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Beginning Genealogy Lessons
by Don B. Dale

Lessons To Help You Get Started & Sometimes To Keep Going

Lesson 8: Federal, State and Territorial Records

Lesson 8 is courtesy of Jean R. Legried, copyright 1996. Her work is available at: www.rootsweb.com/~newbie. Used with permission. Note: Lessons with"added notes" italicized are added "Net Notes" (N2) by DB Dale.
        These records are a mixture of primary and secondary resources.
Some records have been indexed and are easy to use -- others will have
to be read page by page to find what you want.  Some are in good, usable
condition and are filed in boxes and/or microfilmed -- others are
fragile, dusty and not filed in an orderly fashion.  Whichever applies
to the records you use, you are guaranteed an interesting journey!

        State, county and other local records accumulated during the
territorial period and preserved in county courthouses and state
archives are NOT included in these records, except, if for some reason,
the documents were forwarded to Washington and then became a part of the
Federal Archives.
        These territorial records include petitions and memorials sent,
year after year, by the inhabitants of the territories for redress of
grievances or change of government, and attached to these petitions are
long lists of names of subscribers, reproduced from the originals in the
files of the Senate, the House, and National Archives.  These names are
almost like a census, although not complete.
        Ten states have published their Territorial Papers:
             Alabama - 1 volume           Arkansas - 3 volumes
             Florida - 1 volume           Illinois - 2 volumes
             Louisiana - 1 volume (under title of Orleans Territory)
             Michigan - 3 volumes         Mississippi - 2 volumes
             Missouri - 3 volumes         Ohio - 2 volumes
             Tennessee - 1 volume (under title of Southwest Territory)
             Wisconsin - 1 volum          Northwest Territory - 2 volumes
       The on-line catalog of the University of Minnesota has been checked
and several of these books found listed, so, if you are interested, your
state university is a good place to start. Here's a great site for you. 
Morton Grove Library in IL. 

        State Archives begin with the date of admission of the state to
the Union.  Some states have published guides to their state archives
and historical library that can be very helpful.  
        County boundary changes will be found here because they involved
legislative action.  Other useful records that might be found here are
land grants, early marriage records, newspapers, militia muster and pay
rolls, pensions, immigration and naturalization records, tax lists,
biographical materials, and, of course, census returns.  Some states
have programs of gathering county records into the state archives.   
Some state archives have material available on states other than their
own.  (The Minnesota Historical Center in St. Paul has a good collection
on the eastern states because that is where the residents of Minnesota
lived before they moved West.)  Check with the state historical society 
of your state of interest to learn what records they have available for 
        Some states took a census in the years between the Federal
census.  These were often taken during the years ending in 5 -- other
states chose other years.  These census returns vary from a statistical
count of people (no names, just numbers) to returns that are very
helpful and contain information not found in Federal returns.  These
returns can be helpful in tracking a family between the Federal census
years.  Some states have returns that extend into the 1920s. 
Information on State census returns can be found in THE SOURCE (edited 
by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny; Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry Publishing 
Co., 1984 -- a 1997 edition is now available) and in other genealogical 
how-to-do-it books.(In this section the terms "state archives" and
"state historical society/library" are used interchangeably because they 
are most often found in the same building.)

        The National Archives in Washington, DC is the "great public
record office" of the United States!  There you will find records from
1775.  Earlier/Colonial records will be found in the individual states. 
Genealogical records in the National Archives comprise only 1% of all
their records but these are used by 95% of all researchers.

