Genealogical Records: A Guide For Hard to Find Documentation

Sep 24
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Genealogical records are the lifeblood of most research efforts. As researchers, we rely on everything from birth certificates to ship manifests to track down the life stories of the people that came before us. Thanks to the proliferation of technology and the growing interest in genealogical digitization, a large number of collections and records are available with a search and a click. But in many cases, not everything is available online. Small towns, older records, and remote locations haven’t come online yet. If you’re trying to track down a record that falls into a non-digitized category, what steps should you take to track them down?

Prepare your information before you reach out

The more specific the information that you can provide, the better chance you have of finding the records that you seek. If you know from other sources that you’re looking for the birth certificate of a “Robert Jones Smith, born in Boston on May 7th, 1850 to Robert Sr. and Mary (formerly Jones)” you’re much more likely to track down the record. That’s, of course, the ideal scenario. In other cases, you may not have all the information at the ready. But the more details you have regarding names, dates, locations, other families, occupation and religion, the more effective you’ll be.

Determine where the records are held

Your next step is going to be determining where the records are held. It’s hard to give a list of resources on this topic, as it varies widely by record type, region, country, time period, and more. However, start your search in the following way. If you know that there are national level records, investigate the archives and available indexes to see what’s held at that level. Then work your way down to the state, province or equivalent level. Next, try the county level. Many records, especially land and probate records, are kept on the county level. Finally, determine if the records would have been kept locally.

It’s also helpful to differentiate if you’re looking for records that would typically be recorded by the state or by the local church. Remember that local records may have been moved if towns consolidated or parishes merged. But this gives you a framework to understand how records are organized, and a starting point to plan your outreach to see what’s available.

Send your request in writing if at all possible

At a recent genealogy conference, an accomplished professional gave excellent advice to an eager attendee. Her recommendation was to send her request for assistance and records in writing, either by email or by post. When the younger woman pressed and said that using the phone would be faster, the genealogist shared an experience tracking down some records in Wales. They were held at the local church. The church had no staff except a clergyman who ministered to several congregations in the area. He was happy to help, but needed to prioritize accordingly.

Send a brief but clear note that explains who you are, what you’re looking for, whatever background information you have, and a straightforward explanation of the end result that you’re hoping for (e.g. a photocopy or scan of an original birth certificate, for example). Provide contact information (phone and email is best, where possible) for follow up questions and of course, offer to pay any fees associated with the transaction. Finally, take a moment for a kind word, to offer your thanks and explain what this means to you or your family. Appealing to the person at the other end of the line is always a great idea.

Work with a local researcher

If you’re seeking records that are physically archived at another location, one of the best steps you can take is to work with a local professional researcher. In many cases, obtaining the records in question is much faster or only possible if you visit the town hall, archive, or library in person. A local genealogist will charge an hourly rate or a flat fee to physically go to that location and make a copy of the record that you’re looking for. It’s important when you’re hiring an overseas genealogist to select a reputable person. One of the easiest ways to do this is to partner with a firm in the US that maintains a global network of expert researchers to use selectively on projects as needed.

Just because the records you’re seeking are not available online shouldn’t dissuade you from going after them. Follow the process outlined above, and allow adequate time for research, correspondence, and follow up. If you need help with a genealogical research project, contact us today to learn more about how our team of experienced researchers can help you locate even the hardest to find genealogical records.