Federal, state and county

24 June 2014

Family history is very popular in North America and there are many family history societies which can assist people with the records of a particular state or city. The United States has a federal government and it is far less centralised than in the United Kingdom with individual states having retained many legislative powers and therefore, their own records. Many records are also found at ‘county’ level (the divisions of a state) and the three levels of government result in records being held in many more archives. However, the National Archives in Washington DC is probably the most important archive for family history material, in terms of federal records. Many of the records have been microfilmed and can also be seen at other branches of the US National Archives.

Civil registration of births and deaths was a state responsibility so the systems and start dates vary enormously. We, in England and Wales, have much to be thankful for with regard to the central record of civil registration from 1 July 1837. Massachusetts began shortly after England and Wales (1842) though many states did not follow suit until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century (Georgia in 1919). Centralised states records of marriage did not commence until this late period either, which makes planning your research in the USA a little more challenging, to say the least!

Federal censuses were taken in 1790 and then every 10 years, with these records being open to the public after 72 years. Strange choice…. in England and Wales we have 100 year closure on censuses and many researchers fought long and hard to see the 1911 census – without the disability column – ahead of time. The names of heads of households were recorded from 1790 in America and names of all individuals residing in the house from 1850. Many of the US Federal censuses have been made available on Ancestry with the information recorded on the schedules – like in England and Wales – expanding over the decades. Most of the census of 1890 was destroyed by a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, DC on 10 January 1921. The surviving fragments consists of 1,233 pages or pieces, including enumerations for Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas. Surviving schedules list just over 6,000 of the almost 63 million individuals enumerated.

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