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Research Tip 8: Local Records

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
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Locating Records at the Town and County Level
Vital records were usually kept at the local level before they were maintained at the state level. Raymond Wright presents an overview of what you can learn from local record keepers and how that information can help you.
Genealogists thrive on finding birth, marriage, and death records. These sources were normally created on the local level. The most common jurisdiction recording these kinds of documents was the county. County clerks, county court clerks, and probate court clerks were the usual scribes. An exception is New England. There, town clerks kept vital records. Records of births, marriages, and deaths may date from the middle of the seventeenth century.

Before the institution of probate districts in some areas of New England, it was the town clerk who also recorded wills. Land records — deeds — were also recorded by local town clerks. In the states of the South and the states between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, most records were kept by county or county court clerks and begin about the middle of the eighteenth century. In the West and Southwest, records begin with settlement of the area by Americans on the move westward.

Near the beginning of the twentieth century, most states mandated that copies of birth, marriage, and death records be filed with a state office of vital statistics. Remember, if the vital records of a state were destroyed at some point, look for copies on the county level. If a county courthouse was destroyed after about 1900, look for copies of birth, marriage, and death records at the state office for vital statistics.

After the passage of the Social Security Act of 1937, many Americans found they could not apply for Social Security benefits because they had no birth certificate. To overcome this problem many persons applied for delayed birth certificates. The applicant provided witnesses or some other proof of birth to the county or state officials and received a birth certificate. These records appear in county and state offices under the title "delayed births" or "delayed birth certificates." Researchers may neglect to ask for searches in these records because they generally begin in about 1940 and appear to be too recent to contain a birth from the 1880s. In fact, these records contain birth data on many persons born before 1900. Thomas Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook (3rd ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994) provides details about obtaining copies of birth, marriage, and death records for all states and many foreign countries.

If you cannot find an ancestor's death date, determine whether or not the local county clerk's office has probate records or land records for the time period in which the forebear died. Many people believe that probate records exist only if a person left a will. Most of our ancestors died intestate, without wills. Nevertheless, judges in the local city court, county court, or probate court were required to identify heirs as well as creditors. The probate packets created to deal with the deaths of most persons include inventories of personal property and often a death date. If ancestors owned land, local deed books will record the transfer of property to heirs. The dates of these transactions help identify the period in which a person died, and in some instances a death date may be recorded in the deed book.

How do you find the addresses of town and county clerks and clerks of local courts? The information can be found online or in any number of genealogy how-to books.

About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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