chart lists data that can be found in each of the census records. Gather the information in the census records specifically about immigration, as it will help narrow down your search.
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
Immigration records[edit | edit source]
There are too many immigration records to list here. Click here to see a complete list of available immigration records online. Notice that they are listed by state, but under the letter "U" there is a long list of records that cover all of the United States. Unless family information tells you the port where family arrived, you will need to search all of the United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records for the time period when your ancestors arrived. Here are the immigration records specific to California:
- California, Pioneer and Immigrant Files, 1790-1950, index, images($).
- California Bound Passenger list of those bound from NY to CA for the Gold Rush.
- Native Daughters of the Golden West, Index to the Roster of California Pioneers
- San Francisco Ship Passenger Lists Vol. I (1850-1864), Vol. II (1850-1851), Vol. III (November 7, 1851 to June 17, 1852) ($)
- California, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1959 Index and images ($)
- California, Los Angeles, San Pedro, and Wilmington Passenger Lists, 1900-1948, ($). Index.
- California, San Francisco Passenger Lists, 1893-1953 Images
- Border Crossings:From Mexico to U.S., 1895-1964 Index and images ($)
- Notice in this California Pioneer and Immigrant Files entry for William Smith Johnson, the wealth of information: his parents's names, his wife's maiden name, his birth date and place, death date and place, and previous residence.
Naturalization (Citizenship) Records[edit | edit source]
Naturalization is the process of becoming a citizen. Records can include the immigrant's declaration of intent to become a citizen, petition, and final citizenship papers. Also locate both the declaration of intent and the petition. Naturalization records after 1906 can give birth date and place, spouse's name, marriage date and place, and lists of children with their birth dates. Records before 1906 usually include less information although, some county clerks would add more information then necessary making it important to always search for the records even if the naturalization happened before 1906. For more information regarding the naturalization process go to: Beginning Research in United States Naturalization Records wiki page.
- Sample of a naturalization record--declaration of intent;
California Naturalization and Citizenship Online Records[edit | edit source]
- Online California Naturalization Records and Indexes
- California County Naturalizations, 1849-1949 Browse only images
- California, Naturalization Records, 1887-1991 ($)
- California, State Court Naturalization Records, 1850-1986 ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for California, Northern District, 1851-1904 - U.S. District Court Declarations ($)
- California, Northern U.S. District Court Naturalization Index, 1852-1989 Free!
- Shasta county, California, Naturalization Records: 1852 - 1932 ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for California, Northern District, 1853-1867- U.S. District Court ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for California, Northern District, 1854-1906- U.S. District Court, Certificates of Naturalization ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for California, Northern District, 1855-1912 - U.S. Circuit Court Certificates of Citizenship ($)
- California, San Diego Naturalization Index, 1868-1958
- Naturalization Index Cards from the Superior Court of San Diego, CA, 1868-1958 ($)
- Naturalizations - Naturalization Records of the Superior Court of Los Angeles, CA, 1876-1915 ($)
- Selected U.S. Naturalization Records - Superior Court of Los Angeles, California, 1876-1915 ($)
- U.S., Naturalization Records - Original Documents, (World Archives Project) for California, 1876-1940 - U.S. District and Superior Courts ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for California, Northern District, 1879-1903- U.S. Circuit Court ($)
- Naturalization Records in the Superior Court of San Diego, CA, 1883-1958 ($)
- Selected U.S. Naturalization Records - Superior Court of San Diego, California, 1883-1958 ($)
- Naturalization Petitions for the Southern District Of California, 1887-1940 ($)
- Selected U.S. Naturalization Records - U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Central Division (Los Angeles), 1887-1940 ($)
- San Francisco, California, Surrendered Alien Certificates, 1906-1946, ($).
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for California, Northern District, 1906-1928- U.S. District Court, Declarations and Petitions ($)
- California, Southern District Court (Central) Naturalization Index, 1915-1976
Step 7: Use the clues you have gathered to search in earlier censuses than before.[edit | edit source]
Now you will use the clues you have gathered from the more recent census records, cemeteries and obituaries, and birth, marriage, and death records to search even earlier census records. Searching additional census records may give clues that take you back to birth, marriage, and death records. You will probably go back and forth between all these record groups again and again.
For example, now that we have learned that Robert Ferdinand Johnson is the son of William S. Johnson, we can look for William S. Johnson in the earlier census records before Robert was born--1850, and the 1852 state census of California. Now that we know William Smith Johnson was married to Louisa Cano, we can go back through the census records looking for her living with her parents. Then we can follow her parents through the later census records, death records, immigration records and so forth.
Here is a simple pedigree showing what we have discovered so far:
Again, here are the links to these earlier census records:
Step 8: Search a printed local history or biography online.[edit | edit source]
Local histories[edit | edit source]
- Published histories of towns, counties, and states usually contain biographies and accounts of early or prominent families. They describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses.
- The authors usually invited the residents of the county to submit their personal family histories, in order to create an automatic market for the book. County residents whose families were in the book were sure to buy a copy.
- Histories can also give lists of pioneers, soldiers, and civil officials.
- Even if your ancestor's name is not listed, information about other relatives may be included that may provide important clues for locating your ancestor.
- Here are several websites that feature online copies of printed county histories:
- Hathi Trust Digital Library. Don't use the keywords California; that will bring up too many hits. Just use the name of the county and "county": for example, "Hyde County"
- Google Books. Use keywords "California" and the county name. Hits will list online readable books, lists of libraries that carry the book, and purchasing opportunities.
- Family History Books
- Internet Archive.Use keywords "California" and the county name.
