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Beginning Genealogy: Records Used by Genealogists

This is a guide to print and online resources useful to the study of family history and genealogy. Many of these materials are available through the Government and Heritage Library.


Genealogists use different types of records in their search for information. Typically, records fall into two categories: original records - or primary sources --  and secondary sources -- sources that compile, analyze, or interpret primary source information. Primary sources may typically give people the "facts" they are searching for -- dates of birth, death, and marriage or other life events, or details about wealth and location from tax, property, and estates records.  Secondary source information might include mention of these items, compile data from original items, or provide references to records that researchers may want to search out in the original. 

Some researchers view vital records (and their substitutes) as the gold standard in genealogical research. They certainly provide critical information about the main events in people's lives: birth and death, marriage and divorce. And they can also provide important clues for the names of other family members. However, there are a wealth of additional types of records that can both substitute for the absence of a vital record and also help to more fully tell your ancestral story. 

Here are some of the general categories of the types of original historical records that can be found for family history:

  • Vital records and their substitutes
  • Public records: These are records created by municipal, county, and state governments involving the affairs of people that are overseen by governments:  birth and death registries; marriage licenses; court records; wills and estates; property and deeds; and in some cases naturalization records.
  • Federal records: including military service records and census information
  • State records: birth and death certificates, educational records, and other records produced by state government
  • Newspaper articles: court and legal notices; birth, death, and marriage notices; social events; and others.
  • Church and religious denominational records: baptism, marriage, death and burial, and other life events
  • Company and business records: often found in special manuscript collections
  • Manuscript records: personal papers, scrapbooks, family bibles and other similar, personal records.
  • Other useful record and sources: these include a wealth of materials like city and county directories, cemetery surveys, road records, school records, and many others.

Public records: local, county, state, and federal

Other records important in genealogy are often found at the county (and municipal), state, and federal levels. These are records that are created by government entities in their role of overseeing certain public activities -- these are often referred to as public records. 

Public records essentials, with tips for North Carolina research:

  • What records are accessible and where they can be accessed depends on the state. For many states, their state library or archives are the collector of their state's historical records. Visiting the website for these institutions is a great place to start to learn about collections for these records. 
  • County records: These are typically records produced by county government -- think court, tax, marriage/divorce, property, and estates records.
    • For North Carolina, there are 100 counties today, with county development from the late 1600s through 1911. It's vital to know what county land (or people) were in during a given time period. Learn more about the state's county formation here:
    • For North Carolina, use this county formation chart to understand when a county originated and what counties it came from --
    • In North Carolina, the State Archives is the primary repository for the state's historical county records. Their Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives: County Records helps us understand what records survive for each county (some counties had loss of records due fire, war, and natural disaster)  --
  • State records
    • For North Carolina, state records include governors' papers, state agency records, and some military (for early statehood) and veterans' records, and some very early wills (before North Carolina had a well-developed county system). 
    • A research guide has been created for land grants that further explains these records and the steps taken to receive a land grant. These records are located at the State Archives of North Carolina.
  • Federal records: Records created and/or kept by the federal government include census records, military service records, and immigration and naturalization records. These records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and can be accessed through subscription like

Vital Records and their Subsitutes

Vital records are crucial in research, especially for documenting family histories and proving links in genealogy.  Unfortunately, most states including North Carolina did not require the registration of births and deaths until the 20th century, nor the regulation of marriages until the late 1800s. As vital as these records are to research, they often don't exist, especially the farther back you go in your ancestral research. Here is an overview of what records are available and what can be used as a substitute for vital records when they are missing or don’t exist.

Research guides: For in-depth information for searching for vital records and their substitutes, visit these research guides from the SLNC Government & Heritage Library: 

Here is a quick overview of vital records and their history:

  • Birth records: Birth records are invaluable for including the exact date and place of birth and the parents' names. North Carolina passed its vital records law in 1913, although there wasn't widespread adoption of the law across the state until after World War I and in some cases into the middle of the century.  This was due both to roadblocks in county adoption as well as because many births were had at home. As the trend toward hospital birth grew, more people used them and a birth certificate was more easily recorded with the county. Another type of birth record, the certificate of delayed birth, were filed for people who needed a birth certificate but did not have one created at the time of birth. These records were filed in the county birth, with proof of when and where they were born. For North Carolina, copies of birth certificates can be obtained from the county's Register of Deeds where the birth took place or from the North Carolina Office of Vital Records. For other states, take the step of familiarizing yourself with the history of its vital records creation and where they are held.
  • Marriage and divorce records: Before 1868, it was not legally required for marriages to be filed with the county where the marriage took place. From 1741 through 1868, legal marriage records were called Marriage Bonds. These records gave the name of the bride, groom, bondsman, witness, date, and location of the marriage. During this time, but especially during the 1700s and before, people practiced using marriage banns, which were notices posted on church doors of the intent to marry. If no objections were given, the couple was allowed to marry. Churches that still exist from that time may have records of the marriage in their records. Today marriage certificates and divorce judgements are maintained by the N.C. Department of Vital Records. Most states follow a similar structure.
  • Death Records: North Carolina death certificates began to be filed in 1913; however, some counties began issuing them as early as 1909. Death certificates usually provide: name, place of residence, and occupation of the deceased; date, cause and place of death; name of attending physician; name of cemetery or burial place; marital status and name of spouse and their occupation; names of both parents. 
  • Vital record substitutes:  Sometimes the original records don’t exist. Birth and death records did not start statewide until the 20th century, marriages were not required to be legally recorded until 1868. In addition, approximately 60% of NC counties have missing records. So, what is a researcher to do when the record doesn’t seem to exist? There are numerous documents that contain information about vital events that can be used as substitute records. Bible records, cemetery records, census records, church records, military resource, newspapers, and more can be used as substitutes.

Census Records

Image of a page from the 1950 Cleveland, County, N.C. Census.Census records are part of the stock and trade of genealogical research. The Population Census, the most widely known part of the decennial census, are the lists by household of people living in the U.S. during that year.

This is data that is most often sought by genealogists: it places a person, or family name, in a given location and time period. It is often a starting point. The first decennial population Census, mandated by the U.S. Constitution, was taken in 1790. Read on for some important tips for using the census and unique data it contains.

  • For an in-depth guide to the Census, its history and data, and where to find Census records, visit this SLNC Government & Heritage Research Guide:
  • Census records can be found online at, HeritageQuest, and

Some key facts about the Census, it's history and what can be found, to keep in mind:

  • 1790-1840: 1790 was the first federal census, and for the years 1790-1840, only the head of household was given.  Ages are broken into groups, and the census gives the number of people in that home who fall within that age range based on sex and race.
  • 1850:  The first census to list everyone in a household by name and to give an age rather than a range.
  • 1870: The first census that gives the names for formerly enslaved people. Prior to 1870, the enslaved were noted by a mark that they existed, but not named.
  • 1880:  The first census to give relationships to the head of the household.
  • 1890: This census was taken but was mostly destroyed by fire. Fragments do exist.
  • 1950: The most recent census available for research. The census is released to the public every 72 years. The 1960 census will be made available to the public the year 2032.

In addition to population schedules, there were other schedules used in various years. 

  • Agriculture Schedule: 1850-1880; information includes farm owner or manager, acres of land, number of livestock, good produces, and value of the farm, machinery, livestock.
  • Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes: 1880; names, race, age, gender, and residence were collected for those who were insane, "idiotic", deaf, blind, homeless children in institutions, prison inhabitants, paupers and indigents.
  • Indian Census Rolls: 1885-1940; these were taken annually, but did not include every tribe every year. Information includes name (Indigenous or English name), sex, age, birthdate, marital status, agency or reservation, and tribe.
  • Industry and Manufacturing Schedule:  1810-1820, 1850-1880; generally includes name of manufacturer, type of product, amount of capital invested, quantities and value produced per year, machinery, number employed, average monthly cost for labor. The amount of information given varies from year to year. 
  • Mortality Schedules: 1850-1880; lists names of people who died in the year proceeding the census. Includes name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, state or county of birth, month of death, cause of death, and length of illness. 
  • Slave Schedules: 1850-1860; Only shows the name of the enslaver with a list of enslaved by age and sex.
  • Veterans Schedule: 1890; enumerates Union veterans and their widows. Shows names, organization, and length of service.