Alabama, United States - Birth - 1817-1849

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The Basics on How to Search for Ancestors in the United States

While there is no set way to do research in the United States, this guide gives basic research steps and an explanation of the records.

The following list of suggested records is given in an order likely to help many people.

What you are looking for
An understanding of the research process and how to use the suggested list of records to search.

United States Previous Research, Part 1

Previous research is the work other people have done. By searching what others have already done, you may save hours. However, previous research is only as good as the skills of the person doing the research. Therefore, you should double check the information in previous research.

What you are looking for
Information about your ancestors compiled by other people.

Why go to the next record
Any of the following records may:

  • Have the information you are looking for.
  • Add information to what you have found.
  • Clear up differences found in previous searches.

If you find new information, you may want to again look at the records you searched before.

Population schedules give a "snapshot" of your ancestor's family on the census day and indicate where they were living.

Census Population Schedule: Census

Census population schedules are useful in finding the town and county where an ancestor lived. They list people who lived in each house in every town and county when the federal census was taken (every 10 years, starting in 1790). Censuses from 1850 to 1920 give at least the name, age, and state (or country) of birth for every person in the house. Earlier censuses (1790 to 1840) give the name of the head of household, plus age categories for all the males and females in that house. Censuses show neighbors, who often are relatives.

Federal census records are available for states and for the country.

What you are looking for
Your ancestor's name on a population schedule.

Why go to the next record
State censuses give a "snapshot" of your ancestor's family on the census day and indicate where they were living.

State Census: Census

Colonial, state, and local governments sometimes took censuses between federal census years. Censuses before 1840 usually give only the names of the heads of the households, the town and county of residence, and the names of neighbors. The censuses after 1840 usually have the name of each person in the household, age, color, sex, state or country of birth, occupation, town and county of residence, names of neighbors, and other information, depending on the state and year of the census.

There are census records for towns, counties, and states.

What you are looking for
Your ancestor's name in the census.

Why go to the next record
Death records often give birth information, which may not be recorded elsewhere.

Death Record: Vital records

Birth and death records contain information given by family members to hospitals, physicians, midwives, or coroners, who filed the records with town or county clerks. The record usually gives the person's name, date and place of birth or death, parent's names, and may give the place of birth of the parents. Death records may give name of spouse, age, place of death and burial, and name of undertaker.

Birth and death records may be from towns, counties, or states.

What you are looking for

  • Your ancestor's death record kept by the government.
  • Death records of your ancestor's children.

Why go to the next record
A collection often gathers information from many sources. Some of these sources may no longer be available or would be difficult to find.

Genealogical Collections: Genealogy

Genealogical collections usually give information about families and may include several generations. They usually give the names, and birth, marriage, and death dates and places for the husband and wife, the children, and possibly siblings and parents.

There are genealogical collections for towns, counties, states, and the country.

What you are looking for

  • A collection about your ancestor's family, relations, or friends.
  • A collection with records from the place where your ancestor lived.

Why go to the next record
Tombstone and sexton records often have birth information.

Tombstone and Sexton Records: Cemeteries

Tombstone and sexton records contain information from tombstones or from records kept by the sexton of the cemetery. They usually give the ancestor's name, birth date, and death date. They may include the birthplace and date, name of spouse, names of children, and names of other relatives.

There are tombstone and sexton records for towns, counties, states, and the country.

What you are looking for

  • Your ancestor's tombstone inscription.
  • Your ancestor's name in the sexton records.

Why go to the next record
Obituaries often give a short biography of a person's life, including birth date, birthplace, and parents.

Obituary: Obituaries

Obituaries (death notices with some biographical information) are written by family members and published in local newspapers. They usually give the name of the deceased; residence; age; dates and places of birth, marriage, and death; name of spouse; and maiden and married surnames of women. Obituaries may give the names of parents, names of children with their residences, names of children's spouses, place of burial, name of undertaker, cause of death, previous residences, occupation, military service, immigration information, religion, membership in organizations, and a photograph.

Obituaries are found in newspapers for towns and cities.

What you are looking for

  • An obituary for your ancestor in a book of obituaries.
  • An obituary in a newspaper where and when your ancestor died.

