Top 10 Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy

Have you found all the school records there are to be had for your ancestors? Most of us haven’t, and the chances are very good that there are still some gems out there waiting to be found. Here are ten solid strategies that will help you track them down for your genealogy research. 

10 strategies for finding school records

Watch episode 82 below.

Because the movement for compulsory public education didn’t begin until the 1920s, many people assume that there few records to be had for genealogical purposes prior to that time. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many children attended school much earlier.

In fact, it may be surprising to learn that the first public school in what is now the United States opened in the 17th century. On April 23, 1635, the first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Boston Latin School, established 1635 first school

Illustration of the Boston Latin School  by Ebenezer Thayer, courtesy of Wikimedia

It was a boys-only public secondary school called the Boston Latin School, and it was led by schoolmaster Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler. The school was strictly for college preparation, and produced well-known graduates including John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It’s most famous dropout? Benjamin Franklin! The school is still in operation today, though in a different location.

Thousands of schools serving millions of students have been established in the U.S. since the inception of the Boston Latin School. (According to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there are 132,853 K-12 schools in the U.S.) This means that the chances of there being school records for your ancestors is great indeed!

10 Solid Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy 

Here are 10 proven ways to find your ancestors’ awkward yearbook photos, sports triumphs, and much, much more.

1. Establish a Timeline of your Ancestor’s Education

Check your genealogy software database to figure out when your ancestor would have attended high school or college. Keep in mind, as recently as the 1960s, children did not go to Kindergarten but may have started school at about 6 years old and beginning in First Grade.

To keep my search organized, I decided to create a simple worksheet form in a Word document. It allows me to identify the right time frames, locations, and other pertinent information for my search, and record my progress along the way. 

Premium Bonus Download: Click to download the blank school records worksheet for your own school research use. (Premium Membership required.)

2. Consult Family Papers and Books for School Records 

Go through old family papers and books looking for things like:

  • school photos
  • senior calling cards,
  • high school autograph books,
  • journals and diaries,
  • fraternity or sorority memorabilia,
  • yearbooks and more.

When I dug through boxes and my grandmother’s cedar chest I found several records like…

a Report Card:

Example of a report card school genealogy records

My grandmother’s brother’s 6th grade report card found among family papers.

Grandma’s class picture from the 7th grade in 1925, Chowchilla, California. She is in the back row on the far right, and her brother is the boy in the center of the back row:

School Records: 7th grade class

Grandma (back row, far right) with her 7th grade class.

And Grandma’s senior portrait, 1930:

School records: senior portrait

Grandma’s senior portrait from 1930

3. Google for Academic Family History

From the professional website of the state archives to the family history site cobbled together by a cousin you’ve never met, the potential for finding school records on the vast expanse of the internet is limitless! Google is the tool to help you locate websites that include school-related records with lightning speed. 

Since I’m not sure which school my grandmother attended, I started off my search for my grandmother’s school with a simple query for the history of schools in the county where she lived as a child:

google search for schools

Google search for the history of school’s in the county

I was pleasantly surprised at the first search result. It’s a newspaper article from the Madera Tribune literally outlining the history of how the schools evolved in the county! It details such things as the driving forces behind where schools were located, when they were founded, and which ones at the time of the article were no longer in existence. 

history of schools article - genealogy records

History of Madera Schools Outlined in the Madera Tribune, September 1955.

Next, I focused my attention on the grade school listed on Grandma’s brother’s 6th grade report card that I discovered during my search of family papers. I Googled the name of the school, county and state.

A search like this can literally deliver millions of results. In fact, this specific search brings up over 1 million search results.

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa Louise Cooke’s book is available in the Genealogy Gems Store

You can typically reduce the unwanted search results by 90% by using search operators. These symbols and words give Google further instructions on what you want done with the words you are searching.

While I cover a large number of operators in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’m going to use just one of the most popular to dramatically improve my search for the Sharon school. 

