Pre-1850 U.S. Research


Factors which make pre-1850 genealogy research more challenging:

  • The United States began as 13 separate colonies who used a variety of

  • record keeping systems.

  • These were often similar to their mother country, such as churches recording the vital records.

  • Standardized record keeping evolved slowly as the country developed.

  • Every-name census records on a federal level didn’t begin until 1850.

  • New lands for settlement continually opened up, and record keeping

  •  on the frontier was not always a first priority.

Pre-1850 Methods & Strategies to Use

Use both the standard records and lesser known records (see a prioritized list below.)

  • Always consider both direct and indirect evidence.

  • Direct evidence states the information outright, while indirect evidence is information combined together to support conclusions. Indirect evidence needs a proof argument to correlate evidence.

Review Prior Research – Re-analyze your existing records and research.

  • Recent research may shed light on earlier research and help you recognize new details.

  • Timelines are a good tool for analyzing research and to see what is missing.

Maps/Locality Study: Due to rapid growth, boundaries changed often during this time.

Use DNA evidence

  • Autosomal, Y Chromosome (paternal), and Mitochondrial (maternal) each have benefits for pre-1850 research. Identify other descendants you could test to verify a particular line.

Trace migrations  

  • Families and neighbors often migrated to the same areas.

Watch naming patterns

  • Especially watch middle names for a mother’s maiden name or other unusual names and patterns.

Research your ancestor’s Family, Associates, and Neighbors (FAN Club) to find other sources which list your ancestor or to find clues necessary to piece together evidence. Follow these steps:

  • Review all your ancestor’s documents - View the original record when possible.

  • Create a timeline for your ancestor and include all details.

  • Create a list of all known family members (include extended family.)

  • Create a list of other persons found in the documents of your ancestor, include their role in the document. Add every detail from each document.

  • Establish criteria for sorting your list to determine an order to research – (See Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle.)

    • Strength of the connection – potential family members can provide more evidence.

    • Frequency of connections – Start with the people your ancestor would have spent the most time with (usually immediate family) or had frequent interactions with.

    • The quality of the source – how reliable is the information?

Begin researching at the top of your list and work your way down. Reevaluate as research unfolds.

Historical Events That Impact Research

History and genealogy complement each other – knowing the context can benefit your research. Examples:

Government Laws

1798 Nationwide direct tax

1789 NW Ordinance

1819 Manifest of Immigrants

1820 Land Act


Wars and Battles

Colonial Wars

Revolutionary War

War of 1812

Check for bounty land and pension records



The Panic of 1819

The Panic of 1837

Both caused unemployment, especially in larger cities

People often moved westward



1735 Fall Line Road

1775 Wilderness Road

1818 Cumberland (National) Road

Search in the major towns along the routes, especially if census records show migration.

Learn more at FamilySearch Wiki: US Migration Trails and Roads.

Historical Reference Books

Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 by William Dollarhide

British Origins of American Colonists, 1629-1775 by William Dollarhide

Law and People in Colonial America by Peter Charles Hoffer

Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World by Alison Games

Daily Life in the Colonial South by John T. Scholtterbeck


Records to Search

Which Records to Search

**Records are listed in a general order of priority, starting with the records most likely to be successful due to record content and ease of access.

Try These Records First

Census – Prior to 1850, the federal census records only named the head of household.

  • Check both the federal and state censuses, especially for anyone alive in 1850.

  • Check all the children who were alive in 1880 to learn parents’ possible birth states.

  • To analyze the 1790-1840 U.S. censuses, use this easy census worksheet from HeritageQuest, on page 56.

Vital records contain mostly just marriages before 1850, but in a few states, birth and death records are also available (especially in the town records of the New England states.)

  • ​If using compilations of early vital records, be aware/check the sources used for the compilation. Always look for the original source.

Probate– a great source for proving family relationships.

  • Study the entire probate packet to learn important details such as children’s spouses, guardianship, value of land and property, occupation, religion, or military service.

  • Many are digitized on Ancestry and FamilySearch.

Military – Fold3 has an every-name index to many records.

Cemetery Research is an important resource for Colonial research– look for adjoining plots to find family members.

  • Check FindaGrave, BillionGraves, a list of more sites.

  • Google for inscriptions, “In Memory of” “John * Watt”

  • PERSI (FindMyPast) has early cemeteries transcriptions

  • – Prior to 1850 it is important to check both the county deed records and for original grants and patents.

    • Records can show residence, relationship, death, etc.

    • During Colonial times, the original grants and patents were given by the Crown or Proprietors.

    • After the Revolutionary War, original grants and patents were issued by the federal or state government depending on the state.

Tax records  

  • Tax records can support or substitute for census records by placing an ancestor in a location at a particular time.

  • They can show residence and/or land ownership and when land was acquired and imply age, relationship, move to a new location, or death.

Compiled Genealogies and other compilations (Some estimate 40% of colonial families are published.)

  • Remember to verify everything! some of the incorrect trees have been copied many times.

  • When a compiled genealogy comes to the end of a line or says “no issue,” this can just mean no further family information was submitted.

  • Check the catalog on the major sites including FamilySearch, Ancestry and FindMyPast.

  • Use Google Books, Internet Archive, FamilySearch Books - Search by keyword and location or by title.

Church Records are a great substitute for vital records, but can be at various archives and libraries so they can be hard to track down. As more get digitized, they should be checked earlier in your research.

Next, Search These Records:

County & other histories

  • Especially if your ancestor was an early settler in a county.

  • Your ancestor didn’t have to be famous to be included.

  • They are beneficial to identify which local churches were available for your ancestor to attend.


Internet – Try Google searches and sites such as USGenWeb, Rootsweb, Linkpendium, etc.

Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)

Court Records

  • Check the original courthouse and state libraries and archives.

  • Look for microfilmed/digitized copies in the FamilySearch Catalog

Bible Records

PERSI (Periodical Source Index on FindMyPast) and other periodicals

  • The largest subject index to genealogy periodicals. Some of the articles are digitized.

City Directories – Ancestry’s US City Directories, 1822-1995 database.

Colonial Records – Check state libraries and historical societies.

  • Some have been digitized, try a Google search or Ancestry

Early Immigration Records

Archives and Libraries - Federal, state, regional, local, and universities

Manuscript Collections especially at major libraries or universities

General Tips for Searching each Record Type

  1. County vs. Town: Many records in the U.S. are kept on a county level, but if you are searching in the New England area, you may need to search on the town level, instead of the county. Check the FamilySearch Wiki (FS Wiki) for details.


  1. Use the catalogs of major websites: In the major websites, your search results will be much more effective if you narrow your search down to individual collections.

  2. Remember that words used in records have various meanings

    • Terms of relationship weren’t always literal, ex. infant=minor, cousin=nephew or other relation, children may be step-children.

      • Those keeping the records needed to distinguish people with the same name so they might use Sr. and Jr. or elder and younger, this may not mean father and son.

  3. Digitized Records: For a quick way to see what microfilms and books have been digitized in the FamilySearch Catalog, use the “Keyword” search and then in the left column choose Availability>Online.