Step-by-Step Oregon Research, 1850-1903
A suggested approach to genealogy research in Oregon online family history records.
Table of Contents
See also How to Use "Record Hints"
In this period of Oregon, census records are the most valuable record because statewide civil registration does not begin until 1903. Collecting vital records and cemetery/obituary records will then provide clues for searches in even earlier census records. Then, there are a variety of records that take a bit more work, but can produce good results. Collecting all the available information may make it possible to piece together a puzzle, even if no one record completely describes your family!
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.
Step 2: Search the 1900, 1880, 1870, 1860, and 1850 census records online.
Using the clues to lead to census record searches.
Your father tells you that his father was Fred Martin and his grandparents were Joseph and Lola Martin, and that his family lived in Oregon. Fred Martin died in 1917, and he was only 19 years old. You want to study Joseph and Lola Martin, who were living in Oregon around 1900, with a two-year-old. We begin by looking for them in the 1900 census. Here is what we found:
For the purposes of this article, let's say that we are following Joseph and Lola back in time. The article Step-by-Step Oregon Research, 1900-Present discusses the types of sources we would use to track their family forward in time from here, probably identifying all their children, their birth and death dates, etc. But let's assume here that our main objectives are identifying the parents and siblings, hopefully the grandparents. So let's look closer at Joseph Martin's details. He was born in 1860 in Oregon, so we should be able to locate him in the 1870 and 1880 census records of Oregon. We would be looking for a Joseph Martin who is about 10 in 1870, or 20 in 1880, with parents who were born in Indiana. Although some details do not match perfectly, there is only one Joseph Martin born in Oregon near 1860, with a parent born in Indiana. In the 1880 entry, his age is slightly off. In both entries, his mother was born in New York. We will need to find additional records to be certain this is the right man.
|1880 census index:||1870 census index:|
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 to become familiar with the types of information found in each.
What types of useful information can I find in them?
- The 1790--1840 censuses are more limited, naming only the head of household and head counts. Beginning in 1850, the census records began asking for more information.
- Notice in the following chart additional information helpful for genealogists added each year.
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
Name, age, and gender of each family member; Occupation; Birthplace; If married that year
|1870||Adds: Whether father and mother are of foreign birth|
|1880||Adds: Marital status; Relationship to head of household; Place of birth for father and mother|
|1900||Adds: Number of years in current marriage; Month and year of birth; Mother of how many children Number of children living; Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized; Year of immigration to U.S.; How many years lived in U.S|
1900 U.S. Census
- The 1900 census is particularly helpful because it states month and year of birth, how many children a woman has born, the year of immigration to the U.S., among other things.
1880 U.S. Census
1870 U.S. Census
1860 U.S. Census
1850 U.S. Census
United States Indian Census Rolls
- This database contains an index to the Indian census rolls from 1885-1940 for those living on Indian Reservations in the United States. *Information contained in this database includes: name (Indian and/or English), gender, age, birth date, relationship to head of family, marital status, tribe name, agency and reservation name
- Other information about an individual, such as degree of Indian blood, as recorded in the later census years, may be available on the original record.
- The Indian Census schedules are census rolls usually submitted each year by agents or superintendents in charge of Indian reservations. There is not a census for every reservation or group of Indians for every year. Only persons who maintained a formal affiliation with a tribe under federal supervision are listed on these census rolls.
Census Links to Start Your Own Research in Census Records
Now you will want to find your family members in every possible census, using these convenient links:
- Indian census rolls from 1885-1940 - for those living on Indian Reservations in the United States
- Note: The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire.
- You will want to find and keep notes on census records from every census during each ancestor's lifetime.
- Using the census records, you will be able to estimate approximate birth dates and marriage dates. These records will lead you to additional census searches because you will find the names of other members of the family you will need to find. You may also find clues to other states and countries your family lived in before coming to Oregon.
In steps 3 and 4, we will use what we learned from the census records to help search for birth, marriage, and death records. But first, we will try to gather more clues from several collections of death, obituary, and cemetery records that may give other places their birth and marriage records might be located.
