Step-by-Step Alabama Research, 1880-Present
Alabama Step-by-step research 1880--present
- A suggested approach to genealogy research in Alabama family history records.
|What sets this era in Alabama genealogy apart from earlier time periods are the advent of civil registration (state birth, marriage, and death certificates) and the possibility that you have older living relatives who can provide memories and family records. In addition, U. S. census records (occurred every 10 years--1880-1940), Social Security collections, obituary and cemetery records make it possible to find a lot of genealogical information in just a few rich record types.|
See also, How to use "record hints".
Step 1. Find out everything you can from living relatives and their family records:
What should you ask?
In order to extend your research on your ancestors, you are looking for names, dates, and places. Everything you learn that tells you about when and where a relative lived is a clue to a new record search. Be sure to ask questions that lead to that information, including about their occupations, military service, or associations with others, such as fraternal organizations. See also:
- Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews What to Ask the Relatives
- Genealogy: 150 questions to ask family members about their lives
- Creating Oral Histories
What documents should you look for and ask to copy?
Family Members Born After 1940
Because the most recent census available was taken in 1940, family documents and the knowledge of living family members play a vital role in identifying these people. Once you have learned names, places of residence, and clues to estimate approximate birth date, the next important step is to send for birth, marriage, and death records for them. Skip to Step 3: Find birth, marriage, and death certificates for your ancestors and their children.
Using the clues to lead to census record searches.
Imagine that you found this obituary for your great-grandfather in old papers your parents had. It gives some important clues for where and when to search in census records. The latest census released to the public is 1940. Mayor Trainham was born June 4, 1938, in Selma, Alabama. His parents were Kenneth Earl Trainham, Sr., and Bessie Avis Cardwell. So we look for a married couple, Kenneth and Bessie Trainham, in the 1940 census of Alabama, probably in Selma, with son, Kenneth, about two years old. This is what we find:
Step 2. Find your ancestors in every possible census record, 1880-1940, online.
A census is a count and description of the population of a country, state, county, or city for a given date. A census took a "snapshot" of a family on a certain day. For each person living in a household you might find (depending on the year) their name, age, birthplace, relationship to head of household, place of birth for father and mother, citizenship status, year of immigration, mother of how many children and number of children living, native language, and whether they were a veteran of the military.
To learn more about census records, including search strategies, see United States Census Records for Beginners.
Look at the samples of census records below. You should find your family members in every possible census, using these convenient links:
United States census records
- Here is a sample of a 1900 United States census record. You can see all the different information you can glean from this record once you find your family in the census.
- You will want to find and keep notes on census records from every census during each ancestor's lifetime. For example, if your ancestor was born in 1897 and died in 1945, you will want to find them in the 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses.
- With the census records, you will then be able to estimate approximate birth dates and marriage dates. These records will lead you to new searches because you will find the names of other members of the family. You will find clues to other states and countries your family lived in before coming to Alabama.
- You can use what you learned from the census records to help you search for birth, marriage, and death records. Possibly the clues you find in the certificates will lead you back to the census records again for new names of family members.
Using the census clues to lead to a birth certificate.
Now, we want to try to find important birth records for the various people represented in these census records. We could not find an online birth certificate for the Trainham family. Here is an example of a birth certificate, from an unrelated person. Notice that in addition to the expected details, it gives the birth places of the parents.
Using the census clues to lead to a marriage certificate.
One main purpose for locating records for is to establish the identity of the wives--their maiden names. In some cases, particularly more recent records, the names of the parents of the bride and groom are given.
This index gives you the needed information to send for full marriage certificates, as needed.
This index entry links to the original record on the right.
Here is a blank marriage form that shows the types of details that make a marriage certificate valuable for genealogists: the birth place of the bride and groom, the names of the parents, and the birth places of the parents.
Using the census clues to lead to a death certificate.
[By studying the census records, and assuming that most people lived to be 65-70 years old, you can decide the time frame where you would expect to see a death certificate. It is very important to send for death certificates. Even though you might feel that knowing a death date is not high priority, the death certificate is important because of all the secondary data: birth date and place of the deceased, maiden name of the wife, names of the deceased's parents, birth places of the deceased's parents.
This death certificate is not related to the Trainhams, but is shown here for an example.
