Your ancestors in the USA

Your ancestors in the USA

Family history research has been popular in the United States of America for many decades. Arguably the US leads the way in genealogy research and the standards of research methodology. Get your head around the State System of record keeping and these genealogy records can provide far more detail than we are used to in the United Kingdom.


The United States of America (USA) is commonly known as the US or America. It is a country made up of fifty States, one Federal District, five Territories and a number of Possessions. Its Capital is Washington D.C. with the largest city by population being New York.

Migration from Siberia to North America began at least 12,000 years ago. The Europeans (Great Britain, France, The Netherlands, Spain and Russia) came next colonising large tracts of land.

The US emerged as thirteen British Colonies along the East Coast. Disputes between the Colonies and Great Britain arose following the French and Indian War, ultimately leading to the American Revolution in 1775. Independence was declared in 1776 and gained at the end of the war in 1783. A constitution was adopted in 1778 which is current today. The US is the world’s oldest surviving Federation.

The free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. In a 2014 survey 71% of adults identified as Christian (Protestant 47% and Roman Catholic 21%). Roman Catholic form the largest single denomination and Protestantism the largest religious grouping. Baptists collectively form the largest branch of Protestantism and the Southern Baptist Convention the largest individual Protestant Denomination. Just 6% of the US population claimed a non-Christian Religion (Judaism 2%, Hinduism 1%, Buddhism 1% and Islam 1%).



States and Territories are the principal administrative districts in the US. These are further subdivided into Counties and independent Cities. Family History records are organised at State level.



Birth, Marriage and Death records may date from the mid 1800s if you are lucky. Local Health Departments in large cities started to record this information. Records exist, for example in Baltimore (from 1875), Boston (from 1639), New Orleans (from 1790) and New York (from 1847).

Eventually a Statewide registration system developed as each, individual state developed its own laws. For most States these records start in the early 1900’s.

As well as the information we are used to seeing in the UK for State Registration the following details may also be recorded for the US:

  • Birth: name of the hospital, birthplace of parents, occupation of the parents, marital status of the mother, the number of other children born to the mother, and the number this child is in the family.


  • Marriage: birth date of the bride and groom, birthplaces of the bride’s and groom’s parents, number of previous marriages for both the bride and groom.


  • Death: time of death, name of the hospital, date and place of birth (if known), race, length of residence in the county or state, parents’ names and birth places, whether single, widowed or divorced, place of burial, name of funeral home, name of physician or medical examiner and officials or witnesses present at the time of death.


Births, Marriages and Deaths are sometimes protected by State Privacy Laws, however many aren’t any longer and you may find these online. Start with the State Archives.

FamilySearch has a large collection, and Ancestry and Findmypast offer a selection. Check the State coverage before searching.

Divorce records may also be searched for many US States.



The Federal Census has been taken every 10 years since 1790. Records are open to the public and available online for 1790-1940 (as they are closed for 72 years due to privacy laws). Check out the top subscription websites; there will be a fee and you’ll need to access the wordwide subscription option or FamilySearch for free.

The 1890 Census was destroyed by fire and very few fragments remain.



Almost half a million English, Scottish and Welsh arrived in the US between 1845-1855; the first of three large waves of British Emigrants. Most arrived in search of work and the opportunities they had heard of from home, others for land, the price of which was more affordable to buy, than to rent in Great Britain. Second and third waves of Emigrants arrived between the years 1861-1865 and 1879-1893.

You may access Outbound Passenger Lists on Ancestry or FindMyPast and then search for the passenger arrival manifests online.

Ellis Island opened in 1892, and earlier ports of entry can be found such as Castle Garden in New York. Many more ports such as Baltimore, Boston and New Orleans can also be searched.

You could access Naturalisation records and passport applications to track your ancestors movements, via Ancestry and FamilySearch.


Key contacts and useful websites

Val D Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (4th Edition, Genealogical Publishing Co, 2017)


My other blogs that may be of interest

The cigar maker and the Hungarian-American Photographer
The cigar maker and the Hungarian-American Photographer 2

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Sources, accessed 2019

Who Do You Think You Are Magazine, 2015

Wikipeadia, accessed 2019


Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See for further details. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.

What stories might your ancestors tell?

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