Step 3: Try to find additional details about your ancestors in death certificates, Social Security, obituary and cemetery records online.
Now we need to look at records for Orin and Miranda Martin, Joseph Martin, and even Fred Martin to find more evidence of the relationships of these people, and more names, dates, and places related to them. We will start by looking at many death record collections. Because their deaths were the most recently recorded, they have a better chance of being found, as record keeping became more thorough in more modern times.
Even though this article focuses on finding records prior to 1903, remember that many of the people you are studying in the late 1800's died after 1903, when death certificates began being filed statewide. Here is a typical Oregon death certificate. Notice that, in addition to information on the death, it tells the deceased's birth date and place, patents' names and birth places, and spouse's name.
We found index entries for the death certificates of Fred and Joseph Martin. From the index entries the only proof of relationship is that Fred and Joseph both died in Klamath. That would be circumstantial evidence and not direct proof. However, be aware that these index records carry the information about the actual, original death certificate. By mailing for the originals, you should receive a more detailed record like that above.
Ordering Full Certificates
Using the certificate numbers and dates from the indexed records, you can order the original certificate from the Oregon, the Center for Health Statistics, using this order form. If you mail in a request for a vital record, you must include:
- A photocopy of the applicant’s ID (or alternative documents)
- The applicant’s reason for needing the record
- The signature of the applicant for the record
These fees will apply: Vital Records Fees.
U.S. Social Security Death Index
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. The deceased would have to be at least 75 years old today for their parents' names to be published in the index. 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, the date and place of birth, current residence and employer.
- 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 Oregon links:
- 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 Oregon links:
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.
- Online Oregon Death Records & Indexes
- Oregon Tombstone Transcription Project at USGenWeb
- Oregon Cemetery Records at Findagrave.com
- Oregon Cemetery Records at Interment.net
- BillionGraves Oregon Cemeteries
- BillionGraves Index
- Oregon, Church and Cemetery Records, 1840-1965
- Oregon Gravestone Photo Project
- Oregon Cemeteries, I Dream of Genealogy
- The USGenWeb Archives - Oregon
- Linkpendium Oregon
- Cemetery Junction Oregon
- Oregon Cemetery Records
Here is Joseph Martin's online cemetery record from FindAGrave. The family member who registered this record also included Joseph's death certificate. Notice that this clearly documents his parents as Orin Martin and Miranda Lee.
Step 4: Search for county birth and marriage records online.
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.
Vital records registration of births and marriages at the state level started in 1903. Prior to that the individual counties kept the records. The starting dates of those records vary from county to county, depending on when the county was formed. Here are a variety of collected county records:
- Oregon, Births and Christenings, 1868-1929 Index only, also at FindMyPast, ($), index, also at MyHeritage, ($), index, also at *Ancestry, ($).
- Oregon State Archives Delayed Birth Index
Samples of index entries
Records of close relatives should be looked for to help verify information that may not be on your direct-line ancestor's records. In the second record below, for example, the bride would only be the possible sister of Fred Martin, but this record gives us the full name of Lola Elizabeth Lilly, Joseph's wife.
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 are at 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.
Step 5: Search military records: World War I and II draft cards and Civil War pension records online.
- 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 1 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.
|*Here is an example of a typical draft card.|
World War II Draft Registration
|Likewise, the World War II draft may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, and other family members as contacts. WWII draft registration, called the Fourth Registration, or Old Man’s Registration, was held on April 27, 1942. The purpose of this registration was to collect information on industrial capacity and skills of men who were born between April 27, 1877 and February 16, 1897 (ages 45 to 64). This draft registration was not intended to be used for military service but to provide a complete inventory of manpower resources in the United States that could be utilized for national service during World War II. 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.