Some of the examples shown above are index entries. That means for each of them an actual, original, full certificate exists. It is highly advisable to order the original certificate. It will contain many details not given in the index. In some cases, the image of the original is found online. Instructions are given below on obtaining the original certificate in other cases.
Step 3: Find birth, marriage, and death certificates for your ancestors and their children.
States, counties, or even towns in some states recorded births, marriages, and deaths. You have probably seen these types of certificates and have your own. In addition to the child's name, birth date, and place of birth, a birth certificate may give the birthplaces of the parents, their ages, and occupations. A death certificate may give the person's birth date and place, parents' names and birthplaces, and spouse's name.
Remember that for family members born after 1940 you do not have census records to rely on. The information from interviewing family members will hopefully give you enough detail that you know approximate years of birth, marriage, or death. Sending for certificates will help verify identities, prove relationships, and fill in greater detail.
Studying what you have found:
- Review what you have found to see if there is missing information that could be found in a birth, marriage, or death certificate for your ancestors and their children.
- If you are missing the names of parents, find a person's death certificate. It may contain the names of the deceased's parents, which would extend your pedigree back one more generation.
- If you find a child listed in a census record, try to find their actual birth certificate to learn their full birth date.
- If a married couple is shown in the census records and you need the wife's maiden name, search for their marriage record or her death record. The mother's maiden name should also be given in her children's birth certificates.
Obtaining the certificates
- There are basically three ways to find these certificates, or the information from them: by finding them in an online database, by reading a microfilm, or by purchasing them through the mail .
Online databases, usually indexes, with some images
- This chart gives links to some Alabama online databases for these records:
Finding Microfilm Copies of Certificates
Many Alabama state or county birth, death, and marriage certificates and vital records indexes are available on microfilm through the Family History Library. These may be searched at a family history center near you. Most notably, you will find:
- Alabama, Births and Christenings, 1881-1930
- Alabama, County Marriages, 1809-1950
- Alabama, marriages, 1816-1957
- Alabama Deaths, 1908-1974; index to deaths, 1908-1959
- Alabama, Deaths and Burials, 1881-1952
- Alabama, Deaths, 1908-1974
Many of these microfilms are also available online, as the film description will indicate.
Records at the County Courthouse
From the date of the formation of a county until the establishment of state civil registration, birth and marriage records were kept by the County Clerk. They may have been microfilmed, or you can write for them. It is appropriate to write asking for either a single record or for a list of all the marriages for a given surname. This Letter Writing Guide will help you with phrasing a letter. This online directory by Genealogy Inc. will give you the address of the County Clerk. Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the "Courthouse and Government Records" to find the address and phone number.
If you have access to the main Family History Library, check first to see if microfilms of the county vital records are available. In the search field of the FamilySearch Catalog, enter the state and county. Then click on the "Vital Records" subject. The cost of renting the microfilms at a Family History Center probably makes it less expensive to just write to the County Clerk.
Ordering certificates through the mail
Even if you find an online indexed entry for a birth, marriage, or death, almost always the full original certificate will contain a wealth of information not contained in the index. A death certificate will usually give the names and birth places of the parents of the deceased. A marriage certificate frequently asks for the parents names of the bride and groom. A birth certificate frequently asks for the birthplace, occupation, residence, and age of the parents. Although it costs money, consider sending for the full original certificates at least of your direct line ancestors (grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.).
- Click here for information on how to order birth records. Ask for an informational copy or an uncertified copy. Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.
- Click here for information on how to order marriage records. Ask for an informational copy or an uncertified copy. Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.
- Click here for information on how to order death records. Ask for an informational copy or an uncertified copy. Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.
Step 4: Using all the death date information, try to find additional details about your ancestors in Social Security records, obituaries, and cemetery records online.
U.S. Social Security Death Index and Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007
The U.S. Social Security program began in 1935 but most deaths recorded in the index happened after 1962. The Social Security Death index includes those who had a Social Security number and/or applied for benefits. The index entries give the person's full birth date, last known residence, and residence at the time they first enrolled. Women are listed under their married name at the time of their death. You can search these records online at United States Social Security Death Index. Also at Ancestry.com, ($), index.
The Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off, by providing information filed in the application or claims process, including valuable details such as birth date, birth place, and parents’ names. Unless the deceased would be at least 75 years old today, the parents' names are not published. You will not find everybody who is listed in the SSDI, as criteria for inclusion differs.
If you find your ancestor in the SSDI index, you can order a copy of their original Social Security application (SS-5). If you can prove the individual has died (by sending an obituary or copy of their cemetery headstone), the application will also give the deceased's parents' names, if listed.
Notice that these Social Security records can provide the maiden names of women.
Obituaries and cemeteries
- Frequently, a death is announced in the newspaper with an obituary.
- These obituaries may supply missing birth or death dates and name the parents of the deceased.
- Obituaries may also name family members, their spouses, their current residences, and whether they died before the person or are still surviving, especially in obituaries written in the last half of the 20th Century.
- Try these Alabama links:
- Online Alabama Death Records, Indexes & Obituaries
- Currentobituary.com index, 2001-2014. Index/images.
- ObitsArchive.com - Alabama ($)
- ObituariesHelp.org - Alabama Newspaper Obituaries Listings
- The Obituary Link Page - Alabama Obituary Links
- Alabama Obituaries
- United States, GenealogyBank Obituaries, 1980-2014 — index and images
- Cemetery records may only give the names and dates stated on the tombstone, but as in the case of FindAGrave, sometimes pictures of the deceased and their tombstone, children's or parents' names and links to their graves, and marriage information have been added. Always verify information added by others.
- Frequently family members are buried in the same cemetery often in neighboring plots.
- Try these Alabama links:
- Online Alabama Death Records, Indexes & Obituaries
- Alabama cemetery records ($)
- Alabama Cemetery Records at Interment.net.
- Cemetery Records at Findagrave.com.
- BillionGraves Cemetery Records.
- Tennessee Valley Cemetery Relocation Files, 1933-1990
- Cemetery Junction Alabama
- I Dream of Genealogy Cemetery Records
- Alabama Cemetery Records
NOTE: Each database covers different cemeteries, although some may overlap. Don't be discouraged if you do not locate your individual in the first database. Check each collection.
Here are several examples of FindAGrave records:
Step 5: Search military records: World War I and World War II draft cards and Civil War pension records.
- There are many different types of military records, some covered in online collections, some microfilmed, and some requiring you to order them from government repositories with a fee. For more information, read the U.S. Military Records Class Handout. Information in military records can vary from a simple lists of name, age, and residence, to more detailed records including name, residence, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace, physical description, number of dependents, pensions received, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans, and other information.
World War I Draft Registration
- One of the most helpful military records is the draft registration of 1917-1918. During three separate registrations, men born between 1873-1897 were required to register in the draft for World War I. Cards may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, physical description, next of kin (usually the wife or mother), and number of dependents. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at U.S. WW I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.
World War II Draft Registration
Likewise, the World War II draft in 1942 may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, and other family members as contacts. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at U.S. WW II Draft Registration Cards, 1942.
Civil War Pensions
- Pensions were given to Union Civil War soldiers who sustained war-related disabilities from the Federal Government.
- There are several Civil War pension indexes online:
- United States Civil War and Later Pension Index, 1861-1917 at FamilySearch
- General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, Civil War at Ancestry - $
- Civil War Pensions Index at Fold3 - $
- United States Civil War Widows and Other Dependents Pension Files, 1861-1934 This collection indexes approved pension case files of widows and other dependents of soldiers submitted between 1861 and 1934 and sailors between 1910 and 1934. The pension files are being uploaded and attached to this index as they become available. If the pension images are not available, they must be obtained from the National Archives. The wife's maiden name is used in the index along with her married name.
This collection consists of two card indexes to widows who had applied for a pension renewal. The first covers service between 1812-1860 and the second covers service in the Civil War and later. This is helpful in locating a woman in census and death records under her new surname.
Step 6: If your ancestor was an immigrant, search immigration and naturalization records online.
The census records may show that your ancestor was born in another country. It will be necessary to try to find the town or city they were born in to continue research in the country of origin. Searches of immigration records (usually passenger lists) and naturalization (citizenship) records are the next goal. Immigration refers to people coming into a country, such as the United States, and emigration refers to people leaving a country to go to another. Usually these records are passenger lists of the ships they sailed on. A typical record will show name, age, and country of origin, but in ship lists after 1906 you can find the actual town of birth, the next of kin still living in the old country and their residence, and the names of relatives in the place they are traveling to.
