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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States: Institutional Records  by Amy Johnson Crow, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).



Institutional records pertain to a specific set of people. Not all ancestors will appear in these records; therefore, before starting a search for institutional records, it is important to look for clues to help determine whether or not your ancestor might appear in them. When such clues are found, the next step in the research is to determine which institution is the correct one. In this module we will learn how to look for those clues.

Some clues exist on sources you might already have. You have likely looked at sources such as obituaries, death certificates, census records and reunion notices and gleaned the names and dates from them. However, a closer examination might yield some other facts about the ancestor’s life—or at least offer a clue on which to follow up.

Records at Home

Schools are undoubtedly the most common institutions referred to in home sources. Report cards, yearbooks, diplomas, reunion programs, and the like tend to be the type of memento that people like to save. Fortunately for genealogists, they almost always make reference to the name of the school, which certainly makes the job of finding the school a lot easier.

You are less likely to find sources at home referencing stays at asylums, poor houses, or prisons. (The exception being obituaries, as you will see next.) The reason is obvious. Although today’s society is more accepting of these situations, there was a tremendous stigma attached to such institutionalization in our ancestors’ times. Families tended not to keep reminders of such events.

Some items you might find at home may not necessarily be the clues you think they are. Picture postcards often showed scenes around the town or county, including hospitals, schools, and even prisons. Postcard collecting was all the rage in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The more postcards you could collect from all across the country, the better. They make for good photographic images (see Figure below) of various institutions, but finding such a postcard in your family papers is not necessarily proof that anyone in the family was in that institution.

Figure : Postcard of the State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, postmarked 4 September 1907


James Bolar’s obituary in theAthens (Ohio)Messenger is an example of a source giving us a clue to institutionalization:

James Bolar recently died at the Vinton county infirmary from the effects of cancer. He was at one time a prosperous farmer in Richland Township, but lost his property by various unfortunate ventures.[1]

We might be disappointed to find such an obituary. It does not name parents, survivors, or even an exact date of death. However, it does offer a clue-he died at the Vinton County infirmary.

Death Records

Death records can also give clues to institutionalization. The place of death might be listed as an infirmary, hospital, prison, etc. Obviously you would want to look for admission records or patient records when you see this. See the death certificate below for Frank Jackson, showing he died at the Columbus State Hospital.[2] When you find mention of an institution on a death certificate, do not overlook any death records which the institution may have kept. They may contain more information than the civil death record. As an example of this, the death records of the county home in Lucas County, Ohio lists the disposition of the body. Ohio did not record such information on civil death records until December 1908. However, the death records of this county home date back to 1901. John Hagan died at the Lucas County infirmary 26 August 1904. The home’s death record note that he was buried in the infirmary cemetery.[3] This information is not on his civil death record. It is possible that no other record of his burial place exists. The Lucas County Home death records are the only known record of burials in the infirmary cemetery, which has been moved to Forest Cemetery in Toledo.[4]
Figure: Death Certificate for Frank Johnson

  1. Athens(Ohio)Messenger, 5 April 1888, p. 1, c. 6.
  2. Frank Jackson death certificate, certificate 43523 (1923), Ohio Historical Society, Columbus.
  3. Reed, Beverly Todd, Lucas County, Ohio Index of Deaths Recorded at the County Home 3 Jan 1901 - 30 Apr 1935 Including Burials in Sunshine Cemetery (Toledo: Lucas County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, 2000), 59.
  4. Reed, Lucas County, Ohio Index of Deaths at the County Home, introduction.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Institutional Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.