In the example below I put quotation marks around the name of the school. Doing this explains to Google that I want this phrase to appear exactly as I typed it in every single search result. You’ve probably noticed that when you search a phrase by itself, you’ll receive results that include only one of the words, or the words spelled differently, or in a different order. The quotation marks search operator prevents this from happening. It mandates that the phrase appear on every result exactly as you typed it.

google search for the school

Using Search Operators to Google the Grade School

Notice that I didn’t put quotation marks around the county name or the state. I recommend using search operators sparingly, at least in your initial search, to ensure that you don’t miss out on good results. If I were to put quotations marks around “Madera county” I would not receive any web pages that do mention Sharon School but just don’t happen to mention Madera County as a phrase. 

Notice also that this search resulted in just over 11,000 results, a small fraction of what I would have received had I not used the quotation marks! Even more important is that the results on the first few pages of are all very good matches. 

I could try a few more variations such as adding words like history, genealogy or records

My googling led me to the Internet Archive where I found old silent color movies shot in the 1940s. There were several films and one featured the local school in the area where my relatives lived. Many, many people were filmed! Could one of those faces be one of my relatives?! Learn more about finding genealogical information includes school records by watching and reading 10 Awesome Genealogy Finds at the Internet Archive.

using internet archive for genealogy

Click image to watch episode 43.

4. Search Newspapers

Historic newspaper are also a wonderful source of honor rolls, school sporting events and anything else having to do with school life.

While there are certainly more historic newspapers online than ever before, it’s still a fraction of what is available.

A visit to the Chronicling America website can help. At the home page click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button: 

Newspaper directory at Chronicling America

Click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button at Chronicling America

On the Directory search page, enter the state, county and town:

U.S. Newspaper Directory searching for the school town

Search the U.S. Newspaper Director for the school location.

On the results page, click the “View complete holding information” link: 

newspaper directory location Chronicling america

Click “View the holdings”

Now you can view all of the known available locations for this item:

U.S. Newspaper Director known holding locations

The item I searched for has three known locations.

In my case, the Chowchilla newspaper of the early 20th century has not been digitized and is not available online. However, the California State Archives in Sacramento has an extensive collection of microfilm. I was able to make the trip in person, and was certainly glad I did! They not only had the newspaper I needed but also countless other resources that were helpful for my genealogical research. 

School record: newspaper clipping

My Grandma listed by name in the newspaper for making the Freshman high school honor roll.

Here are additional resources to help you find newspapers for your school records research:

  • Local newspapers can also be found by searching for the public library website in the town where your ancestor attended school. Check the library’s online card catalog or contact them directly to see what newspapers they have and whether any can be loaned (on microfilm) through inter-library loan.
  • Click here to visit Newspapers.com by Ancestry website.  This is a subscription website with over 14,900+ newspapers from the 1700s–2000s and millions of additional pages being added monthly.
  • Click here to search Genealogy Bank – (This page includes a 7 day free trial option.) This popular subscription website has over 11,000 newspaper, 95% of which Genealogy Bank says are exclusive to their website. 

5. Consult U.S. State Archives and Libraries

The public libraries and state archives across the country are a treasure trove of genealogical resources, and that includes school-related records.

While it’s easy to stop by your local library for a search, it may not be as easy to make your way to the public library in the town where your ancestors lived. Turn to the internet to do your homework regarding the repositories, their holdings, and the most convenient and economical way for you to access them. 

A great place to start is the WorldCat website.

Start by conducting a search. Once you find an item of interest, enter your zip code under the “Find a Copy in the Library” section to identify where it’s available. 

worldcat search for school records for genealogy

Enter your zip code to determine your proximity to the libraries and archives.

As you can see, the name of the libraries are hyperlinked so that you can click through to the item on their website. This makes requesting a look-up or photo copy very easy. 

I can’t stress the value of State Libraries enough. Gere are three more excellent resources:

  1. Click here for the List of U.S. state libraries and archives at Wikipedia.
  2. List of U.S. State Libraries and Archives at the National Archives. 
  3. Click here to read Archivist Melissa Barker’s article called Using Vertical Files in Archives.