Census clues to Immigration records
Census records can provide important clues about nationality and immigration. This chart lists data that can be found in each of the census records. Gather the information in the census records specifically about immigration, as it will help narrow down your search.
(other information also given but is not listed here)
Passenger lists and border crossing lists are the most common immigration records. There are many immigration records available. Click here to see a complete list of available immigration records online. Notice that they are listed by state, but under the letter "U" there is a long list of records that cover all of the United States. Unless family information tells you the port where family arrived, you will need to search all of the United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records for the time period when your ancestors arrived.
There are also many immigration records unique to Alabama:
- United States, Index to Passenger Arrivals, Atlantic and Gulf Ports, 1820-1874 Images.
- Atlantic Ports, Gulf Coasts, and Great Lakes Passenger Lists, Roll 4:1820-1870 Abstracts ($)
- Atlantic Ports, Gulf Coasts, and Great Lakes Passenger Lists, Roll 7:1820-1835 Abstracts ($)
- Atlantic Ports, Gulf Coasts, and Great Lakes Passenger Lists, Roll 8:1845-1849 Abstracts ($)
- Passports and ship passengers 1849-1862 : Mobile, Alabama. Index.
- Alabama, Passenger Lists, 1904-1962
Naturalization (Citizenship) Records
Naturalization is the process of becoming a citizen. Records can include the immigrant's declaration of intent to become a citizen, petitions for citizenship, and final certificate of naturalization. Naturalization records after 1906 can show birth date and place, spouse's name, marriage date and place, and lists of children with their birth dates.
Alabama naturalization records could be recorded at the county court or the Federal District or Circuit Court. You must look for them in both locations. Try searching first in any county where the person lived, unless the census tells you the year they were naturalized, and you have evidence of where they lived that year. If you cannot locate them in the county records, try searching for them in the Federal courts.
Alabama Naturalization and Citizenship Online Records
- Alabama, Naturalization Records, 1909-1991 ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for Alabama, 1794-1995 ($)
- Selected U.S. Naturalization Records - District Courts in the Southeast, 1790-1958 – covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee ($)
Step 7: Study each record for other possible searches.
You can now go through a process of working back and forth between all the different record types. Most researchers find clues in the census records that alert them to new certificates to obtain. The certificates then give them ideas of new facts to look for in the census. For example, when a marriage certificate gives you a wife's maiden name, you will then want to look for her in earlier censuses listed with her family as a child. When the census shows you her parents' names, you may then search for their death records. The death records might show their patents' names and take you back to the census to search for them. The death records might show their patents' names and take you back to the census to search for them. A naturalization record listing children's names might lead you back to birth certificate searches, and so on.
Here is a simple pedigree showing what we have discovered so far:
Here are some sample research projects you could continue with:
- Continue looking up all the children of each couple in the birth, marriage, death, Social Security, cemetery, and military collections until you have complete information on each of them.
- Continue looking for the Trainham family in the 1870, 1860, and 1850 census records of Alabama.
- Go back through the steps in this article, applying them to the Cardwell or Brown family.
Step 8: Search a printed local history or biography online.
- Published histories of towns, counties, and states usually contain biographies and accounts of early or prominent families. They describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses.
- The authors usually invited the residents of the county to submit their personal family histories, in order to create an automatic market for the book. County residents whose families were in the book were sure to buy a copy.
- Histories can also give lists of pioneers, soldiers, and civil officials.
- Even if your ancestor's name is not listed, information about other relatives may be included that may provide important clues for locating your ancestor.
- Here are several websites that feature online copies of printed county histories:
- Hathi Trust Digital Library. Don't use the keywords Alabama; that will bring up too many hits. Just use the name of the county and "county": for example, "Hyde County"
- Google Books. Use keywords "Alabama" and the county name. Hits will list online readable books, lists of libraries that carry the book, and purchasing opportunities.
- Family History Books
- Internet Archive.Use keywords "Alabama" and the county name.
- Genealogy Book Links, Alabama. Browse list; county histories are interspersed.
- Ancestry.com, ($). In the Card Catalog search box, use Alabama and the name of the county.
