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Step-by-Step Illinois Research, 1880-Present

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Illinois Gotoarrow.png Step-by-step research 1880--present


  • A suggested approach to genealogy research in Illinois family history records.

Step-by-step Illinois
Research 1880--to the present

Table of Contents

1. Contact living relatives.
2. Online census records.
3. Births, marriages, and deaths online
4. Obituary and cemetery records online.
5. Military records online.
6. Immigration and naturalization records online.
7. Study clues.
8. Printed local histories or biographies online.
9. Wills and probate.
10. Historical or genealogical societies.
10. Visit a Family History Center.



What sets this era in Illinois genealogy apart from earlier time periods are the 1916 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".[edit | edit source]

Step 1. Find out everything you can from living relatives and their family records:[edit | edit source]

Every good genealogy project starts with finding all the clues you can gather from living relatives — both from their memories and from documents or memorabilia in their homes.

What should you ask?[edit | edit source]

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:

What documents should you look for and ask to copy?[edit | edit source]

  • Announcements of births, weddings,
    and anniversaries
  • Baby and wedding books
  • Certificates
  • Deeds, and property records
  • Family Bibles
  • Family reunion notices and records
  • Fraternal or society records
  • Insurance policies
  • Journals and diaries
  • Letters and cards
  • Licenses (business, marriage,
    fishing, driving)
  • Naturalization documents
  • Newspaper clippings and obituaries
  • Medical records
  • Military service and pension documents
  • Occupational awards
  • Passports
  • Personal histories and biographies
  • Photograph albums
  • Printed Notices and Announcements
  • Programs (graduation, award ceremonies, funerals)
  • School records
  • Scrapbooks
  • Wills and trusts


Using the clues to lead to census record searches.[edit | edit source]



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You are trying to find out about your great-grandparents. Your mother gives you this old newspaper clipping, which she believes is about your father's great-uncle.

Your father had an elderly great-aunt Renatta Wolff that he visited as a teenager in Chicago. She told stories about her twin brother, Bobby.

Your mother thinks your grandmother was Edna Wittenhagen Young, and she was German.

You decide to study the family of Robert A. Holtz for clues about your grandmother's parents.

First you look for your grandmother's death record in California, where you find out her father's surname was Holtz, her mother's surname was Wittnagen, and she was born in Illinois.


Next we will learn all we can about this family, starting with the 1910 census of Illinois, shortly after the birth of Edna, and the 1920 census, shortly after the birth of Robert.




Here is the family in the 1920 census, with baby Robert Holtz and 11-year-old sister, Edna Holtz. Their parents are Louis W. Holtz and Frieda. If the California death record for Edna is correct, we will be looking for the records of Frieda Wittnagen as the wife of Louis W. Holtz. This record says she was born in Indiana.

Illinois census 2.png Illinois census 1.png Here is the family in the 1910 census, living in Chicago Heights, Cook County, Illinois. This record says that Louis W. Holtz came to the United States in 1888. We should be able to find him in the 1900 census then.

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In the 1900 census indexes available, we have not found the Holtz family yet, but we found this possible Vittenhagen family. "W" is pronounced as "V" in Germany, and "Ricke" is short for Friedricke. We need more proof as to whether this is your Wittenhagen family.

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PLOT SPOILER: After verifying this family in birth, marriage, and death records, we were able to positively identify them in the 1880 Indiana census. The original census photo is very light and difficult to read, but here is the index entry:

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Step 2. Find your ancestors in every possible census record, 1880-1940, online.[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

  • 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.
    1900 United States Census.jpg
  • Here is a sample of the 1880 census, which is much simpler:
United States 1880 Census (11-0629).jpg


*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 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses. (The 1890 census was destroyed.)

  • 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 Illinois.
  • 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.[edit | edit source]

Now, we want to try to find important birth records for the various people represented in these census records. This will provide us with complete date and place information, but also a more exact identification for the mother, who usually appears in a census with her married name only.

This record adds important details: The full names of Robert Arthur Lawrence Holtz and Louis William Holtz. It verifies that Louis' wife is Fredericke Wittenhagen, misspelled Wittnhanger, or misread by the indexer.

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This record for another child of the couple gives us another alternate spelling of Fridaricka Wittenhagen, and adds the middle name Dora.

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And a third spelling of her name, probably the closest, although usually the German spelling is Friedericka.

Using the census clues to lead to a marriage certificate.[edit | edit source]

One main purpose for locating records for is to establish the identity of the wives--their maiden names. 'Notice also that is some cases the names of the parents of the bride and groom are given. Both of the records shown here are index entries. Obtaining the full original certificate might add more details.
Notice that at his wedding Louis W. Holtz was known as Ludwig. It was common for German people to Anglicize their names when moving to America. We need to always look for his records under both names.

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Using the census clues to lead to a death certificate.[edit | edit source]

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.


Tip Tip1.jpg Many of the examples shown here 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.


These two records highlight the advantage of searching for death records of everyone in the family, not just your direct line. Louis W. Holtz and his brother, Wilhelm F. Holtz, both give us the names of their parents. They report different localities, but one is a town and one is a state.