6. Contact State Historical and Genealogical Societies

In addition to newspapers, state historical and genealogical societies might have old yearbooks, school photograph collections or other records. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society library has a large collection of Ohio school yearbooks.

Local historical and genealogical societies may also have school memorabilia in their small or archived collections.

To find contact information for a local historical or genealogical society, Google the name of the county and state and add the words genealogy, history and / or society at the end. For example: Darke County Ohio genealogy society

7. Search for Online Yearbooks

One of the most exciting genealogical record collections to have come out in recent times is Ancestry.com’s U.S. School Yearbooks 1900-1999 collection. It is an indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks from across the United States.

Old school yearbooks for genealogy

In June of 2019 Ancestry replaced old records with new updated records for most of the yearbooks found on the site. They also added new records from 150,000 yearbooks that previously only had images available. Later in August of 2019 they improved the collection even further by adding a staggering 3.8 million new records. This update also included 30,000 new image-only books.

Ancestry also has an extensive indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks for Canada. Click here to search the Canadian collection. 

MyHeritage has an international collection of yearbooks. In the menu under Research go to the Collection Catalog and search for Schools & Universities.

Additional websites featuring yearbooks include:

Old-Yearbooks.com – According to the website, “Old-Yearbooks.com is a free genealogy site, displaying old yearbooks, class rosters, alumni lists, school photos and related school items. All materials on this site are the property of the submitter. You may not use the images, text or materials elsewhere, whether in print or electronically, without written permission from the submitter or this site.”

Classmates.com – “Register for free to browse hundreds of thousands of yearbooks! You’ll find classic photos of friends, family, and even your favorite celebrities. Viewing the books is always free, and you can purchase a high-quality reprint.”

E-Yearbook.com – Their goal is to digitize all old high school, college & military yearbooks. The site has millions of yearbook pictures digitized, they say they are adding thousands of new pictures every week. “From our estimates, we offer the largest collection of old high school, college and military yearbooks on the Internet today.”

8. Check Township Archives

You might be thinking you didn’t read that right, but you did. Townships are small areas within the county. These small townships may have their own archives or one room museums. They are often the holders of some pretty one-of-a-kind finds.

School Records found in the township records

The best way to determine what the township may have is to contact the township trustees. Google your township name, the county name, state name, and add the word trustee. You will likely need to give one of the trustees’ a phone call to ask what resources might be available.

Search for township trustees to find old school records

Google search example

9. Search ebay Auctions 

The auction website ebay is the perfect place to look for school record and memorabilia, particularly hard-to-find yearbooks. 

Conduct a search on the school or town you are looking for to see if anyone is selling a yearbook that you want. (You’ll need a free ebay account to do this.) Also, search for old photographs or postcards of the school building that you can add to your family history.

ebay search for school records

Initial search for school items at ebay

When I searched for Chowchilla California School, several auctions for school-related items from Grandma’s high school came up. Unfortunately, these are auctions for yearbooks after she had already graduated. But no worries! This search is only for today. Tomorrow someone could put up an auction for exactly what I want. There’s only one problem: no one has enough time to search every single day!

A way to save time and ensure that you don’t miss new auction items is to save your search.

Click the Save this search button toward the top of the page:

ebay saved search for school item auctions

Click the Save button to save the search you just ran.

By doing this, you will be sent an email any time a new auction comes up that meets your search criteria. You can learn more about setting up ebay saved searches for family history by listening to Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #140

Here’s another one of my favorite strategies: After you run your initial search, check the box on the results page to include completed listings. 

ebay completed search for school records

Click the Completed search box in the left hand column

In the revised “Completed” search results you may see some items that are of interest. If the item has a green price, it means the item was sold. If the price is black, it did not sell.

Each item will also have a link that says View Similar Active Items. Click that to see a list of items currently for sale that are very similar to one that you wanted.