- Local histories are extensively collected by the Family History Library, public and university libraries, and state and local historical societies. If you have access to the Family History Library or a family history center, you can find out about local histories the library has by checking the FamilySearch Catalog. In the "place" field, type the name of your county and select it from the drop down list, then click "Search". A list of subheadings for the county will appear. Local histories containing genealogies and biographies will be found under Biography, Genealogy, History, and History - Indexes.
These collections of biographies can be searched online. Most have a table of contents and an index. Or you can use the "Find" function on your computer.
- WPA Index to Alabama Biography. Index.
- Reminiscences of public men in Alabama : for thirty years, with an appendix. Images, book index.
- Alabama, Her History, Resources, War Record, and Public Men (Published 1872). Images, book index.
- Riley, Benjamin Franklin. Makers and Romance of Alabama History: Embracing Sketches of the Men Who Have Been Largely Instrumental in Shaping the Policies and in Molding the Conditions in Rapid Growth of Alabama, Together with the Thrilling and Romantic Scenes with which Our History is Resplendent. 1915. Images, book index.
- Early Settlers of Alabama
- Northern Alabama, historical and biographical. Images, book index.
- History of Alabama and dictionary of Alabama biography, Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, e-books
- History of Alabama and her people, Albert Burton Moore, author and editor, assisted by an advisory council; Alabama biography by special staff of writers. v.1 Index, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, e-books
- Notable men of Alabama: personal and genealogical, with portraits. V.1, e-book, V.2, e-book
Step 9: Write to a county for wills and probate packets.
- "Probate is the legal process through which an individual’s real estate (property) and personal estate (possessions) are distributed to his or her heirs, whether or not there is a will. Testate is the term used when a will existed in the settling of the estate. Intestate is the term used when there was no will written and the court decides how the estate is to be distributed.
- "Not everyone in the United States wrote a will or went through probate. Nearly 10% of the pre-1900 adult population made wills, usually males with property. Before 1900, about 25% of estates were probated, even though no will had been written. However, this percentage is higher for rural areas because that is where the land was owned.
- "The single most important value of probate records is the proof of relationships. In a will, people are identified as a wife, son, daughter, nephew, niece, brother, sister, etc. If there is no will, the distribution is made by the court to the heirs who are usually family members. Other helpful and interesting information that may be learned from probate files are: date and place of death, name of the spouse and other possible family members and relationships, location of the heirs, property ownership, and guardianship of minor children." Jill Shoemaker, U.S. Probate Records Class Handout
County probate records
- County probate records include probate proceedings, petitions, affidavits, orders for sales, reports of sales, administrators' and executors' bonds, guardianship papers, wills, and letters of administration. In a will book, usually just a transcription of the will is recorded. But all of these other records are kept in a probate packet. Administrations are probate proceedings that handled an estate if no known will existed.
- Currently, these records are microfilmed and digitized:
- Alabama, Wills and Probate Records, 1753-1999, ($), index and images, incomplete.
- Alabama, Marriages, Deaths, Wills, Court, and Other Records, 1784-1920 Book ($)
- Index to Alabama Wills, 1808-1870 ($)
- Alabama, Probate Records, 1809-1985 Index and images.
- Alabama, County Probate Records, 1830-1976 Index and images.
- Alabama Estate Files, 1830-1976 index/images
- Eventually more of these records may become available online.
- In the meantime, this online directory by Genealogy Inc. will enable you to arrange to have them searched for a fee: Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the Courthouse and Government Records to find the address and phone number of the County Clerk of Court. Ask them about the years covered by their probate records and their procedure and fees for ordering copies probate packets. When you write, always ask for the full probate packet, not just the will or administration.
Step 10: Contact a county historical or genealogical society.
This online directory by GenealogyInc. lists historical and genealogical societies by county: Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the historical or genealogical society listings. Here is an example of an internet website for a local genealogical society.
Step 11: After online research, search the collection at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.
Although FamilySearch is actively working to microfilm and preserve records throughout the world, this huge job is nowhere near complete. We have tried in the Wiki to provide information about collections, books, and records held in government and ecclesiastical archives beyond the Family History Library records. In Alabama, United States Genealogy, you can find links to these records and how to access them. Also here you will find information on records from your particular Alabama county of interest.