*Census Records -- The first Federal census was taken in 1790 and one
has been taken every ten years since then.  The latest return open for
public use is 1920.  Information from later years can be obtained for a
fee to determine age for Social Security, etc.  
                        --     Many of the census returns have been indexed.  1880,
1900 and 1920 have a Soundex, a numerical index compiled by "sound" of
the name, not how it is "spelled."  The 1880 Soundex lists only families
with children age ten or younger.  Several states have made an index to
the 1880 census that includes everyone, however.  Only a few of the 1910
states have a Soundex.
                        --       Returns from 1790 through 1840 are a "head of
household" enumeration.  Only the name of the head of the household is
listed and other family members are counted by sex and age.  1850 is the
first year that every household member was named.  Each successive year
gives more information about the people.  The 1890 census burned but the
veterans' schedules survived.  This is helpful if you had someone who
served in the Civil War.
        In several years specialized schedules were made: 
~ 1885 -- A law was passed stating that states could take a census in
this year and be partially      reimbursed by the Federal government.  Some
frontier states, Colorado, Florida, Nebraska,   and the territories of
Dakota and New Mexico (including Arizona), did this. 
~ 1850-85 -- Mortality Schedules -- These schedules list deaths that
occurred 12 months prior to the census (i.e. 1 June 1849 through 31 May
1850).  These schedules are helpful because vital records were not yet
being kept in most counties. 
~ 1840, 1890 -- Veterans' Schedules -- The 1840 schedule records
veterans of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 (this one has been
published) and the 1890 schedule lists the Civil War veterans and an
occasional 1812 veteran.
~ 1850-60 -- Slave Schedules -- In these two years slaves were listed
separately by name.  In the years before 1850 they were recorded as a
~ 1840-1910 -- Agriculture Schedules -- These give you an insight into
the property owned, crops and livestock produced by your ancestor.  
~ 1810-20 --, annual production, etc.Manufacturing Schedules, 1850-70 --
Industry Schedules --   These schedules gave the type of company, number
of employees
~ 1850-80 -- Social Statistics -- These schedules list 1) cemetery
information, 2) trade societies, lodges, clubs and other groups, and
3) churches.
~ 1880, 1885-1940, 1898-1906 (a card index), 1910-1939 (Indian School
census) -- Native Americans -- Information in these schedules varies
but are a good source if you have Native American ancestry.

Many of these special schedules have been indexed, some have been
published.  Microfilmed copies are available from the National Archives,
Family History Libraries, and, often, from the state historical
society.  There is much more to be found on a census return than just
the names, ages and birth places of your ancestors.  Other things you
should look for are persons with the same surname living in the county
or just over the county or state line, persons with a different surname
living in the same household as your ancestor, data on your ancestor's
neighbors.  You need to study the census for migration patterns and
neighborhood patterns.  Take time to STUDY a census return.
*Ships' Passenger Lists
        To search these records you MUST have a date.  There were
hundreds of ships coming to American ports every year with thousands of
persons immigrating on those ships.  You don't realize how many names
you have to plow through until you start a search!  Not everyone
immigrated through Castle Garden or Ellis Island.  Many other east and
southern coast cities also had immigrants coming through their ports and
others immigrated through Canada.   Until recent years these records
were not indexed, but now there are several projects working on
indexing.  Microfilmed records are available at the National Archives
and Family History Libraries.
*Naturalization Records -- 
    Before 1906 these records are in the individual counties -- after 1906
they are in the county where the oath of allegiance was taken or in the
Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, Washington, DC.  The only
naturalization records at the Nation Archives are for Washington, DC,
*Military Records -- 
     The National Archives has military service records from 1775-1912 that
include the American Revolution, War of 1812, Indian Wars after 1817,
Mexican War, Civil War (Union side and captured Confederate records),
and Spanish-American War.  Later military records are available from the
National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO.  There has been a
fire at the NPRC, however, and not all records survived.   When ordering
a military file from the National Archives, first
order a pension or bounty land file.  These will give you the most
personal information.  Secondly, you can order a military file.  This
will tell you about battles engaged in, wounds, AWOL, etc.  A pension,
bounty land or military file will cost $10.00/each.

        There are so many things available from this "great public record
office" that it impossible to list them all here.  Some things have been
microfilmed and are available on inter-library loan.  For other records
you will have to search them in person or hire a researcher in the
Washington, DC area.   There is a good book on the National Archives,
although in some respects it is out-dated: National Archives Trust Fund
(Washington, DC: National Archives and Research Service, 1982).
Your public library should have a copy.  There is also a free booklet, AIDS
FOR GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH, available from: National Archives Trust Fund
Board, Publication Services (NEPS), Room 1W1, Washington, DC 20408. 

       There are also several catalogues available that give the order numbers
of the microfilmed records.

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Originally posted: 08-May-97. Update: 10 July 2005.