Step-by-Step Montana Research, 1880-Present
- A suggested approach to genealogy research in Montana family history records.
|What sets this era in Montana genealogy apart from earlier time periods are the 1907 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.|
- 1 See also, How to use "record hints".
- 2 Step 1. Find out everything you can from living relatives and their family records:
- 3 Step 2. Find your ancestors in every possible census record, 1880-1940, online.
- 4 Step 3: Find birth, marriage, and death certificates for your ancestors and their children.
- 5 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.
- 6 Step 5: Search military records: World War I and World War II draft cards and Civil War pensions.
- 7 World War II Draft Registration
- 8 Civil War Pensions
- 9 Step 6: If your ancestor was an immigrant, search immigration and naturalization records online.
- 10 Step 7: Study each record for other possible searches.
- 11 Step 8: Search a printed local history or biography online.
- 12 Step 9: Write to a county for wills and probate packets.
- 13 Step 10: Contact a county historical or genealogical society.
- 14 Step 11: After online research, search the collection at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.
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?
Using the clues to lead to census record searches.
Because Ray and Clara Aldrich were married in Montana in 1932, we will look for them in the 1940 census. Then we will look for them in 1930 and earlier censuses living the the homes of their parents.
Below, you will see the 1940 census showing Ray and Clara Aldrich and their children.
Following that, you will see the 1930 an 1920 census records for Joseph and Clara Garrison, parents of Clara Garrison Aldrich.
Then you will see the 1900 census that shows Joseph Garrison living with his parents James M. and Sarah Garrison. James and Sarah moved to Montana bringing Joseph and their other children along. So they appear in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census records of Montana.
By estimating birth years by subtracting ages from the census, we can now piece together rough family group records for these three families. By studying the states where the adults and their parents were born, we can continue research on these families in those states. Montana is such a new state that finding out where families came from to move the research there will be pretty common.
1930 and 1920 census of Joseph and Clara Garrison:
1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census of James M. and Sarah Garrison:
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
*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.)
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.
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.
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.
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:
Obtaining the certificates
Online databases, usually indexes, with some images
Finding Microfilm Copies of Certificates
Many Montana 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.
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.
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 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).
Samples of records
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.
Obituaries and cemeteries
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.
Step 5: Search military records: World War I and World War II draft cards and Civil War pensions.
World War I Draft Registration
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
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.
This two page illustration is of a 1917 San Francisco passenger arrival list: Montana passenger list page 1.png 1100px Montana passenger list page 2.png 1100px 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 Montana:
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.
Montana 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.
Montana Naturalization and Citizenship Online Records
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. A naturalization record listing children's names might lead you back to birth certificate searches, and so on.
Step 8: Search a printed local history or biography online.
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.
County probate records
Step 10: Contact a county historical or genealogical society.