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These three records highlight the importance of obtaining and reading the original death record. Both are Charles Wittenhagen index entries are of the same event, one recorded by the state and one by Cook County. The all important German birth place of the mother is listed on one. The mother's name is spelled two different ways. It may have been interpreted differently by two different indexing volunteers. It may have been heard and recorded differently at the time the records were made. It would be wise to send for the actual records. Her original death record might name her parents and clear up the discrepancy. At any rate, we now have a German place name and a date for Friedericka Aulds/Clutz/Ohls (you'll see this spelling soon, too), so we can begin looking for the family in German records.!

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Step 3: Find birth, marriage, and death certificates for your ancestors and their children.[edit | edit source]

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.

Tip Tip1.jpg 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:[edit | edit source]

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  • 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[edit | edit source]

  • 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[edit | edit source]

  • This chart gives links to some Illinois online databases for these records:

Also, see How to Find Illinois Birth Records.

Also, see How to Find Illinois Marriage Records.

Also, see How to Find Illinois Death Records.


Finding Microfilm Copies of Certificates[edit | edit source]

Many Illinois 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:


Many of these microfilms are also available online, as the film description will indicate.

Ordering certificates through the mail[edit | edit source]

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 birth place, 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).

  • Click here for information on how to order birth records.
  • Click here for information on how to order marriage records.
  • Click here for information on how to order death records.
Samples of records[edit | edit source]

Here are some samples of Illinois certificates. Notice the types of information available in each, particularly the identity of the parents, which adds another generation to your research.
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USA-IL-A-00014 Death Certificate Frank Subert (1893-1954).jpg

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.[edit | edit source]

U.S. Social Security Death Index and Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007[edit | edit source]

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.

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Obituaries and cemeteries[edit | edit source]

Obituaries[edit | edit source]
Cemeteries[edit | edit source]


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.

THE FIND-A-GRAVE RECORD WE WISH WAS OURS: FindAGrave records can be very detailed, with a wealth of information. Here is a Holtz grave example that does not belong to this family, but it sure would have been nice!
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Step 5: Search military records: World War I and World War II draft cards and Civil War pensions.[edit | edit source]

  • 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[edit | edit source]

  • 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.


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World War II Draft Registration[edit | edit source]

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

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Civil War Pensions[edit | edit source]

  • 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.
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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.

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Step 6: If your ancestor was an immigrant, search immigration and naturalization records online.[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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.

Immigration and Naturalization Found in the U.S.Census by Year
(other information also given but is not listed here)
Year of census
Immigration and Naturalization Information
1870
  • Whether father and mother are of foreign birth
1880
  • Place of birth for father and mother
1900
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • How many years lived in U.S.
1910
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
1920
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Year of naturalization
  • Native language
  • Native language of father and mother
1930
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Native language
1940
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized

Immigration records[edit | edit source]

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.

It is likely that this is the passenger list for the Wittenhagens, even though the father is listed as Johann. It was common to call a man named Johann Friedrich just by Friedrich. But more research in German records should be done to prove the connection.
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There are also some immigration records unique to Illinois:

Naturalization (Citizenship) Records[edit | edit source]

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.

Illinois 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.

Illinois Naturalization and Citizenship Online Records[edit | edit source]

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Step 7: Study each record for other possible searches.[edit | edit source]

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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. A naturalization record listing children's names might lead you back to birth certificate searches, and so on.

Here is a simple framework of what we have found so far:

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Step 8: Search a printed local history or biography online.[edit | edit source]

Local histories[edit | edit source]

  • 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 Illinois; that will bring up too many hits. Just use the name of the county and "county": for example, "Hyde County"
    • Google Books. Use keywords "Illinois" 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 "Illinois" and the county name.
    • Genealogy Book Links, Illinois. Browse list; county histories are interspersed.
    • Ancestry.com, ($). In the Card Catalog search box, use Illinois 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.

Biographies[edit | edit source]

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.


Step 9: Write to a county for wills and probate packets.[edit | edit source]

  • "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[edit | edit source]

  • 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.
  • 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.[edit | edit source]

  • County historical societies have collections that are frequently little known and often overlooked. Many have a surname file, where they have collected genealogies, newspaper clippings, old photographs, etc. Many have a sort of "pioneer ancestor" program, where people can submit pedigrees to prove they are the descendants of an early resident of the county. Most keep track of queries about families that once lived in the area from other distant relatives who may actually have more family memorabilia than you.
  • If you can find the society on the internet, they may list their holdings. Or call them on the phone, find out what they have, and find out what arrangements can be made to search their collection. Frequently, you can hire one of their members to search the collection for you.

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.

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Step 11: After online research, search the collection at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.[edit | edit source]

  • Records are catalogued by location. Do these three searches for each place: Illinois; the county (or counties) where your ancestors lived; and the town (or towns) where they lived.


  • Search by state.
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  • Search by county.
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  • Search by town.
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  • View the expanded list of library holdings. After clicking on "Search", you will next see a list of topics. Click on any topic, and the list will expand to show the records available. Records listed can then be viewed at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.
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Use the Wiki articles for Illinois and its counties to find out about other records in state, county, or local repositories.

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 Illinois, 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 Illinois county of interest.