Have You Checked the State Archives?
Twigs and Trees, April 24, 2003
Genealogists spend a lot of time digging around in many different records and repositories but a lot of people forget to check a a state's archive. The state archives is intended to be a repository to preserve records of a state. It tries to maintain collections of all different kinds of records and makes them available to those who visit. In the past, it wasn't always obvious what was available at state archives. Today, the Internet offers you an online glimpse to many of the holdings of these libraries. Some have even begun to put records online.
Types of Records
In most states, the state archive and state library are the official repositories for the records of that state. They will generally include many of the following records:
- Vital records
- Land records
- Military records
- Family histories
- Indexes to useful collections
- Bible records
The state archive may be an untapped gold mine.
You never know what you might find at the state archives. I know of some repositories with extensive collections of newspapers while others have health reports and records of specialized hospitals.
At one time I was particularly interested in tuberculosis and the Florida hospitals built to take care of such patients. At the time there was no Internet and so I made a phone call. In a week I had copies of some information about this out of the ordinary research subject. I was prompted to find this information because I needed to know where a sick relative may have stayed in Florida.
Some time later I had the opportunity to visit the Florida State Archives in person and decided to look in some of the manuscript collections devoted to this subject. In addition to reading a great deal of correspondence about the hospitals from the doctors who were hired to run some of them, I found some additional interesting information.
By unrelated I mean the record wasn't on the individual I was looking for, but it was informative. Interspersed among the correspondence files I found work records for some of the people hired to work at the sanitarium. This indicated some job history as well as age and if they had relatives working in the hospital. A valuable piece of paper if the person on the paper was your ancestor.
Who You Might Find Information For
If your ancestors lived for many years in a particular state, write to that state archives and library and request a guide to its collections. It is important to know what records are available before requesting general genealogical information that may or may not be at that repository.
While there is often some duplication of records available on the county level, state archives often are the repository for older county records. Among the records you are likely to find at state archives and state libraries are:
- Colonial, territorial and state census records. Many of these name only the heads of households, but some give everyone's name, age, occupation, and birthplace.
- State land records, some Homestead applications and state land grants.
- Correspondence of colonial, territorial, or state officials, which sometimes deals with individuals, who may be your ancestors.
- Tax rolls from counties or state assessments.
- State militia rolls and records
- Voter registrations, poll tax records
- Cattle brand registers
- State law enforcement, department of public safety, or correctional (penal) institution records.
- Records of state agencies, such as state hospitals, departments of education and state courts.
- Family and business papers, and manuscripts dealing with families and organizations. Be sure to ask about an index or guide to manuscript holdings, many are available for a small cost.
- State enumeration of Civil War veterans and widows, and state pensions.
- Indian records, including censuses.
- Confederate records -- military, pension and civil.
For example, the Illinois Archives in Springfield, has military records of Illinois residents' participation in the Black Hawk, Mexican, Civil, Spanish-American and Korean Wars, and World Wars I and II. The North Carolina State Archives has records of various organizations, hundreds of North Carolina account books from the 18th through the 20th century, and copies of family Bible records. Many state archives and/or libraries have statewide collections of cemetery records.
How to Get the Records
If the records you want have not been microfilmed and are not accessible through the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library system or through public interlibrary loan, you probably will have hire a researcher to do work for you, or you will have to visit the repository yourself. Most repositories have a list of people who will conduct genealogical research for a fee.
Do your homework first so you know what records are available at a particular repository, the time period involved, and whether or not they are indexed. Do as much of the research as you can first. Then, if necessary, hire someone to find the particular records that will help you solve genealogical problems. Otherwise, you can spend a lot of money and have nothing to show for it.
As a researcher, you need to become familiar with town/city, county, state and federal records and understand which ones can be found where. State archives and libraries are invaluable sources. You may find answers to some of your most baffling genealogical problems in their records.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at [email protected].
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.