United States, Twentieth-Century Sources (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Twentieth-Century Sources

Our genealogical research will necessarily begin in the twentieth century. Many of the home sources that we find will reflect this time period, and these will be the first sources we find. As we venture out into original-record research both online and in archives and libraries, these will be the first sources we look for. Hand-in-hand with significant progress in education and other advances, the twentieth century also saw the creation of many records that did not exist in previous time periods. Even those records that existed earlier now contained more information. These are some of the record groups that you will be using:

Vital records

In many states vital registration did not begin statewide until the early twentieth century. When and where they are accessible, these are among the most important twentieth-century records.

Federal census records

The five available twentieth-century census records from 1900 through 1940 contain far more information than all previous census records.

Military draft records

During World War I, in 1917 and 1918, all men in the United States of military age were required to register for the draft. Separate registrations cover men born about 1875 through about 1900. While this was not the first time that the United States held a draft for military service, the records created during this draft were far more informative. The different registrations used slightly different forms, but most of the cards contained the place of residence, date of birth, place of birth, physical attributes, and usually an emergency contact name (most often a spouse or parent).

In 1942, during World War II, men were again required to register for the draft. The Fourth Registration, called the “Old Men’s Draft,” registered men born in the late nineteenth century. These cards generally contained the place of residence, date and place of birth, and an emergency contact name.

Records from both of these twentieth-century drafts are held by the National Archives and Records Administration—generally in the regional facilities. However, the World War I draft records have been microfilmed by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and both registrations have been digitized. You can access digital images on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.

Social Security Administration Records

Sometimes we do not know when or where an ancestor died or we do not have access to the vital records due to privacy concerns. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) provides a way to work around this problem. Available on numerous websites including Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, the SSDI can be searched by name, date of birth, date of death, and other characteristics. The SSDI records deaths reported to the Social Security Administration around the country. However, you must remember that this is only an index. There are omissions, and there are reports of living individuals in the index being inaccurately reported as deceased. If you find someone in the SSDI, you will at least know where to look for a death record or obituary.

Another record available from the Social Security Administration is Form SS-5, the application for a Social Security number. These applications were completed by the Social Security number bearer, and thus contain generally primary information. The applications generally report the name of the applicant, their date and place of birth, the names of their parents, and residence and occupation information. These records are only available for deceased persons, and evidence of their death may be required. You will have best results if you provide the Social Security number, which is available through the SSDI, many death certificates, and other home sources. In order to obtain these records, you will have to file a request with the SSA under the Freedom of Information Act.

U.S. Social Security Application - Lee Perry

Application for account number, Lee Perry, no. 231-10-0808, 4 December 1936; U.S. Social Security Administration



Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.