How Genealogy Works

Researching Genealogies With Criminal and Military Records

The records listed on this page are the ones used most frequently. Most may be found online, making it easier to begin your research. But there are times when you must turn off the computer and turn your attention to other, undigitized, records.

Different records supply different pieces of the puzzle, and when put together, they provide a fuller picture of your ancestor's life. As you progress in your research, you'll recognize the need to find records that are unique to the particular county, state, province, or country of your ancestors.

Researching a Genealogy With Criminal Records

Some of our ancestors didn't appreciate the fact that we would eventually want to locate them. Some spent a great deal of effort avoiding the census taker, for instance. When you find that your ancestor is not in the census records, or that vital records were not being kept at the time your ancestor was living in the county, it's time to consider what other records might give you the missing information. You may consider looking for court records and coroners' reports.

Certainly not all of your ancestors were criminals or scofflaws, and maybe none of them were, but many people are surprised at some of the legal issues our ancestors faced. Consider the many "blue laws" (extremely stern laws that were enacted in an effort to regulate morals and behavior) enforced in Colonial times. At one time, a woman could be taken to court for yelling at her husband, for example. There may be records of such transgressions.

Court records include a variety of trial actions and decisions. Some are the simple types we see today -- for instance, a dispute over the boundary between two neighbors. Some are the result of disagreements in the probating of an estate. Other times the situation is more serious, when someone committed a crime, for instance. Don't dismiss the search for court records because you are afraid of what you might find. For most people there will be few surprises, but the unexpected events you do find may help you in your search. Court trial records usually include witness testimony that can identify how or how long the witness knew the accused. There may be indications as to when your ancestor arrived in the county or town. Additionally, if bail was posted, you may find relatives put up the bond money for your ancestor, giving you new names to research as you continue the quest.

Your ancestor did not even have to be accused of anything in order for court records to be of value to you. You may find material from the details shared in a deposition for a suit or in the answers to an interrogation during a trial, if your ancestor was the plaintiff in an action or a witness.

There are different types of courts, from county level to district level to federal level. A good place to begin looking is at the local county level. So, as with many other records, including vital, land, and probate, you'll need to contact the clerk of the court at the courthouse.

Researching a Genealogy With Coroner's Records

There are many reasons why a coroner is required to investigate a death. Murders and violent and/or unexplained deaths may require investigation under county or state laws. You may presume that there are no useful details for your research other than how the individual died, but most inquests include witness and other testimony from which a few helpful tidbits may be gleaned.

Coroners' records are harder to access than court records, as they are not as likely to be microfilmed or available long distance. You may need to contact the local coroner's office to see where their records are housed for preservation. To find out how to contact the county or city coroner's office, access a phone book for that area. You may also find such phone numbers online through the various county sites.

Researching a Genealogy With Military Records

As you research, especially as you read county histories, you may find that many of the men in the community were in the military. Some of those wars were fought on home soil, while others took the men, and some women, far away.

Many military records are now located at the National Archives, to which you were introduced earlier. Some of these records are on microfilm, but most of them are still filed away in folders.

For earlier wars, such as the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, there may be two types of military records. The first is the service record, which details the mustering date and pay the individual received. It offers some information about the units in which the soldier served and the location in which he was stationed. It may indicate if he was sick or captured. The other record, which usually includes more of the genealogically pertinent facts we crave, is the pension record. Pension records consist of proof of marriage, births of children, and date and location of the deaths of soldiers or veterans.

If you're confused about any of the terms used in this article -- or if you come across terms you don't understand while building your genealogy -- consult the glossary of genealogy terms we've provided on the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.