You can also contact the seller of any item to inquire about the unsold item or to ask whether they have related items.  

school records for genealogy

Bought on ebay: A yearbook from the school where my husband’s grandfather was a music teacher 

I bought the yearbook above on ebay several years ago. It includes several photographs of my husband’s grandfather who was a music teacher at the high school back in the 1940s.

10. Call the School

If the school is still in operation, try calling the main office of the administration office. They may have old yearbooks and scrapbooks in their library or on display. If they don’t, they may very well be able to tell you where they can be found. 

You can obtain contact information by Googling the name of the school and the location.

Good times to try calling a school are mid-morning after kids are settled into class, or between 3 and 4:00 pm local time, when many of the kids have gone home but the school office is still open.

Best school records for genealogy

Tell Us About the School Records You Find

Using these strategies you are bound to find more school records for your genealogical search. Please leave a comment below and share what you found, where you found it, and which strategy you used. It will inspire us all to keep looking! And if you have a favorite strategy that we didn’t mention here, please do share that too. 

Resources

Episode 197

Episode 197

with Lisa Louise Cooke

This episode celebrates the most recent family history there is: our own. A chat between host and producer Lisa Louise Cook and Gems editor Sunny Morton explores the meaning and memories behind heirlooms hanging in Lisa’s bedroom. They comment on the larger value, for self and others, of recording our own memories in honor of Sunny’s new book, Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy.

Also in this episode:

  • A spotlight on new marriage records online for the U.S. and around the world.
  • Lisa walks a listener through several tips for learning more about her immigrant ancestors (a mother and daughter). Lisa shows how to use today’s technology tools to help with traditional research skills such as locating passenger lists, immigrant society records and naturalization.
  • Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard talks about organizing your DNA matches so you can get the most out of them.
  • Genealogy Gems Book Club featured author and Victorian lifestyle expert Sarah Chrisman describes what it’s like in her home–which doesn’t use electricity–as the days grow shorter and the darkness comes earlier.

NEW RECORDS ONLINE: Marriage Records

New York City Marriages: a new index to more than 3 million marriage licenses for recent New York City marriages (1950-1995)

Free FamilySearch marriage record collections recently added or updated include:

Learn more about marriage record research: Listen to Using Marriage Records in Family History: Episode 24 in Lisa Louise Cooke’s free step-by-step podcast, Genealogy: Family History Made Easy.

 

BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users: Finding Copies of Images Online with Google on Your Mobile Device

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is an exclusive step-by-step tutorial PDF that shows you how to use your mobile device and Google to locate copies of images online. Remember, the Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.

 

MAILBOX: Finding a Female Immigrant Ancestor

Question from Jo: “I have been fortunate to find information about most of my great-grandparents.  I have hit a wall with my maternal great grandmother who immigrated from Switzerland to the US in the 1880s when she was 8 years old. I was hoping that by upgrading to International records on Ancestry that I could find the ship and where she and her mother came from. The curious thing for me is that she and her mother traveled solo to the US and went to Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve been to Cincinnati and have searched there and have found directories with addresses but no profession is listed like other people. I didn’t find any ship records either. Where might you suggest that I look or search to find more information?”

Tips for searching passenger arrival lists:

Consider what ports would have been the most logical point of arrival for an immigrant ancestor based on the time period and the U.S. location in which you find them. Cincinnati, Ohio, was reachable by rail by the 1880s from major ports, as well as by water via the Mississippi River for southern ports, so that doesn’t narrow things down much. According to an Ancestry.com article, more than 80% of immigrants arrived at the Port of New York by the 1890s, so Jo might scrutinize those New York passenger arrival lists for the 1880s again.

Free New York City passenger arrival databases at

Search multiple NYC passenger lists simultaneously at Steve Morse’s One-Step web portal

For “deeper” searching at Ancestry.com or other sites with powerful, flexible search interfaces: do a “nameless search” (without any name) for girls around age 8 for arrivals in particular years. Try additional searches with various combinations of name, place of origin (Switzerland) or “Swiss” in the keyword field, which will bring up that word in the ethnicity or nationality column. That column doesn’t have its own search field in Ancestry.com but it is indexed, so use the keyword field to search it.

