Main Page

      Course Outline



I - Getting Started

      Home Sources


      Recording Information

      Citing Resources

II - Using Online Resources

      Online Databases

      Search Engines


 III - Gathering Key Records

      Vital Records

      Federal Census Records

      Module III Activities

IV - Exploring Further

      Probate Records

      Military Records


V - Sharing Information

      Discussion Lists



Vital & Probate Records

CDC Vital Records

FamilySearch Databases

FamilySearch Census Records


Home Sources Checklist

4-Generation Ancestor Chart

Family Group Sheet

Birth Date Calculator

County Boundary Database


Gathering Key Records


After successfully completing this module, you will be able to:
  • Collect vital records documenting births, marriages, and deaths.
  • Search the federal census records at FamilySearch for your ancestors' census data.


At this point, you should have some information about when and where your parents, grandparents, and possibly your great-grandparents were born, married, and died. The next step is to gather documentation to confirm the dates and parent-child relationships of each generation in your family tree.

Begin with your own birth and marriage certificates (if married). Purchase several three-ring binders and a package of acid-free sheet protectors. Place each document in a separate sheet protector and store in a binder. As you gather documents, you will want to set up separate binders for the different lines in your family.

Genealogists refer to records as primary and secondary sources of information. Primary records are those that are documented shortly after an event by someone with personal knowledge of the facts. Primary sources include vital records, federal census records, wills, probate records, church records, and military records.

Secondary records include printed genealogies, local histories, transcriptions, and information from Internet databases and web sites. Competent genealogists use secondary sources only as clues for further researching. They use the dates and places in these secondary sources to locate primary records. The web sites described in this module will help you locate primary records to confirm the parents and children in each generation of your family tree.

As in Module II, you will find a "Demonstration" link and a "Practice" link after some of the site descriptions. To review a demonstration of the web site, click DEMONSTRATION. To practice using the site while following step-by-step instructions, click PRACTICE. To use the site without instructions, click the link to the web site within each description or in the "Links" menu on the left side of the page.


Once you know the dates and locations of your ancestors' vital events, the next step is to look for vital records available online. Keep in mind that different localities started documenting vital records in vastly different time periods. Town clerks in New England recorded vital events as early as the 1600s. However, some southern and western states did not begin keeping these records until the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In addition to problems of availability, these records can have errors. If a parent provided the information for a birth certificate, it is probably accurate. However, be aware that information on a death certificate is often provided by someone who did not know your ancestor's mother's maiden name or your ancestor's place of birth.


Despite these problems, vital records are still the most important records for genealogists. Click here for links to over 4,000 free vital records and probate records organized by state and county. (See Module 4 for a discussion of probate records.)


There are many free searchable databases that provide information from death records, obituaries, and cemetery inscriptions. For example, you can search and download Missouri Death Certificates from 1910 to 1968.

Organized by state, links to hundreds of free databases that provide death information.



If you are unable to locate a free vital record online, the next step is to order it. The best approach is to write for death records first, marriage records second and birth records last.  If you know the date and location of birth, marriage, or death for your ancestor, visit the CDC Vital Records page.  This site offers information on ordering vital records and provides links to the state entities responsible for issuing records.




In addition to the links on the Vital Records & Probate Records page discussed above, FamilySearch has many databases containing vital records on their site.  These databases are arranged by country and state.

NOTE: FamilySearch does not support frames.  Before clicking the PRACTICE link, click here to print the instructions.


To determine the county in which a town is located, use the County Boundary Database.


Every ten years since 1790, the U.S. government has conducted a census of each state and territory. Census records have become a major tool for identifying where ancestors lived, estimating birth and death dates, and confirming parent-child relationships. For privacy reasons, census schedules remain confidential for seventy-two years.

Census schedules from 1790 to 1840 name only the head of each household. Everyone else in the household is grouped by age and sex. However, beginning in 1850, census schedules included the name, age, sex, race, occupation, and birthplace of each person living in a household.

The 1880 census added two more pieces of information: the relationship of each person to the head of the household and the birthplace of each person's parents. Unfortunately, fire destroyed most of the 1890 census.

The 1900 census is the only census to include the month and year of birth for each person. The 1900 and 1910 censuses indicate the number of years of marriage for each couple, the number of children born to the mother, and the number of children still living. They also show whether a family rented or owned its residence and whether the residence was a house or farm. For individuals born outside the U.S., these censuses also indicate the year of immigration.

There are several important points to remember when using census records:
  • Start by identifying the state and county where your ancestor lived in each census year.

  • Expect your family's name to be spelled various ways. Census takers spelled what they heard, and many spellings are way off. Say your name out loud and consider different ways in which it might have been spelled.

  • In addition to spelling problems, penmanship skills also varied widely. Even if the census taker spelled your ancestor's name correctly, individuals indexing or transcribing the information sometimes made errors.

  • Remember that given names can also be spelled in numerous ways, such as Ann, Anne, Anna, and Annie.

  • Nicknames were often used in census records in place of formal given names.

  • Keep in mind that it is impossible to know who gave the information to the census taker. Because it could have been a child, a parent, a boarder, or a neighbor, you should expect to encounter some errors.

  • Expect ages and name spellings to vary from census to census. It is not unusual for ages reported over five censuses to be listed as 6, 17, 25, 36, and 45.

  • Many people rounded off their ages to the nearest 5 or 0.

  • Be sure to read several pages of each census for other families with the same surname (last name). Family members often lived close to one another.

  • Record as much information from the census record as you can including the census year, the roll number, the state and county, the page number of the family's listing in censuses 1790-1870, and the enumeration district number and sheet number from 1880 and after.


Thanks to the efforts of thousands of volunteers around the world, it has become much easier to access census records. A large number of federal and state census records can be searched for free at the FamilySearch site.

NOTE: FamilySearch does not support frames.  Before clicking the PRACTICE link, click here to print the instructions.



One of the most important resources for records is Although is a subscription service, you may be able to access it for free at your local library or Family History Center.


  1. Search the Vital Records and Probate Records list,, and the FamilySearch Databases for online vital records. To determine the county in which a town is located, use the County Boundary Database.

  2. If you are unable to locate a free vital record online, order death certificates for those ancestors for whom you have a death location (state and county name) and an approximate death date (within 2-3 years).

  3. Read the order instructions CAREFULLY. Complete the appropriate forms and include copies of any necessary identification.

  4. Note each of the records ordered in your research journal to avoid duplicating work.

  5. After receiving the death certificates, send for marriage and birth certificates.
  6. Search census records at FamilySearch.

  7. Contact your local library and ask if they provide access to

  8. Update your Ancestor Charts and Family Group Sheets with any new information. Cite your resources on the back of the charts.

  9. Reflect on your genealogical journey to this point.

    • Review your Ancestor Charts, Family Group Sheets, and the documents that you have collected.

    • In your journal, make a list of any missing information (i.e., names, dates, and locations), and identify the vital records that you still need to collect.

    • If you have a date and location for an event but you have not ordered a vital record, make a note to do so.

    • If you have a date and location for an event but the vital record is not available, place an asterisk next to this notation in your journal. In Module IV, you will learn about alternative records that can serve as valid substitutes for birth, marriage, and death certificates.

    • If you are missing a date or location, visit a library with access to Search the federal census records to locate your ancestor in a specific place in time.

      If you need birth information, review censuses from 1850 to 1940 and make of note of your ancestor's age in each census. The 1900 census can be particularly helpful as it provides the month and year of birth for each person.

      For marriage information, search the 1900 and 1910 censuses. These censuses indicate the number of years of marriage for each couple.

      For death information, make a note of when your ancestor no longer appears in the census records.

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