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Beginning Genealogy Lesson #6
Government Sources

As we progress beyond collecting family history documents found at home or with relatives, we look to other sources for original documents that were created at the time our ancestors lived. When I say "original" its ok to look at microfilm of original records, or scanned images of the microfilm. These two methods are currently being used to preserve aging original documents which would otherwise be handled too much by anxious researchers. The next logical place to look is government sources. 

Here are some examples of the types of records you are likely to run into:

  • State, County or Town
    vitals records of birth, marriage & death
    wills & probate records
    pre-1906 naturalization records
    land transactions
    tax lists
    state/territorial census records
  • Federal
    military muster rolls, service records & pension files
    land grants/homesteads
    census 1790-1930
    passenger arrival lists
    naturalizations after 1906

If you are missing a marriage record for your grandparents, you'll need to contact the government agency that holds the old records for the place where they were married. Remember this is not necessarily the place they were living when they died. For clues of which locality review family traditions as well as their obituaries, bible entries, federal and state census records, etc. For instance, if your grandparents were married in Erie County, Pennsylvania, you could check either the Handybook for Genealogists http://www.Everton.com or The Red Book from http://www.Ancestry.com and discover that the county clerk has the original marriage records. You can also check a 3rd book, The International Vital Records Handbook by Thomas Kemp from http://www.Genealogical.com  for the addresses to order vital records from a state or foreign country.

Let's say that your grandparents were married in 1891 and you need a copy of their marriage certificate for your DAR or SAR (Daughters/Sons of the American Revolution)  lineage application. You will need to contact the county clerk for that locality in 1891. The address, city, state and zip are listed in the Handybook as follows:

Erie County Clerk
140 West 6th Street
Erie, PA 16501
phone 814.451.6080


Erie County Pennsylvania was created 12 March 1800 from Allegheny County. The Erie County courthouse burned in 1823; all records destroyed. County clerk has birth and death records 1893-1906 and marriage records from 1885. Prothonotary Office has divorce and court records from 1823; Registrar of Wills has probate records from 1823; County recorder has land records from 1823.

These books do not list the prices for county marriage records, but I would forward a check for $10 with my request. You could elect to phone the clerk's office on the phone about the charge for a photocopy of the marriage record.

When preparing your l snail letter of request for the marriage record, be sure to include:

  • both ancestor's full names
  • date of marriage
  • your return address

Since you are writing to a governmental agency, it is NOT necessary to include a self-addressed stamped business sized envelope.

1. Determine which governmental agencies have the birth, marriage & death records you seek. In addition to the three books listed above, you may consult FamilySearch.org's Research Guidance - Vital Records at: http://www.familysearch.org/rg/research/index.html 

2. Then compose and mail your letters of request. 

3. When the documents arrive place them in protective top-loading sheet protectors.

4. Remember to enter the information in your computer genealogy program. For instance, a marriage record may list the parents for each of your grandparents. If this information is new to you, add the parents, and reference the original documents which gave you the clues to their identity. References to a marriage record would then be listed in notes/sources, in your genealogy program under each of the following individuals:

  • groom
  • bride
  • parents of bride if mentioned
  • parents of groom if mentioned

From this you can see that a total of 6 people could be entered into your genealogy program database and documented in notes/sources just from the one marriage record example we have used today!

For Further Reading on the Web:


  • Eichholz, Alice, editor. Ancestry's Red Book : American State, County and Town Sources. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc. 1992. http://www.Ancestry.com though you can sometimes get it for a better price at http://www.amazon.com
  • Everton, Lee, editor. The Handybook for Genealogists, 9th edition. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishing
  • Kemp, Thomas. International Vital Records Handbook. 1994. http://www.Genealogical.com
  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Leubking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc. 1997. http://www.Ancestry.com
  • US Department of Health & Human Services. Where to write for Vital Records
  • Wright, Norman. Building an American Pedigree. Provo: Brigham Young University Press. 1974. (out of print)

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy

1995-2005 Pat Richley HOME | Ask | Blog | BookShelf | ContactLessons | Listen | Add to My Yahoo | PodCast media RSS feed | Read | Search | RSS feed
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