- Genealogy Book Links, California. Browse list; county histories are interspersed.
- Ancestry.com, ($). In the Card Catalog search box, use California and the name of the county.
- Local histories are extensively collected by the Family History Library, public and university libraries, and state and local historical societies. If you have access to the Family History Library or a family history center, you can find out about local histories the library has by checking the FamilySearch Catalog. In the "place" field, type the name of your county and select it from the drop down list, then click "Search". A list of subheadings for the county will appear. Local histories containing genealogies and biographies will be found under Biography, Genealogy, History, and History - Indexes.
- Also, in Step 12, you will be contacting a county history society. Societies often have a good selection of printed histories about the area. Some may be search history for you for a fee.
Biographies[edit | edit source]
These collections of California biographies can be searched online. Most have a table of contents and an index. Or you can use the "Find" function on your computer.
- California Pioneers, 1542-1848, ($). Partial index.
- Historical and biographical record of southern California: containing a history of southern California from its earliest settlers, ($). Index.
- California, Biographical Index Cards, 1781-1990, ($). Index.
- California, Pioneer and Immigrant Files, 1790-1950, ($). Index.
- Roster of California Pioneers
- DAR California Pioneers
- Biographical Materials for the State of California
- California Biographies
- California Biographical Collection:Responses to Vital Record Inquiries, 1822-1964 Index and images.
- California Pioneer List
- U.S., Women of the West, 1928, ($). Index.
- Who's who among the women of California, e-book
- California and Californians, Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5 , e-books
- Personal sketches of California pioneers I have known, e-book
- A history of the new California, its resources and people, V. 1, V. 2
- A memorial and biographical history of the coast counties of central California e-book
- A memorial and biographical history of northern California, e-book
- Early days in California, e-book
- Men of achievement in the great southwest : a story of pioneer struggles during early days in Los Angeles and Southern California, e-book
- A Volume of memoirs and genealogy of representative citizens of northern California, e-book
- A history of California and an extended history of its southern coast counties: also containing biographies of well-known citizens of the past and present, e-book
- The new empire and her representative men; or, The Pacific coast, its farms, mines, vines, wines, orchards, and interests; its productions, industries and commerce, with interesting biographies and modes of travel, e-book
|Here is an example of the genealogical information you might find in California history with biographies:|
Step 9: Write to a county for wills and probate indexes.[edit | edit source]
- "Probate is the legal process through which an individual’s real estate (property) and personal estate (possessions) are distributed to his or her heirs, whether or not there is a will. Testate is the term used when a will existed in the settling of the estate. Intestate is the term used when there was no will written and the court decides how the estate is to be distributed.
- "Not everyone in the United States wrote a will or went through probate. Nearly 10% of the pre-1900 adult population made wills, usually males with property. Before 1900, about 25% of estates were probated, even though no will had been written. However, this percentage is higher for rural areas because that is where the land was owned.
- "The single most important value of probate records is the proof of relationships. In a will, people are identified as a wife, son, daughter, nephew, niece, brother, sister, etc. If there is no will, the distribution is made by the court to the heirs who are usually family members. Other helpful and interesting information that may be learned from probate files are: date and place of death, name of the spouse and other possible family members and relationships, location of the heirs, property ownership, and guardianship of minor children." Jill Shoemaker, U.S. Probate Records Class Handout
County probate records[edit | edit source]
- California probate records include probate proceedings, petitions, affidavits, orders for sales, reports of sales, administrators' and executors' bonds, guardianship papers, wills, and letters of administration. In a will book, usually just a transcription of the will is recorded. But all of these other records are kept in a probate packet. Administrations are probate proceedings that handled an estate if no known will existed.
- Currently, these records are microfilmed and digitized:
- California, Wills and Probate Records, 1782-1999, ($), index and images, incomplete.
- Early California Wills, ($).
- California Probate Estate Files, 1833-1991 Images only.
- Eventually more of these records may become available online.
- In the meantime, this online directory by Genealogy Inc. will enable you to arrange to have them searched for a fee: Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the Courthouse and Government Records to find the address and phone number of the County Clerk of Court. Ask them about the years covered by their probate records and their procedure and fees for ordering copies probate packets. When you write, always ask for the full probate packet, not just the will or administration.
Step 10: Search land records online.[edit | edit source]
- These records will give the name of the owner, the date they obtained the land, the county, and the exact location of the land. They can contain clues to family members who shared ownership of the land, sold or gave land to a child, or witnessed the sale. Sometimes they show the previous or new residence of the parties to the deed. They can be useful in tracking an ancestor who lived in more than one county in California. With the additional county name where the family lived, the probate and vital records of that county can then be searched.
- BLM General Land Office, Patents
- California, Spanish Archive Records, 1784-1868, ($). Land grants. Index.
- U.S., Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1820-1908 Images only
- Spanish and Mexican Land Grants, 1855-1875
- California, Alien Land Ownership Records, 1921-1952, ($) index.
- California, Spanish Archive Records, 1784-1868, ($) Land records.
Step 11: Contact a county historical or genealogical society.[edit | edit source]
This online directory by GenealogyInc. lists historical and genealogical societies by county: Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the historical or genealogical society listings. Here is an example of an internet website for a local genealogical society.
Gather All the Evidence and Put It Together[edit | edit source]
After online research, search the collection at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.[edit | edit source]
Although FamilySearch is actively working to microfilm and preserve records throughout the world, this huge job is nowhere near complete. We have tried in the Wiki to provide information about collections, books, and records held in government and ecclesiastical archives beyond the Family History Library records. In California, United States Genealogy, you can find links to these records and how to access them. Also here you will find information on records from your particular California county of interest.