Pension Records for Other Wars
- This record might help by naming a wife or widow of a Revolutionary War veteran who settled in Oregon: U.S., Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications, 1800-1900 Index
- This record gives name, rank, regiment, company commander, regimental commander, height, weight, color of eyes, hair, complexion, age, occupation, county or state of birth, date and place of enlistment, miscellaneous remarks. Additional records include Indian Scouts, 1878-1914: U.S., Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914 Index and images.
- These records might help by naming a wife or widow of a veteran who settled in Oregon:
- U.S., Old War Pension Index, 1815-1926 Index Only.
- U.S., Index to Indian Wars Pension Files, 1892-1926 Index only.
- U.S., Mexican War Pension Index, 1887-1926 Index only.
- For a more complete list of available online military records and indexes, see United States Online Military Records.
Military Indexes Unique to Oregon
- Oregon Military Department Records Guide Record Series Descriptions Records held at the Oregon State Archives.
- Oregon State Archives Enlistment Record Index
- Oregon Volunteers, Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection ($)
- ORGenWeb Oregon Soldiers Killed in the Navy and Army in WWI
- Oregon State Archives World War I Index
|If Your Family Immigrated|
Step 6: If your ancestor was an immigrant, search immigration and naturalization records online.
The census records may show that your ancestor was born in another country. It will be necessary to try to find the town or city they were born in to continue research in that country. The next goal is to search immigration records (usually passenger lists) and naturalization (citizenship) records. Immigration refers to people coming into a country, such as the United States, and emigration refers to people leaving a country to go to another. Usually these records are passenger lists of the ships they sailed on. A typical record will show name, age, and country of origin, but records after 1892 often list the actual town of last residence and later, the town of birth. The later passenger lists can also list the next of kin still living in the old country and their residence, and the names of relatives and the place they are traveling to.
Census clues to Immigration records
Census records can provide important clues about nationality and immigration. This chart lists data that can be found in each of the census records. Gather the information in the census records specifically about immigration, as it will help narrow down your search.
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
There are too many immigration records to list here. Click here to see a complete list of available immigration records online. Notice that they are listed by state, but under the letter "U" there is a long list of records that cover all of the United States. Unless family information tells you the port where family arrived, you will need to search all of the United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records for the time period when your ancestors arrived.
- Oregon, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1888-1963 Index and images ($)
- Border Crossings:From Canada to U.S., 1895-1954 Index and images ($)
- Portland, Oregon, Chinese Immigrant Case files, 1890-1914, ($), index/images
- Paper Trail, index
- Oregon, Portland, Index and Register of Vessels, 1949-1955
Naturalization (Citizenship) Records
Naturalization is the process of becoming a citizen. Records can include the immigrant's declaration of intent to become a citizen, petition, and final citizenship papers. Also locate both the declaration of intent and the petition. Naturalization records after 1906 can give birth date and place, spouse's name, marriage date and place, and lists of children with their birth dates. Records before 1906 usually include less information although, some county clerks would add more information then necessary making it important to always search for the records even if the naturalization happened before 1906. For more information regarding the naturalization process go to: Beginning Research in United States Naturalization Records wiki page.
- Sample of a naturalization record--declaration of intent;
Oregon Naturalization and Citizenship Online Records
- Oregon State Archives Naturalization Record Index
- Oregon, Naturalization Records 1895-1999 ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for Oregon, 1859-1935 - U.S. Circuit Court, Indexes to Declarations ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for Oregon, 1906-1935 - U.S. Circuit Court, Petitions ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for Oregon, 1859-1907 - U.S. Circuit and District Courts, Admissions to citizenship ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for Oregon, 1859-1956 - U.S. District Court, Indexes to Declarations ($)
- U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes for Oregon, 1906-1956 - U.S. District Court, Petitions ($)
- Naturalization Records List Records held at the Oregon State Archives
- Selected U.S. Naturalization Records - U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, 1859-1941 ($)
Step 7: Use the clues you have gathered to search in earlier censuses than before.
Now you will use the clues you have gathered from the more recent census records, cemeteries and obituaries, and birth, marriage, and death records to search even earlier census records. Searching additional census records may give clues that take you back to birth, marriage, and death records. You will probably go back and forth between all these record groups again and again.