Research Swiss immigration to Cincinnati during that time period. Who was coming, why they were coming and where they were coming from? Click here for free tips about researching historical questions such as these.

The Swiss in the United States at Internet Archive

Swiss-American Historical Society and Swiss Center: Genealogy

Tips for researching records of immigrant societies:

In the U.S., the time between an immigrant’s arrival and naturalization is often documented in records of ethnic organizations such as fraternal benefit societies, immigrant aid and colonization societies. These kinds of community groups often existed in cities and towns where specific immigrant groups had a strong presence.

Become an expert Google searcher (for genealogy and everything else you want to find online) with The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 2nd edition, by Lisa Louise Cooke. Or click here to get started with basic Google search strategies you can use now.

Tips for researching naturalizations:

Naturalization records from that time period won’t reliably tell you where an ancestor was from. But they’re still worth looking for, especially if census or other records indicated that the person naturalized.

When looking for women’s and children’s naturalization records, remember that during this time period, they automatically became naturalized if their husband or father did, so individual records for married women and minor children won’t exist under their own names. But a woman could apply on her own, too. Click here to read a free article on women’s naturalizations.

Learn more in a free, 3-episode series on immigration and naturalization records: episodes 29-31 in the free, step-by-step Genealogy: Family History Made Easy podcast.

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. In the works: RootsMagic will be fully integrated with Ancestry.com, too: you’ll be able to sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.

 

Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at http://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.

 

INTERVIEW: Sunny Morton on recording your own life stories

 

Story of My Life

 “Some people about writing their life stories like I do about going to the gym. I put off going, but once I do I remember how much I enjoy it?and how much good it does me.” -Sunny

Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy available as a writeable PDF ebook or as a full-sized softcover workbook

GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB: Sarah Chrisman

 

This Victorian Life

Featured Genealogy Gems Book Club author Sarah Chrisman describes what it’s like when the days get shorter and the darkness comes early?in a house without electricity.

 

 

 

 

Legacy Tree Genealogists provides expert genealogy research service that works with your research goals, budget and schedule. The Legacy Tree Discovery package offers 3.5 hours of preliminary analysis and research recommendations: a great choice if you’ve hit a brick wall in your research and could use some expert guidance. Click here to learn more.

GENEALOGY GEMS EXCLUSIVE OFFER: Go to www.legacytree.com/genealogygems and use coupon code SAVE100 with your purchase of research services.

 

MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.

 

 

DNA WITH DIAHAN SOUTHARD

Parents spend a good portion of their parenting time ferreting out the real story from their children. One time when Henry was in Kindergarten he was playing outside with another little boy. I was in and out of the house watching him and checking on other things. Hours later I noticed that his bike had been spray-painted black. When confronted, he claimed he had no idea how such a thing could have happened. Unfortunately, I jumped to conclusions and blamed the other kid (you have to give me credit, at six Henry was such a good boy and had such an angelic face with his blue blue eyes and blonde blonde hair). But as I was on the phone with my husband telling him about the issue I looked over at Henry and I saw it- that guilty look and my stomach sank, recalling the things I had said to the other boy’s mom. “I’ll have to call you back,” I told my husband.

As genealogists, we spend our time trying to ferret out the real story from our ancestors, or at least from the records they left behind, because they’re not sitting in front of us with guilty looks on their faces. We are constantly checking family stories against, say, the information on a census record, then comparing it to the family will, then making sure it all agrees with what’s in the military records. And even if we have total agreement, which isn’t always, more information often comes along, like in the form of DNA testing, and we may find even more apparent discrepancies.

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a reporter, Cameron McWhirter, who talks about finding just that kind of discrepancy between his family lore and his DNA. He even goes so far as to say, “I am descended, at least partially, from liars.” And he makes the point that “many immigrants reinvented themselves when they arrived here (the United States),” which could be a nice way of saying they had a chance to INVENT a new legacy, not just reinvent it. His assessments are certainly interesting, and worth reviewing, to help us see how DNA testing can affect the way we look at family stories and traditional research results.