Why go to the next record
Military pensions often give birth information for the soldier and sometimes for the spouse and children.

Military Pensions: Military records

Military records may contain birth information about a large portion of the male population. They may also have information about their deaths and marriages.

Pensions are offered for military service by state or federal governments. The applications and pension records often contain birth, marriage, death, and service information; residences; and names of spouses, children, and other close relatives. They began with the Revolutionary War and continue to the present.

There are military records for towns, counties, states, and the country. There are military pension records for states and the country.

What you are looking for
A record of the pension your ancestor or a spouse received for military service.

Why go to the next record
Baptisms are alternatives to birth records. In many religions, children were generally baptized within a few days of birth and usually near the place they were born.

Church Baptisms, Marriages, Burials, Minutes, etc.: Church records

Church records usually include baptisms, marriages, burials, and minutes. Baptism records usually give the name of the child, parents' names, and date and place of baptism. Marriage records usually give the names of the bride and groom, witnesses, and the date and place of the marriage. Burial records usually give the name and age of the deceased person, with the date and place of burial or death. The name of the spouse may be listed, and for young children, the names of the parents may be given. Church minutes have a variety of information, including lists of members in various years.

Church records were kept in towns or counties by the minister or clerk of a congregation.

What you are looking for
A church record of your ancestor's baptism.

Why go to the next record
Marriage records often give a person's age, which can be used to calculate a date of birth. They may give birth dates and places.

Marriage Record: Vital records

Marriage records contain information about a person's marriage. Different types of marriage records exist, and each can give slightly different information. Marriage returns may only give the names of the bride and groom, the date and place of marriage, and the name of the person who performed the marriage. The minister, justice of the peace, or other authority reported the marriage to the town or county clerk. Marriage licenses or applications were filed with town or county clerks by the bride and groom before marriage. They give additional information, such as ages, birthplaces, names of parents, and current residences. Witnesses' names are sometimes given, and they may be relatives or close friends.

Marriage records are kept by the clerks of the town or county where the marriage occurred, usually where the bride lived.

What you are looking for
A marriage record for your ancestor recorded by the government.

Why go to the next record
Buying land from the government often required giving biographical information, such as age and former residences. These can help find a birth date and place.

Land Transactions, Government to Person: Land and property

Records created when a person received land from the federal, state, or colonial government may include the name and residence of the person, a description of the land, and dates of each part of the process. They may give age, military service, or naturalization information. In a few cases, other family members are named.

First ownership of land was obtained from state or federal governments.

What you are looking for
Records of your ancestor buying land from the government, such as land grants and homestead or records of proprietors.

Why go to the next record
Wills, administrations, and inventories often give a link from your ancestor to his parents and siblings.

Wills, Administrations, and Inventories: Probate records

Wills, administrations, and inventories (probate records) show a court's decisions regarding the distribution of the estate of a deceased person to his heirs or creditors. They may give the person's death date, names of family members, family relationships, and residences. They may also give information about the adoption or guardianship of minor children and dependents.

There are probate records for towns, counties, states, and the country.

What you are looking for

  • Your ancestor's will, the list (inventory) of what he or she owned when he or she died, or records of what was done to settle the estate.
  • Similar records of people who are or might be your ancestor's parents or relatives, who might have included him or her in their wills.

Why go to the next record
Land records give clues about when a family moved into and out of an area. They may also indicate where the family came from and moved to. This helps determine where children were born. Parents may deed land to their children and spouses.

Land Transactions, Person to Person: Land and property

Deeds contain the names and residences of the grantor and his wife (the sellers) and the grantee (buyer). Deeds may contain the names of children and their spouses, siblings, and sometimes the parents or in-laws. Deeds give a description of the land, the date the deed was actually written, and the date it was recorded. Witnesses and neighbors mentioned may be relatives or in-laws.

Deeds are kept by the clerk of the county where the deed was recorded.

What you are looking for
Records showing your ancestor buying or selling land, especially to relatives.

Why go to the next record

This is not a complete list of all records you could search. If you did not find what you need, check the FamilySearch Catalog - Place Search or archives and libraries for the area where your ancestor lived for other records which may have information about your ancestors.