1. Now that we are sure that Joseph Martin and Lola Elizabeth Lilly are the parents of Frederick Roscoe Martin, we need to gather the names and approximate birth dates of all their children listed in the 1900-1940 census records. We would then look for birth, marriage, and death records for each of them. This way we would create a well-documented family group record. For help following up in more recent records, see Step-by-Step Oregon Research, 1900-Present.
2. Now that we know the full name of Lola Elizabeth Lilly, that she was born in Kansas in 1878, and her parents in West Virginia, we would go through the 1880 census records of Kansas, Oregon, and West Virginia to find her living in her parents' home. Once we identify their names, we can look for them in Oregon death records to find more details. We would also collect the records of their family from 1880-1940 in Oregon, and from 1880 back to 1850 in Oregon, Kansas, West Virginia, and other locations.
3. Now that we know Joseph Martin's parents are Orin Martin and Miranda Lee, and that he was born in 1860, we would gather the census records of them from 1850-1900. This would make it possible to identify all their children. Again, we would follow up if birth, marriage, and death records to find further details on the children.
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.
Again, here are the links to these earlier census records:
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 Oregon; that will bring up too many hits. Just use the name of the county and "county": for example, "Hyde County"
- Google Books. Use keywords "Oregon" 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 "Oregon" and the county name.
- Genealogy Book Links, Oregon. Browse list; county histories are interspersed.
- Ancestry.com, ($). In the Card Catalog search box, use Oregon 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.
- Also, in Step 12, you will be contacting a county history society. Societies often have a good selection of printed histories about the area. Some may be search history for you for a fee.
These collections of Oregon biographies can be searched online. Most have a table of contents and an index. Or you can use the "Find" function on your computer.
- Early Oregonians Database Index
- Oregon, Biographical and Other Index Card File, 1700s-1900s, ($), index/images
- About Oregon, Biographical Index Card File, 1900-1986, ($), index/images
- Oregon Pioneer Biographies
- USGenWeb Oregon Biographies
- WPA Life Histories from Oregon
- Paper Trail
- An illustrated history of the state of Oregon, ($), index/images
- Pioneer days of Oregon history, ($), index/images
- County and Town Histories Oregon, with biographies
- Genealogical Forum of Oregon
- Oregon, her history, her great men, her literature, e-book
- The story of Oregon; a history, with portraits and biographies, by Julian Hawthorne. Vol. 1, e-book; *Vol.2
|Here are Orin Martin's records from the Early Oregonians Database Index and the Oregon Biographical Index Card File:|
Step 9: Write to a county for wills and probate indexes.
- "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
- Oregon 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.
Here is one page from the probate packet of James P. Lilly. By searching all available probate records for the surname Lilly, we find this important document which names all of his children. It provides direct evidence that he is the father of Lola Martin, wife of Joseph Martin.
- Currently, these Oregon records are microfilmed and digitized:
- 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: Search land records online.
- These records will give the name of the owner, the date they obtained the land, the county, and the exact location of the land. They can contain clues to family members who shared ownership of the land, sold or gave land to a child, or witnessed the sale. Sometimes they show the previous or new residence of the parties to the deed. They can be useful in tracking an ancestor who lived in more than one county in Oregon. With the additional county name where the family lived, the probate and vital records of that county can then be searched.
- Oregon State Archives Women's Property Index
- Oregon State Archives Land Claim Index
- Genealogical Forum of Oregon Land Claim Index
- U.S., Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1820-1908 Images only.
In step 7, we would have located proof that Miranda Lee was the daughter of Philemon Lee: The Oregon State Archives Land Claim Index shows that the Oregon State Archives hold these records for him. We should write them for copies of the original records, as this is just an index.
Step 11: 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. It shows their main page, and their form and fees for making research requests.
Gather All the Evidence and Put It Together
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 Oregon, 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 Oregon county of interest.