McWhirter may be the classic modern genealogist, never having set foot inside a courthouse or scanned through microfiche, relying instead entirely, he reports, on internet research. Now before you roll your eyes, just stop for a minute and appreciate how exciting this is. Here is a man who never gave his family history a second thought, yet because of the death of his parents started to tinker around a bit, and then due to the large volume of information online “was quickly pulled into the obsessive world of modern genealogical research.” I say, score one for the genealogy world!

What he found was that while his dad was proudly and solidly a self-proclaimed Scot, the records and DNA revealed his heritage was actually from Ireland and eastern Europe. McWhirter says that his “father hated Notre Dame, but judging by my results he could have been one-quarter to one-half Irish. He spoke dismissively of people from Eastern Europe, but part of his genetic code likely came from that region.”

McWhirter’s evaluation of his genetic report includes only his ethnicity results, which as you can hear, were meaningful to him in the way they flew in the face of his father’s prejudices and assertions of his own identity. But the ethnicity results fall short of the point of testing for most genealogists. He might even more powerfully transform his sense of family identity if he took a look at his match list and saw an actual living cousin, for example, a third cousin perhaps who was also descended from his German great-grandmother, who maybe never mentioned that she was also Jewish.

Connecting with other cousins who also have paper trails to our ancestors serves to provide further confidence that we have put all of the pieces together and honored the right ancestor with a spot on our pedigree chart. It’s like we multiply our own research efforts by finding more people like us?literally?who are descended from the same people and interested in finding them. As long as they’re as diligent in their research as we are, of course.

At a recent conference I met a 5th cousin. Even with a connection that distant it was exciting, and it made we want to look again at our connecting ancestors and pause for just a minute to marvel how my DNA verified my paper trail back to them, and that part of them was around, in me, and in my new cousin. To me, THAT’s a bigger picture I want to see?when the paper trail comes together with the DNA trail and turns into real live cousins, even if they turn out to be a little different than the stories and sense of identity that were handed to us when we were young.

Maybe you’re something like Cameron McWhirter: you’ve taken a DNA test, been intrigued (or disappointed) by the ethnicity results, but haven’t yet fully explored all your matches on your list. I’m telling you, you may be seriously missing some opportunities. If that’s you, I may actually have written my new DNA quick guide just for you. It’s called “Next Steps: Working with Your Autosomal DNA Matches.” This guide will teach you how to leverage the power of known relatives who have tested. You’ll get an intro to chromosome browsers and their role in the search process, and access to a free bonus template for evaluating the genealogical relationship of a match in relationship to the predicted genetic relationship. This guide also gives you a methodology for converting UNknown relatives on your match list into known relatives, which is what we’re going for here.

So check it out, either as a solo purchase or as part of my Advanced DNA bundle.

*Update: The Next Steps guide has been replaced with Breaking Down Brick Walls with DNA.

 

PROFILE AMERICA: Lights Out

 

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer

Sunny Morton, Editor

Amie Tennant, Content Contributor

Vienna Thomas, Audio Editor

Lacey Cooke, Additional Production Support

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Family History Episode 4 – Genealogy Conferences, the SS-5, Delayed Birth Records and Death Records

Family History: Genealogy Made Easy PodcastPublished October 29, 2013

Download the Show Notes for this Episode

by Lisa Louise Cooke

Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 4: Attending Genealogy Conferences and Vital Records Requests

In our first segment, our guest is the longtime online news anchorman of genealogy, Dick Eastman, the author of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. He talks about the changing industry and the benefits of attending genealogy conferences.

Next, you’ll learn the ins and outs of using some “vital” sources for U.S. birth and death information: delayed birth records, Social Security applications (SS-5s) and death certificates.

