How to Locate Your Ancestor in the United States

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[[United States | United States  > How to Locate Your Ancestor in the United States


Knowing where your ancestor lived is key to successful research, since records may be kept by state, county, or town agencies. Local records such as censuses, death certificates, county histories, military records, and obituaries tell so much about the people who lived there.

You may find in your research that your ancestor was born or lived in a particular state, with no county or town given. Thus it becomes a challenge to find out exactly where he or she lived in that state.

Fortunately there are many types of records to search to help you locate your ancestor. This guide lists these types of records and give suggestions on how to find where your ancestor lived in the United States.

What You Are Looking For: The place where your ancestor lived so that you can use the records of that place to find more information about your ancestor, such as birth, marriage, and death information.


The following steps list sources which may give the state, county, or town where your ancestor lived.

Step 1. Check previous research.

Research done by other people may have the information you are seeking. For suggestions on previous research, including Internet sites, see How to Use Previous Research. 

Step 2. Check these sources to learn where your ancestor lived.

  • Census indexes and images online through FamilySearch RecordSearch,, or
  • Social Security Death Index lists people whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration. Most people in this index died after about 1961. The index also shows the state where the person received a Social Security Number and the state where the person died. These Internet sites have the index: or The Family History Library and many Family History Centers also have the Social Security Death Index.
  • Accelerated Indexing Services Index (AIS) is an index of census records covering either all the United States or large sections of the United States for given times up to about 1880. A few other records, such as some tax records, are also included. The index usually tells the county and town where people lived. This index is available on the Internet through and The Family History Library and many Family History Centers have this index on fiche.
  • Military Records and Military Pension Records are indexed on a national or state level.
  • Passports can help you if your ancestor applied for a United States passport. These are indexed on a national level.

Step 3. Check these sources if you know the state but not the county or town.

  • Census indexes usually give the town and county where the head of the household lived. The censuses were taken every 10 years starting in 1790. Indexes are available from 1790 to 1930 for most states. For more information about censuses, choose Census on the Search list.
  • Periodical Source Index (PERSI) indexes about 5,000 genealogical and historical magazines by surnames and places.
  • Family histories.
  • Statewide indexes to county and town histories.
  • Land records.
  • Court records.
  • Marriage indexes.
  • Probate indexes.
  • Tax lists.
  • Militia lists.

Step 4. If you want to know where your ancestor lived previously, check:

Note: The words in parentheses ( ) indicate whether to search for town, county, state, or national records.

Family histories (national) Local histories (town, county, or state)) Biographical works (town, county, or state) Land records (county). Church records (town). Obituaries (town or county). Public or town records (town). Court records (town, county, or state). Censuses for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 (state or United States). Regional militia lists (county or state). Migration patterns and maps (state or United States).

Step 5. Find information about the relatives of your ancestor.

Use the sources in steps 1 to 4 to find where the following people lived:

  • Children of your ancestor. Parents often lived near their children.
  • Brothers and sisters. Siblings often lived together or nearby.
  • In-laws. In-laws often lived nearby.

Since people usually moved with others who were relatives, friends, or neighbors, learning about these people may lead you to information about your ancestors.

Step 6. Check places where other events happened.

If you know where your ancestor was married, check marriage records, deeds, county and town histories, and other records of that place for birth information.

If you know where your ancestor was born, check for marriage records of that place as many ancestors were married in the town or county where they were born.

See the list of suggested records for the other events.