Discover Your Roots, Part #4: Using Local and More Obscure Records to Focus Your Search

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In family history research, federal census records are often the media darling of genealogy research documents. The federal census happens every 10 years like clockwork. It’s even written into the U.S. Constitution that they need to be taken. They give valuable information about where your ancestors lived, who was in the household, whether they were literate, what language they spoke, how much money or property they had, and even where they and their parents were born. Tracking family migration (or lack thereof) and how well they fared in life is pretty easy with the federal census. It’s comparing apples to apples, usually. Those documents are a fantastic way to start your research on an ancestor, especially at, where they are well indexed and transcribed, but to fill in the framework with more details and color, records that are more local can really add to the picture.

So many records that will be helpful in your family history research were kept on the local level instead of the federal, or even state, level. There are also state census records, often held on years different from the federal census. This can fill in some of the gaps left by federal documents, or during the dark times of the mostly-missing 1890 federal census. This post will attempt to introduce you to just a handful of options for more local documents. I’ve found that sometimes these don’t show up on Ancestry’s leaf hints, so be sure to go searching for them for all of your ancestors.

Birth and death certificates, and marriage licenses

These hold a treasure trove of information, including not only information about the ancestor (and their spouse, in the case of marriage licenses), but often other family members, such as parents and next of kin. Birth certificates give date, time, and location of birth. Death certificates give a doctor’s name, time and place of death, and cause of death, sometimes including how long they suffered from whatever killed them. Marriage licenses often show how many times someone has been married, and in some areas, marrying parties had to certify that they aren’t closer than second (or sometimes first) cousins.

State censuses and voter lists

States often held their own censuses in off years, such as those ending in “5,” which helped fill in the gaps about where people lived, children who may have died, or any other changes in the households. Each state will have a slightly different format and list of information that they gather, so it’s always fun to see what you can find.

Military records

If you go back far enough, and it doesn’t even need to be that far, military groups were a lot more local than they are now. Be sure to check locally-held military records on Fold3, Ancestry’s sister site focusing on the military. It is also a fantastic resource.

Wills and probate documents

If you can find a will written by or for one of your ancestors, get ready to take some notes. These documents reveal so much about someone’s life, their finances and property, their relationships with family and friends, and often their religious affiliation.

Land grants, records, or sale documents, along with land plats

This is a land plat map, one small section of which one of my ancestors owned. Image found on

Buying, selling, or receiving land was very well documented, especially back in the day when having land was necessary for living, and usually for being considered a full member of society. You may find that a plot of family land was purchased for a pittance many decades or even centuries ago, but now it’s prime real estate.

Land plats are overview maps of a small area or town showing who owns what plots of land. If your ancestor owned any land, these documents show where in town it was located (since Google Maps isn’t always helpful in this case), what size and shape it was, if it was in one piece, and how it compared to other pieces of land in town.

Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution applications, and similar

These applications are an often-overlooked resource for family history, when, in fact, they can be more useful than even census records, assuming you trust your ancestor’s own facts. To apply for membership in these organizations, the applicant must claim to be descended from a certain ancestor who fought in the war. They then have to trace their ancestry to that person, with names, dates, and any other information they have. Though there are bound to be some mistakes in these records, or difficult-to-read handwriting, they can give you generations of new leads for your research.

Passenger manifests

My great-grandmother’s voyage back from Bermuda. Image found on

Passenger manifests show who traveled where and when on a specific ship. It locks your ancestor down to a time and a place, a ship, an origin, and a destination. They often include information about your ancestor’s final destination and whether they are going to stay with anyone. Sometimes these were for migration or immigration, and sometimes just for pleasure trips. I’ve found several of my ancestors from the past 100-150 years on passenger manifests, much of which surprised me. I didn’t know or realize just how often some of them traveled. My great-grandmother, I found out, went on a trip to Bermuda in 1938 with her husband and sister.

Newspaper articles

Though newspapers often report national news, they always include local happenings. Births, deaths, marriages, arrivals in town, court cases, business dealings, and even just stories of general interest are included here. Fuzzy pictures, too, but also names and plenty of information. Gone are the days of needing to peruse stacks of microfiche for newspaper articles, though. Ancestry has plenty of newspaper resources, and their sister site,, has an incredibly large collection of newspapers from all over the United States and several other countries across the world.

Town directories

These are the predecessor of phone books, listing everyone’s address, and usually their wife’s name (or deceased husband, if a widow). Businesses were also located in these directories, usually accompanied by the proprietor of the establishment.

Town histories

Histories of a town or area were frequently written to chronicle its growth. Since families didn’t move around then as much as they do now, you can glean a lot of family history from these histories as well, especially if you are related to a prominent family in the town.

This is the first page of an interview with Alexander Graham Bell and family about the history of deaf people in their family. Extensive collections of questionnaires such as these are just one example of the often fascinating documents out there. Image found on

Be sure to spend some quality time with Ancestry’s Card Catalog to find these and even more obscure resources! You can also search Ancestry’s collections by state or other criteria. There are also some resources there that are browsable or viewable but can’t be searched because they aren’t yet indexed.

Check out Part 1, 7 Steps to Get Started With Ancestry, Part 2, Building Stories and the Anatomy of an Ancestry Record, and Part 3, Collecting, Generating, and Archiving Primary Sources, in this series, and stay tuned soon for the next post!

Note: Ancestry gave me access to some of their resources for the purpose of this series.

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