Genealogy Conferences Conversation: A Few Updates

  • Dick and I talk about Footnote.com as a relatively small site. Has that ever changed! Footnote.com is now Fold3.com and it’s a go-to site for millions of online American military records.
  • Family History Expos still offers an exciting conference, especially for first-timers. But there are others as well: In the United States, there’s RootsTech, the National Genealogical Society and many state and regional conferences (like one near my home, the Southern California Genealogical Society’s annual Jamboree). Find a nice directory at Cyndi’s List. Many conferences are starting to offer live streaming sessions for people who can’t attend: check websites for details. In addition, Family Tree University offers regular virtual conferences—where sessions and chat are all online! If you live outside the U.S., look for conferences through your own national or regional genealogical societies. If you can get to London, don’t miss Who Do You Think You Are Live.
  • Dick now writes all of his Plus content himself. If you haven’t already checked out Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, you should! Both his free and Plus newsletters are great insider sources on what’s new and great (or not-so-great) in the family history world.

The SS-5

You can order a copy of the application that your ancestor filled out when they applied for a Social Security Number: the SS-5. I have done this, and they really are neat, but they aren’t cheap. So let’s talk about the facts you’re going to find on them so you can determine if it is worth the expense.

The SS-5 has changed slightly over time, but may include the applicant’s name, full address, birth date and place and BOTH parents’ names (the mother’s maiden name is requested). If your ancestor applied prior to 1947 then you will also very likely find the name and address of the company they worked for listed, and possibly even their position title.

Here’s an example of a Social Security application form:

Osby Johnson SS5

In the 1970s, the Social Security Administration microfilmed all SS-5 application forms, created a computer database of selected information from the forms, and destroyed the originals. So it’s important to order a copy of the microfilmed original, rather than a printout or abstract from the Administration’s database. And luckily now you can request a Social Security Application SS5 Form online under the Freedom of Information Act.

It will help to have your relative’s Social Security Number (SSN) when you apply for a copy of their SS-5. First, it gives you greater confidence that their SS-5 exists. Second, it’s cheaper to order the SS-5 when you have their SSN. Third, the Social Security Death Index, in which you’ll find their SSN, usually has death data that makes your application for their SS-5 stronger. Privacy concerns have caused some genealogy websites to pull the SSDI, but you can still search it (in many instances for free) at the links provided in Episode 3.

Finally, here’s a little background on the Social Security Number itself. The nine-digit SSN is made up of three parts:

The first set of three digits is called the Area Number. This number was assigned geographically. Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the Northeast and moving westward. So people whose cards were issued in the East Coast states have the lowest numbers and those on the West Coast have the highest numbers.

Prior to 1972, cards were issued in local Social Security offices around the country and the Area Number represented the state in which the card was issued. This wasn’t necessarily the state where the applicant lived, since you could apply for a card at any Social Security office.

Since 1972, when the SSA began assigning social security numbers and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, Maryland, the area number assigned has been based on the ZIP code of the mailing address provided on the application for the card. And of course, the applicant’s mailing address doesn’t have to be the same as their place of residence. But in general the area number does give you a good lead as where to look for an ancestor.

The next two digits in the number are called the Group Number, and were used to track fraudulent numbers.

The last set of four digits is the Serial Number, and these were randomly assigned.

UPDATE: The website for ordering Social Security applications (SS-5s) has changed since the podcast first aired. For current ordering instructions, including online ordering, click here. The cost is still $27 to order a deceased relative’s SS-5 if you know the Social Security number and $29 if you don’t know it.

Delayed Birth Certificates

After 1937 folks who qualified to apply for social security had to have proof of their age. If they were born prior to official birth certificates being kept in their state, they applied for a delayed birth certificate.

Anytime someone needs a birth certificate for any reason, they have to contact the state—and often the county—in which the birth occurred. If a birth certificate exists, they can simply purchase a certified copy. But if there were no birth certificates issued at the time of the person’s birth, they could have a “delayed birth certificate” issued by that state or county.

