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HISTORY 221: History and Genealogy in the US (Spring 2021) : Government Sources


About Government Sources

Local, state, and federal government documents are important sources when piecing together family histories. They can be some of the most reliable written sources of information, but mistakes happen. Names can be misspelled, birth years may be off. Try "loose" searching by using different spellings or dates.

Vital Records

Vital records are records of life events that are kept by the government. The most common of these used in genealogy are birth, marriage, and death records. Privacy laws vary by state, meaning records are available to researchers at different times after their creation. Typically, birth certificates are private for 75 years while death records are held for 50 years.

Some of these can be found in the database Ancestry, but not all. Wisconsin vital records are not available online anywhere. The link in the Source box will take you to a page to learn more about the vital records at the Wisconsin Historical Society. To use these, you first look up your individual in an online database, then use that listing to make an appointment at the WHS library. The records are on microfilm and the librarians on staff can teach you how to use the microfilm readers.

Census Records

The Federal Census is conducted every ten years and is one of the most valuable primary resources for genealogy research. Census records provide insights into the family structure over time. They pinpoint where your ancestors resided during specific years of their lives and provide various details about them. In addition to basic personal facts for each person, census records include detailed information that can help make connections across generations.

Censuses can lay the foundation for the rest of your genealogical research. They offer clues to help you find information about your lineage and can point you to other resources to investigate. 

Search by Last Name and Location, Work Backward in Time

Find your ancestor in each census year that your ancestor was alive.

Gather all information you have on each person because it may help you find those elusive, migratory ancestors when they don’t show up where you expect them to be located. Rely on clues found in the censuses to guide you.

Census records are prone to a variety of errors. Misspellings are common in indexes and censuses. Also, county and state boundaries changed over time.

Read the Pages Before and After Your Ancestor's Page

You may find other family members living nearby. County and state boundaries changed over time.

Print/Save the Page on Which Your Ancestor is Found

You may see something later that you didn't notice the first time you found the page. You will lose that information if you choose to transcribe instead of printing out the entire page.

Compare Census Information Gathered Every 10 Years

You are bound to see differences in ages, years of immigration, and number of children living at home. The kind of information gathered for censuses varied from year-to-year and for each census type. Also, the dates censuses were taken varied from year-to-year.

Census pages don’t indicate who gave the information and may not be entirely factual. Instead, consider these leads. Be sure to compare census details with other resources.

Information That May Be Included in Census Records

Names of family members
Their ages at a certain point in time
Their state or country of birth
Their parents' birthplaces
Year of immigration
Street address
Marriage status and years of marriage
Value of their home and personal belongings