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Learn more about a person.
Uncover the skeletons in your family's closet.
It takes tenacity and patience to research a person, but the payoff can often be dramatic and surprising.
When looking for information on someone, the best place to start is often public records.
That said, if you're planning on doing a search on someone who died more than 50 years ago (or if the records are more than 50 years old) your job will be easier, as all the records are now part of the public domain and accessible.
To find basic information, such as birth, death and marriage records, start with the local municipality's holdings. The bigger the city you're searching, the smarter it is to start online. Especially if your relatives started out in a place like New York City, where the Department of Health maintains these records and trying to get information on the phone from a human can be frustrating.
If you know where your subject lived (or can reasonably guess) census records are a good place to learn basic information. The United States is the only country in the world that has as part of its constitution the requirement that a census be taken of the populace every 10 years. These records are available on microfilm dating back to 1790 at government archives around the country as well as online.
Once you learn the basics about your relatives, you can really have fun attempting to re-create their lives. Through local historical societies you can gain valuable information on what life was like for your ancestor.
Many historical societies also keep photo archives. Maybe there's a photo of Great Granddad with his fellow firemen or Grandma at a quilting bee? You can search deeds and tax records for information about where and how they lived. You can search old land grants if your relatives were settlers in the West. If you're lucky enough to find your relative's name on one of these deeds, you'll find a treasure trove of information.
For example, read the land grant deed online for Charles Ingalls, of Little House on the Prairie fame.
You may even discover your family's name in old criminal records or bankruptcy proceedings.
Other sources for interesting information include everything from veteran's records to ship passenger lists to old directories.
Searching over the past 50 years
If you're looking to trace the background or the whereabouts of someone who is currently living or only died within the past 50 years, your search will not rely as heavily on public records, as public records only become available after 50 years. If you want birth or death information or veteran's records for someone more recent, you'll have to get their approval.
Our tips can help you get started. Print out our checklist and take it with you when you go.
History Detectives Tips
- Get the basics: name (including alternate spellings), date and place of birth
- If you don't have the basics start with a birth or death records search Ask family members for more details, they may provide a clue.
- Understand the history of the time you're researching. Place your subject in the context of their daily life.
- Be prepared to be frustrated, take a break or try a different tactic. Success is often pure luck.
- Do as much preparation online as possible. Go to an archive with the call number of the information you're hoping to get.