In order to obtain a delayed certificate, they had to provide several pieces of evidence of their age. If these are considered satisfactory, the government would issue the certificate and it would be accepted as legal proof of birth by all U.S. government agencies.

Originally people turned to the census for proof of age. But eventually the Social Security Administration began to ask for birth certificates. For folks like my great grandmother who was born at a time and place where birth certificates were not issued, that meant they had to locate documents that could prove their age and allow them to obtain a delayed birth certificate. Delayed just meaning it was issued after the time of the birth.

Delayed birth certificates are not primary sources. (Remember we talked about Primary Sources in Episode 2. Since the delayed certificate was based on other documents, and not issued at the time of the event by an authority, such as the attending physician, then it is not a primary source. This means that while it’s great background information, it is more prone to error. In order to do the most accurate genealogical research you would want to try to find a primary source if possible. Chances are your ancestor used another primary source, such as an entry in the family bible, to obtain the delayed birth certificate.

The process for ordering a delayed birth certificate is likely going to be the same as ordering a regular birth certificate. You would start with the checking with the county courthouse, and then the Department of health for the state you’re looking in. Let them know that the birth record is a delayed birth certificate. Also the Family History Library card catalogue would be a place to look as many were microfilmed. Go to www.familysearch.org and search for delayed birth records by clicking on Search from the home page. Then click Catalog and do the keyword search just as the episode instructs, using “delayed birth” as your keyword. (Within that search, you can also add parameters for the place name.)

So the lesson here is that even though your ancestor may have been born at a time or in a location where births were not officially recorded by the state, they may very well have a delayed birth certificate on file.

Ordering Death Certificates

The Social Security Death Index is just one resource for getting death information. But in the end you’re going to want the primary source for your ancestor’s death, and that’s the death certificate. While many of your ancestor’s born in the 1800s may not have a birth certificate, there is a much better chance that they have a death certificate since they may have died in the 20th century. Each state in the U.S. began mandating death certificates at a different time, so you have to find out the laws in the state, and probably the county, since death certificates were filed at the county level.

As I said before, the death certificate is going to be able to provide you with a wealth of information. Of course you’ll find the name, date of death and place of death, and possibly their age at death and the cause and exact time of death, place of burial, funeral home, name of physician or medical examiner and any witnesses who were present. The certificate is a primary source for this information.

You may also find information such as their date and place of birth, current residence, occupation, parent’s names and birthplaces, spouse’s name, and marriage status. But because this information is provided by someone other than the ancestor themselves it is really hearsay, and the certificate is considered a secondary source for that information.

And lastly you may find a name in the box that says Informant. This is the person who reported the death to officials. Informants are often spouses, children, and sometimes, depending on the person’s circumstances, just a friend or neighbor. But the informant is almost always someone that you want to investigate further because they obviously were close to your ancestor.

Once you think you know the location where your ancestor died, and the approximate if not exact death date, you’re ready to order a certificate. If the person died in the last 50 years you’ll probably have really good luck at the county courthouse Department of Vital Records. The older the record, the more likely it may have been shipped off by the county records department to the state Department of Health. Look for helpful links to death records at Cyndi’s List Death Records.

Here are some tips that will ensure that you don’t get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape:

  1. Get the appropriate request form – this is usually available online.
  1. Print neatly and clearly – if they can’t read it, they will send it back to be redone.
  1. Provide as much information as you have.
  1. Provide a self addressed stamped envelope.
  1. Make one request per envelope.
  1. Include a photocopy of your driver’s license to prove your identity.
  1. Be sure to include your check for the exact amount required.
  1. Make a copy of the request form for your records and follow up.
  1. Lastly, keep in mind that county offices have limited personnel and are often swamped with paper work. So my best advice is that the more courteous and thorough you are the more success you’ll have.

Online Death Indexes

In the case of very old death certificates, as well as birth certificates, some state agencies have opted to hand them over to state Archives and Historical Societies, or at least make them available for digitizing.

And there you have it, lots of different avenues for tracking down your ancestor’s death records providing you with key information for climbing your family tree.

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